On the wide expanses of Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River, fishermen have learned to watch for Irrawaddy dolphins. When the mammals approach the boats, fishermen go to work, netting the fish the dolphins are also hunting. With each haul, the dolphins eat some of the catch. It can be slow going though: Photographer Michael Yamashita hunched behind this fisherman for hours. Photo © Michael Yamashita

Outtakes: Life on the Irrawaddy

A photographer returns to Myanmar to capture life along the country’s Irrawaddy River, where the fishing is rich and the culture is too.

Summer 2017

In February, photographer Michael Yamashita traveled to Myanmar to document the Irrawaddy River for a story on the world’s great waterways for Nature Conservancy magazine. The river splits the country vertically as it runs nearly 1,400 miles north to south, from the glaciers of the Himalayas to the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.

No stranger to Myanmar—he’s been several times in the last few decades—Yamashita wanted to see how the country has changed since a series of reforms were enacted in recent years. As trade and industry grows in the country, the construction of several hydropower dams looms on the horizon. Groups like The Nature Conservancy are eager to help advise their placement—or lack thereof.

“They’ve made huge strides in terms of their economy, thanks mostly to tourism and loosening of military control,” Yamashita says of the country. But, “people are abusing the river in their rush to make money.”

The river supports one of the most productive fisheries in the world, he says. It’s the fourth richest in the world in terms of the number of people it feeds, but it is also rich in history, culture and color, which have drawn Yamashita to the region repeatedly. Thousands of Buddhist temples, many hundreds of years old dot the riverbanks, juxtaposed against new bridges; until the 1990s, only one bridge spanned the wide waterway.

The river—a highway of sorts for the country—is so central to life for locals and visitors that when Rudyard Kipling passed through in the 1800s, he wrote about it in a poem, “Mandalay,” that was later quoted in The Wizard of Oz (in the Cowardly Lion’s “Courage” speech) and turned into a song later sung by Frank Sinatra.

“The day starts and ends on the river,” Yamashita says. “When people wake up, they’re brushing their teeth and washing their faces in the river. They’re collecting water.” Commuters often travel between cities on ferries. Commodities—bamboo, rice, fish, cement, home goods—travel up and down the river. At night, families bathe in the water, Yamashita says.

Here the magazine has collected several photos from Yamashita’s trip illustrating the role of the river in locals’ everyday lives.

The Irrawaddy is a busy highway in Myanmar. Here commuters in the village of Dallah board small commuter boats to take them to larger ferries on their way to the capital city, Yangon. Yamashita used a drone camera to capture this overhead image. Photo © Michael Yamashita
At the Yangon Fish Market, locals sell palm pomfret fish from farms in the Irrawaddy delta. Yamashita was drawn to the artful way the fish are displayed to attract buyers. “That huge pile of fish was something to see,” Yamashita says. Ice melted throughout the market, leaving puddles everywhere, and the air smelled of fish. Photo © Michael Yamashita
Yamashita’s favorite moments were “quiet scenes on the river,” like this one, where families bathing in the water would wave and chat with the photographer and his fixer. The water appears brown because shallowness of much of the river and because of the silt that flows through it. This silt eventually arrives in the delta, making the area extremely fertile. Photo © Michael Yamashita
“The river seems to be punctuated by temples,” Yamashita says, which is indicative of how pervasive Buddhism is in everyday life in Myanmar. “Every town there’s a temple—a pagoda—and often they are overlooking the river.” Yamashita climbed to the top of a temple in Sagaing, capital of the region in the 1300s, and thus home to many pagodas and monasteries. The city is now a major port on the Irrawaddy where rice, timber, bamboo and teak are unloaded. Photo © Michael Yamashita
In Yangon, Myanmar, “stickmen” unload boats and carry baskets of catfish, tunnel fish, palm pomfret and carp from the dock to the Sanpya Fish Market on planks only 6 inches wide. Yamashita, looking for color as the sun set, was enamored with the workers’ raincoats, which they wore on their heads and backs to avoid getting wet. The stickmen get their name from the stick they carry with each load. A worker collects the sticks to determine how much to pay each man. Photo © Michael Yamashita
On a ferry crossing the Irrawaddy, Yamashita noticed that birds followed the ferries wherever they went as people on board tossed them bread and seeds. Yamashita says everywhere he went he noticed people attempting to help animals in some way. “When it rains, I have this memory of Buddhist monks picking up worms,” he says. “They actually put them out of harm’s way and bury them again so they won’t be killed.” Photo © Michael Yamashita
Indawgyi Lake, the largest in Myanmar, feeds the Irrawaddy River, but its shores are sparsely populated much of the year. A legend claims demons live in the water. “It shows you the depth at which religion permeates this culture,” Yamashita says. Adding to the mystique is the way clouds envelop the area each day, with the Shwe Myint Zu pagoda slowly coming into view through the haze. The pagoda is only accessible by land during certain periods of the dry season when the lake lowers enough to reveal a causeway. Photo © Michael Yamashita
On one of his stops along the Irrawaddy, Yamashita captured women working together to create these clay pots: One woman kicks the wheel with her foot as the other shapes the clay with her hands. Pottery from this village, Kyauk Myaung, is used all along the river to collect rainwater, carry water and to cook. Photo © Michael Yamashita
In Sagaing, Myanmar, stickmen carry bags of rice and cement weighing as much as 110 pounds onto a ferry for transport up the river. Rice is grown in the Irrawaddy’s delta, which is considered the breadbasket of the country, while bamboo is grown in the north and transported downriver. Photo © Michael Yamashita

— NCM

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