Photo by Frank Bienewald, LightRocket/Getty Images
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On the banks of the Irrawaddy River, an ancient civilization thrived whose people wore jewels in their hair, made high art of jade, and traded as far afield as Indonesia and the Philippines.

Photo by Frank Bienewald, LightRocket/Getty Images

A storyteller walking the world stumbles across a 2,000-year-old civilization along a fabled river

Clay jars under fields of wheat and peanuts hold the remains of the people of Pyu, an Iron Age city on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar.

Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from Myanmar.

To reach the sacred Irrawaddy River from Shwebo, a nondescript town in northern Myanmar, you must slog east on burning roads.

Sweat beads around your eyelids by dawn. An hour later, the blast-furnace sun boils all color from the world. A corner blacksmith deploys an electric hair dryer as his bellows. You carry its loud whine inside your ears for miles: The end of our universe, its incineration, will sound like this.

Without realizing it, you have tottered into the Iron Age empire of Pyu. The 2,000-year-old civilization had walled cities, tall stupas, and streets of stone. All of it slumbers today beneath the clay-colored fields in the valley of Mu.

Life back then was spacious and rich: a Southeast Asian version of Xanadu. Wealthy citizens lived in homes of timber roofed with tin. They forked their meals with golden utensils, wore jewels in their hair, and made high art of green glass, crystal, and jade. Their trade touched distant ports in modern Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines. In the first century A.D., Roman ambassadors walking to China passed through. Tang Dynasty chroniclers report that the residents of Pyu were peaceful Buddhists who abhorred war. They wore cottons over silks to avoid sacrificing the lives of silkworms. Pyu’s dead lie buried still, inside clay jars, beneath this year’s wheat and peanut crops. Farmers occasionally find them. Ghosts of a river empire. Remains so old and unloved they hardly seem human anymore.

When you reach the shining Irrawaddy banks, farmers are picking chilies. Gnarled knuckles amid soft leaves. They gift you a bag of peppers, red as rubies, without an uttered word. This is how Pyu endures.

Walking 250 miles from the Indian border to the banks of the Irrawaddy River in northern Myannar, Paul Salopek and walking partner Ja Pha Se traverse landscapes rarely seen by outsiders.

TO REACH the timeless Irrawaddy River—the broad, silent aorta of Myanmar—you must walk on bones.

Take, for example, the bones under Mawlaik.

Mawlaik is a small port town located on the muddy banks of the Chindwin, a large western tributary to the Irrawaddy. During World War II, it was a remote colonial timbering outpost. The British abandoned it with little decorum when the Japanese invaded. (They ran for their lives, pell-mell.) Later, it was the Japanese turn to evacuate Mawlaik when their advance into India collapsed.

“A lot of Japanese killed themselves rather than give up,” says the town’s informal historian, a retired English teacher named U Than Zin, who still spells out words. “Many of the retreating Japanese were sick or wounded. Did you get that? W-O-U-N-D-E-D. So they hanged themselves in the houses.”

U Than Zin said the people of Mawlaik tossed the Japanese dead into shell craters. They covered them up with mud and built new houses on top.

“This whole town is built on bones,” he said. “I have no bad feelings inside about this. I didn’t see the dead. I was too young. My relatives just told me, ‘Hide.’ And I did. H-I-D-E. That’s all I remember of those times.”

Walking to the steamy Irrawaddy River in the weeks ahead, you will walk cross many old Bailey bridges left by the Brits. They are falling apart but still in use. Their loose and rusty steel plates squeak and clang under your footfalls, drumming out a metallic R-E-V-E-I-L-L-E to the deaf world.

TO REACH the steaming banks of the Irrawaddy River from Ye-U you must follow a furrow.

It begins at least 8,200 years ago in the primordial rice paddies where women whose faces are yellowed by thanaka paste stoop. It burrows through plantations of spindly lacquer trees with dripping bamboo spouts hammered into the trees’ trunks. It unspools into hot peanut fields.

“Think walking is hard?” hooted the women at harvest. “Come gather peanuts!”

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A peanut harvester displays her crop near the town of Ye-U.

The furrow leads back and forth through fields of sesame, cowpeas, kidney beans, pulses. Under a large fig tree on the banks of the Irrawaddy itself, you finally catch up with its maker, a young farmer in a limpet hat who doesn’t give his name. He has been steering his two plow oxen atop the dried riverbed, churning up clods. His forehead is accordioned in frustration. He doesn’t want to be a farmer. “It’s better in the city,” he sighs.

He wants what we all want. To be like Pyusawhti, the first hero-king of the ancient Pagan dynasty, who was born of a dragon’s egg that washed down the Irrawaddy and who founded a capital city of 10,000 temples. In other words, a forward story. A future.

ONCE YOU REACH the banks of the storied Irrawaddy you follow its riverside trails.

The trails sway like dancers among hamlets of bamboo-walled houses. The houses are propped on stilts like the homes of birds. Canoes are dry-docked beneath them. Every few miles, there are Buddhist monasteries with guardian dragons of whitewashed stone. These retreats are webbed together by pilgrims’ paths of mossy flagstone.

Out on the river, fishermen tap their canoe gunwales with oars to summon Irrawaddy dolphins, a beakless species that for centuries has collaborated with humans in the hunt. The dolphins come less often now. Fewer than 80 remain in their namesake river. Pollution and electric-shock fishing have done them in.

The Irrawaddy runs 1,200 miles from the glaciers of the high Tibetan frontier to the warm bath of the Andaman Sea. On its western bank, just across from Mandalay, hangs the Mingun Bell. The titanic bell was cast 210 years ago by king Bodawpaya and weighs 55 tons. Ring it with a wooden baton and mighty blessings accrue. Ring it through births and deaths. Ring it through plagues. Ring it through elections and revolutions.

Past it, amid pain and joy, the river flows.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.

Paul Salopek
won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.