Published: May 2006
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

"Come you back to Mandalay, where the old Flotilla lay, Can't you hear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?"

Rudyard Kipling's poem immortalizes the Irrawaddy River as "the Road to Mandalay," while also making famous the company of vessels that traveled that road, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC). Founded in 1865 by Scotsmen, the IFC became the largest privately owned fleet in the world. Based out of Glasgow, the ships were built along the River Clyde and then dismantled before being sent east. While the crews were mostly from India, the masters and officers were all Scottish and were thought of as the royalty of the river. Passengers on the finest of the ferries traveled in luxurious teak-lined cabins from Rangoon to Mandalay.

Style was not all the IFC offered. Ferries turned into floating markets and in village after village locals received them with great excitement and expectation. In 1885, just before the Third Burma War, the British Army commandeered the fleet to carry troops up the river to Mandalay. And later, in 1942, as the Japanese Imperial Army made its way up the Irrawaddy, the IFC sank most of its fleet to deny the enemy use of the ships.

Six years later the IFC was reborn as the Inland Water Transport Board, although its ferries still carry the red-and-black markings of the IFC on their funnels. Today passengers can again travel in luxury from Bagan to Mandalay on The Road to Mandalay, a ship named for Kipling's poem.

—Mary Jennings