Mawlaik-Not Just Any Village on the Chindwin River: Retreat Route of Japanese from the Battle of Imphal, 1944

January 4, 2014

Aren't they sweet?
Aren’t they sweet?

 Mawlaik is a close-knit village 10,000 strong. It was the center for British teak logging in the 20th century.

Locals boarding boat on Chindwin.
Locals boarding a boat on Chindwin.

Given the bridge to Mawlaik from Kalewa was severed by monsoon rains and earthquakes and the road to Homalin is almost a two-day ride away, most people reach Mawlaik by boat.

Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.
Arrival in Mawlaik from Chindwin.

Mawlaik is located at the top of a steep sandstone bank. I was happy to pay $0.50 to have a porter haul my bag up that hill.  

Boat tied up on slope during dry season.
Boat tied up on slope during the dry season.

During the monsoon, the Chindwin River swells. Where the launching areas are accessible in the wet season, the lack of flooding makes them inaccessible during the dry season.

Eroded walkway and former boat launch.
Eroded walkway and former boat launch.

At one time, they had established docking facilities, but the banks were continually eroded away by monsoon rains. Also, the locals dredged sand for construction. So the slope became inaccessible.

Concrete road constructed by hand
Mawlaik is a village that works together.  At the top of the eroded bank, the road had crumbled. So a new road had to be built. The women worked side-by-side with the men, laying the gravel bedding while the men used a portable cement mixer to prepare the concrete and then leveled the grade. All of this was completed by hand.
Typical house in Mawlaik with clay water jugs out front for anyone to get a drink.

Next to the construction site was a permanent water station, much like our drinking fountains. These water posts, maintained by the locals, are found throughout Myanmar. This simple act of generosity exemplifies the kind of people you find in Myanmar.

Mawlaik tea house is a far cry from current-day coffee shops.
So how does one get to know a small village like Mawlaik? A good place to start is at the local tea house.

A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar's version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.
A TV was wedged in the corner of this riverside restaurant playing Myanmar’s version of Next Top Idol, only their stars were painted-up 10-year-old girls.

Meat is scarce along the river. But soups are offered morning, noon, and night. Personally, I did not like their traditional morning fish soup, but don’t miss their fried tofu paddies.

Sponge from local market added to fish soup.
Sponge from local market added to fish soup.

Most of their food is fried in oil, which can be a fire risk.

Vegetables, herbs and tubers new to my taste buds.
Vegetables, herbs, and tubers were new to my taste buds.

Unfortunately, most women don’t drink beer. So I got a few questioning looks when I ignored that custom. Other than administrative buildings, there are no restaurants or other reminders to show travelers this town had been under British rule.

Teak forest at 20 years. Usually harvested at 60-year rotations. Notice straight trunks.
 After the British left, the people continued to work in the teak industry. They implemented many of the British forestry practices.
Teak raft hauling about 100 logs down the Chindwin River to the mill.
Locals work in the lumber mill on the other side of the river. Then the logs, weighing up to 300 tonnes, float down the Chindwin in river rafts.
The man on the left is a government permitting official. The man on the right is a teak lumber grader.

Some villagers grade the lumber before sending it to market. Others represent the government and ensure that the logs traveling down the river are permitted and not stolen by pirates.

In addition to teak logging, villagers from neighboring settlements work the land then bring their goods to the local market in Mawlaik.

Food is shipped by dugout from nearby settlements to the market.

Betel nuts are seeds from palms, not nut trees.
Bamboo, gold, natural gas, tea, and betel nut are other local cash crops.
Betel nuts and palm leaves are used to wrap betel chew.

A woman I met on the boat sold enough betel nuts to villages along the Chindwin to support her entire family, and she put her two children through higher education. I couldn’t understand a word she said in Burmese. But whatever it was, she talked non-stop for three hours straight.  I think it was the betel nut talking for her. You can tell who chews betel nut by their vampire red lips.

In each village, the locals support the Buddhist monks.  Every morning, the monks walk from house to house with their eating utensils in hand, knowing locals will fill their bowls.  Some monks push carts throughout town, collecting from restaurants and businesses to feed those that cannot go out on their own.


Life is simple in Mawlaik. Homes are usually made of wood with open-air windows. Most walk or ride bicycles.

Guest house with plastic covering doors and windows.
There are a few guesthouses for travelers. They are usually filled with geologists exploring the land for oil and minerals.
Mawlaik Police Station
The guest house where I stayed was across the street from the police station. I found I was treated kindly if I reported my presence upon arrival.
U Thant Zin’s home and the local English school
Once it was known an English-speaking tourist had arrived, the locals sent me to U Thant Zin, a 75-year-old elder.
U Thant Zin’s students with the open classroom in the background.
Education is mandatory to the age of nine in Myanmar. Yet there is so much more to learn. U Thant Zin has taken it upon himself to teach English. He is also the local historian, passing down tales from the past to his students.
Mawlaik Forestry office where Japanese committed suicide after Battle of Imphal, 1944.
One of his stories includes the 1944 Battle at Imphal. The Japanese stormed Mawlaik after crossing the Chindwin. Then they marched through the mountains bordering India and Burma to Imphal, the China-Burma-India (CBI) headquarters for the British during WWII. The Japanese lost at Imphal and had to retreat. The Japanese who were injured or sick with malaria and typhus were abandoned in Mawlaik.  Those men committed suicide in the local Forestry office. U Thant Zin joked that given the shortage of balls after the war, the Japanese heads were later used by the children as soccer balls.
From the bank along Mawlaik, looking east across the Chindwin. The river floods to the far hills during the monsoon.

With all the unexplored wilderness and resources Myanmar has to offer, there’s no doubt that the villages along the Chindwin will attract more and more tourists in the future.

U Thant Zin’s student and my market guide.
When they arrive, U Thant Zin’s students will be there to greet them and carry on his tradition.

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