It’s surprising how events have turned out. In February, alarms were being raised about COVID19 but few countries seemed to have heeded them seriously. And now in March through April, half of the world is on lockdown, planes and ships are mostly grounded, travelling is virtually non-existent and almost everyone is confined at home. So here is a trip made just before Stay At Home became vogue.

While this was a working trip, here is my personal commentary of what went down when we visited a typical fishing community in the remote area of the Irrawaddy River Delta in Myanmar. This isn’t the typical place that tourists will visit but it does offer a glimpse of how the local villages go about their lives away from foreign eyes.

It’s a 6 hours journey by road from the former capital city of Yangon to the Irrawaddy Delta region. City highways give way to secondary asphalt roads, which soon become single lane rural roads, and finally uneven gravel roads under construction.
Along the way I got to see a village celebrating the ordination of boys into monk hood with a colourful procession.
Young boys were dressed in ornate and royal looking clothes while being carried on horses to the local temple where they will be ordained as monks for a week. This is definitely something that I don’t get to see even in Yangon.

As we approach the coastline where the Irrawaddy River empties into the Andaman Sea, it forms a rich delta where rice farming and fishing are the main source of living for the villagers here. They supply most of the seafood caught here to Myanmar for local consumption and export to nearby countries.

A lone Burmese beauty with Rapunzel like hair watched our convoy as we stopped for a break. She was probably wondering what these strangers were doing in a faraway land.

Finally, we arrived at our destination village with sore butts from driving over gravel roads in various stages of construction. I got to see first hand the village industry of making and selling the raw ingredients for prawn paste. If you never heard of prawn paste, here is a Wikipedia link that will bring you up to speed on it. Primarily used as a seasoning and marinating condiment in South East Asian cooking, this also goes into a lot of Singapore’s favourite foods like rojak and belachan.

Freshly caught shrimp or krill are first dried in the Sun. As you can probably guess, the smell of drying seafood is something that will linger on you. And everywhere I went in the village, I could never escape the smell.
After drying, the dried shrimp is loaded into bags and transported to the warehouse for storage and processing.
In the heat, working in your underwear isn’t a bad thing, plus you get to work on your tan.
The dried shrimp is then unpacked and stored in the warehouse for the next stage of processing. The conditions of storage aren’t the best that I’ve seen so far.
A mechanical sieve then is used to separate the whole shrimp from the broken pieces. Whole shrimp are sold as is to exporters. In Singapore, we call them “hae bi” and you also see them being sold everywhere in Asia.
Workers endure the heat and smell everyday, while they sort through basket loads of dried shrimp.
And at another machine, the broken pieces of shrimp are loaded and ground into paste. This is the raw ingredient for prawn paste.
More like a giant meat mincer, the machine grinds the dried shrimp into paste which is collected in baskets and packed into bags for export.
In another warehouse, workers sort the whole shrimp into different grades and tossing out other stuff like small crabs or fish.

We were told that this village exports it’s produce to Yangon, Thailand and South Korea. It’s quite a feat for a remote village to have international buyers. The conditions of making the prawn paste definitely looks primitive and unhygienic to me, but this has been a centuries old way of life and it isn’t going to change much unless modern development arrives here. Just the sight of shrimp being dumped on the bare floor, stepped on by bare feet workers and mixed with their sweat is stomach churning (and not forgetting the smell of fermenting shrimp), but it still won’t put me off hungering for my prawn paste fried chicken, or belachan kangkong, speaking of which here are some recipes using prawn paste for home cooks during your home quarantine period to try out: Prawn paste fried chicken, Belachan Kangkong.

While the village may be remote, the villagers were quite well off and the lure of the EPL is strong here with a definite Manchester United fan living here.
An epic sunset as we prepared for the long drive back to Yangon. And since the roads were bad, it was decided to try the coastal highway, which is basically driving your car on the beach.
Driving on the beach sounds fun, but not when it’s pitch dark at night, and you have to avoid boats, parked vehicles and people who were walking along the beach.

It was another long drive back to Yangon, but this time it was in the night on dark roads and we arrived back at our hotel just before midnight. The Irrawaddy region isn’t exactly a place for the casual tourist to visit, but it does hold raw and untouched beauty.

And as I now stay home along with the rest of the world in quarantine while waiting for the COVID19 pandemic to pass, travelling seems like a distant memory.

8 thoughts on “Life on the Delta

  1. You always take beautiful pictures Edwin. Always a pleasure to read your posts too. That boy on the horse look really young and apparently his future has been laid out for him already.

  2. Great photos! The delta area in Myanmar is an amazing place to visit – it should be a major destination but as you have seen the infrastructure is very poor in that area!

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