Learn to fish with the Irrawaddy dolphin - Hsithe Community Development Project

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Travel consultant and lifelong travel-addict, Liam shares his latest adventure (watching dolphin-whispering!) in Burma (Myanmar).

On a recent visit to Burma, one of my primary goals was to research some new “off the beaten track” experiences for those travelling with us to the country. My first experience was a day trip from Mandalay to the Hsithe Community Development Project.

Hsithe and dolphin-whispering...

Hsithe village, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River roughly 2.5 hours’ from Mandalay, is home to fishermen who use traditional techniques to cooperate with dolphins. Lucky visitors have the opportunity to see the fishermen working in companionship with them to catch fish in the murky waters.

Signals, such as bashing paddles on the water and tapping sticks on the sides of the boats, can tell the dolphins when to chase the fish into their path. When the fish are in the correct position, the dolphins signal back to the fishermen who cast their nets into the water. The dolphins then benefit from the chaos caused among the fish, and they can target the ones not trapped by the nets.

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Hsithe fisherman casting his net into the Irrawaddy River

Sightings of the dolphins cannot be guaranteed, but Hsithe is one of the best locations for spotting them. A local pod is regularly seen catching fish in a shallow channel of water, created by an island that emerges in the drier months of the year.

Despite the fact that sightings are not guaranteed, it is still well worth a trip to Hsithe. Visitors have the opportunity to head out onto the river and learn how to cast their own net, as well as being guided around the village. It's a great chance to interact with local farmers tending their crops, and families who use their homes as workshops for some of the local cottage industries.

Hsithe villagers

On the day I visited, I got to see the process of making peanut oil, and was invited to drink green tea with a family of chillum (local cigar) makers. The family were very keen to engage with me and asked lots of questions about myself and where I come from. Foreign visitors rarely enter their homes, and they have limited access to media showing the outside world. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn more about the local life of rural farmers in Burma in a context where both parties are equally interested in sharing their experiences.

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Me with the family of chillum makers

So, how does the project help protect the dolphins?

The Irrawaddy dolphin is now critically endangered in Burma due to the prevalence of a certain farming technique. Some fishermen use car batteries to send an electric shock through the water, killing any fish unlucky enough to be swimming within the radius of the charge. These fishermen don’t mean to kill dolphins, but too frequently they stray too close to the fishermen and get electrocuted.

A charity located in the UK fund this project in the hope that it will encourage fishermen not to use this aggressive technique, as well as to support development in the local communities on the banks of the river.

Electric shock fishing is now illegal in Burma and anyone using the technique can face large fines and jail sentences of up to 3 years. However, this has not completely eradicated the problem. This project in Hsithe helps to further encourage fishermen to abandon these techniques by finding new ways to bring money into the community - such as sustainable tourism.

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So, what does the Hsithe Community Project involve and how does it benefit the community?

The money raised by the project is shared amongst the community. It has gone into projects such as building a new school, clinic and monastery, as well as funding for the supplies needed for them to function. Money is also raised by the sale of souvenirs created by the villagers, such as recycled bags and dinner mats, as well as local food products like honey, pepper, jams and spices.

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A section of the detailed project information display on show at the visitors centre

Hsithe day trip itinerary

To access Hsithe village I travelled for 2 hours by car, passing through lush irrigated farmland, to a small town on the edge of the river. From there I was taken another 30 minutes downriver on a local fishing boat. Arriving at the visitor's centre I was welcomed with some snacks and drinks and introduced to the community and project.

After the introduction I was taken across the river to try and spot the dolphins and learn how to cast my own net. Upon returning to the visitor's centre I was taken for a tour of the village and surrounding farmland. A simple lunch with delicious fresh fruits for dessert followed before heading back up the Irrawaddy to the car and driving back to Mandalay.

If you are interested in experiencing the Hsithe Community Development Project please get in touch with us and one of our expert Burma consultants will discuss the project with you and can include it as part of a trip to Mandalay.

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Fisherman preparing to cast his net

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