Hpone Thant interacts with wild river dolphins near Mandalay
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
When I first saw the dolphins, I was onboard a riverboat on the Ayeyarwady, accompanying a group of travelers from Mandalay to the village of Mingun, just eleven kilometers upriver. The Ayeyarwady is the main artery of commerce for the towns and villages situated along its banks, and on this particular day it was busy with traffic: large barges carrying logs or huge earthen jars, small canoes plying between the many fishing villages, and tourist boats with some passengers riding "upper class" ... on the roof!
To the east I could see the blue landscape of the Shan Plateau and to the west the Mingun Hills. Farther away were the outcrops of the Sagyin Hills, where Mandalay gets its supply of marble that is sculpted into Buddha statues. The Ayeyarwady is vast here, especially during the monsoon season, muddy with silt carried from upstream. But this is life-giving loam, and it will settle down and form fertile sandbars on which many cash crops are cultivated.
We were just half an hour into our trip when two wild dolphins snorted their way up the river. I glimpsed their grayish tails and blowholes when they surfaced to breathe, but otherwise it was difficult to get a clear look at them in the muddy water, so far from our boat. When I asked the captain about them, he explained the unique relationship between local fisherman and these wild dolphins, which are native to Myanmar and found only in this part of the Ayeyarwady.
The fishermen from the villages near Mingun use a technique where they tap on the sides of their canoes with wooden mallets. When the dolphins hear the taps, they surface. Somehow understanding that the fishermen will not harm them, the dolphins help scout for schools of fish and show the fishermen where to steer by waving their flukes (tails). After gathering the fish into a tight formation, the dolphins slap their flukes on the surface of the water, signaling to the fishermen that it is time to cast their nets. They will only approach the fishermen's canoes, the captain told me, and never motorboats. Though intrigued, I did not have a chance to see a demonstration of this fishing practice that day.
Back in Yangon, where I live, I came across an article in the local English-language newspaper about a professor in India who had received a grant from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) to study Ganges River Dolphins. This prompted me to write about the dolphin fishing method that the captain had told me about. I sent my piece to a friend in London, with a request to forward it to the society. It drew the attention of WDCS's Brian Smith, who traveled to Myanmar specifically to observe interactive fishing on the Ayeyarwady River.
I accompanied Brian to a village near Mingun, where we interviewed the fishermen about the technique. Later, we paddled into the river for a demonstration. Disappointingly, we didn't see any dolphins at all that afternoon or the following day. Brian was starting to make fun of me, and I was getting anxious. It was close to the time for us to return to Mandalay and take a flight back to Yangon; what must I do to convince this scientist that these dolphins behaved as I claimed?
In an inspired act of desperation, I stuck a 1000 kyatnote (less than $1) at the bow of the canoe and announced that it would serve as a reward for the person who could conjure up a dolphin. No sooner than I had done that than a couple of dolphins appeared. I watched in fascination as the fishermen demonstrated their method-with the dolphins' cooperation, of course. Brian changed his plan and decided to stay an extra night in the village so he could observe the dolphins again the following day. I wished I could have stayed too, but work in Yangon beckoned.
Even though I had to return before Brian, I left with the satisfaction that I had finally seen this remarkable fishing technique with my own eyes. More importantly, I was comforted by the knowledge that in these fast-paced modern times, the fishermen are able to continue their unique and environmentally friendly way of living in harmony with the dolphins of the Ayeyarwady River.
Hiring a boat
From Mayanchan Jetty at the western end of Mayanchan Road in Mandalay, visitors can hire a boat to travel upriver to the fishing villages near Mingun. Prices are negotiable, but depending on your budget, it may not be economical for an individual or couple to hire a private boat. You will need several passengers to make it reasonable. In addition to the passenger boat, you must also rent one canoe-with a minimum of two fishermen-to get to the area where the dolphins are found. Though the government has developed interactive fishing as an ecotourism attraction and a portion of the river has been set aside to help preserve this unique tradition, please be aware that the dolphins are wild and nobody can guarantee that they will appear or cooperate with the fishermen at any given time. At least two nights should be set aside for this trip. You are not allowed to sleep in the villages, but you can sleep on the boat. Also, in accordance with Buddhist protocol, women are not allowed to ride in the "upper class" on boat roofs; some boats may allow foreign women to ride in such areas, but it is strongly discouraged.
Side trip to Mingun
Mingun itself makes for an interesting visit. This small river town, which is about a one-hour boat ride from Mandalay, is home to the famous Mingun Paya. When construction began on this pagoda in 1790, it was expected to reach 150 meters in height, but work was halted thirty years later when King Bodawpaya, who had been supervising the project, died. At that point the pagoda was only about 30 percent finished. In 1838 a devastating earthquake caused extensive damage, and the pagoda has been sitting in its cracked, unfinished state since then. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the structure, which provides gorgeous views of the river and surrounding countryside.
Mingun also is home to several active monasteries, the distinctive Hsinbyume Pagoda, and the old Mingun Bell, said to be the largest uncracked bell in the world. Also be sure to visit the Mingun Home for the Aged, directly across the road from the bell, and introduce yourself to Thwe Thwe Aye, the personable, English-speaking head nurse who takes care of the patients. Donations of cash or medication (hypertension medicine is in big demand) are greatly appreciated.
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Published on 2/13/09