Regular readers of this blog will by now have understood that I like to get on a boat if I can. While I am usually not a fan of tours, the creature comforts on day cruises and tourist boats offer an escape from travel stress while allowing me to see the countryside and move on to my next destination. So what better way to get from the royal cities in Mandalay to Bagan than a cruise on the Irrawaddy River?
The Irrawaddy (also: Ayeyarwady) cuts across Myanmar from North to South along more than 2,000 km (half the length of the Mekong). The river is used for commercial transport all year long, but its width can differ massively between dry and rainy season. In some areas, it will measure more than 1 km when it rains. So it comes as no surprise that there are currently only ten bridges across the Irrawaddy, most of which are younger than 25 years.
A few routes cover different parts of the Irrawaddy, but I couldn’t find any boats that would, for example, take you all the way from Yangon (and the Irrawaddy Delta) to Mandalay or further North. If you are interested in day trips, you best check on location for local or IWT boats.
The cruise along the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan (or from Bagan to Mandalay) is one of the most frequented routes with three options:
- There is a regular public boat by the – state-owned- Inland Water Transport (IWT) company that makes the journey a few times a week. For schedules check here (look at the boats between Mandalay and NyaungOO).
- A tourist boat run by MGRG Express makes the journey every day. Check here for prices and schedules.
- And finally, several companies offer multi-day river cruises in stately boats with accommodation on board. Some you can even book via Booking.com.
To my surprise, my Mandalay hotel was openly advertising both, the cheaper and the more expensive boat. And while the $18 price tag for the IWT boat compared to the $42 for the MGRG Express boat sounded convincing, IWT wasn’t running on the day I wanted to leave Mandalay. So I opted for MGRG Express.
The journey from Mandalay to Bagan
I arrived at the jetty at 6:30 for the 7-am-departure on the motorcycle taxi the Taim Phyu Hotel had booked me. Helpful staff immediately took my backpack and stowed it under the deck on racing seats that would be comfortable should the upper deck get too crowded or rainy.
The upper deck had a few rows of wicker chairs with pillows. Not as comfortable as on the Mekong cruise I did in Laos but pleasant enough.
The boat quickly filled up with about two dozen passengers, by the sounds of it most Americans, French, and Australians.
We left at seven on the dot and were handed breakfast just as we passed below Yadanabon Bridge in Sagaing. The breakfast box, reminiscent of airplane meals, contained a mini banana, an egg, cake, and a croissant. And as promised, a young man was handing out copious amounts of coffee (and tea) from behind a bar. Without tables, it was a bit of a challenge to juggle the cup and the food. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying my meal.
As there was not a lot of shade in the back of the upper deck where I had chosen my seat, I moved next to the bar to a window. George, an elderly gentleman from England, was sitting behind me, and over the next couple of hours, we exchanged a few travel stories.
The landscape along the river banks was mostly barren except a few trees and pagodas here and there. I watched birds, and small fishing boats pass us by and found the time and leisure to read more of David Sedaris’ amusing anecdotes in When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
At noon, the server started walking around, handing everyone a plate of rice and fried vegetables with chicken. Another enjoyable meal, topped by a local dessert made from rice flour, raw sugar, and coconut flakes. Since most of the passengers were skeptical about the dessert, I ended up eating a few too much.
Soon after, everyone was frantically looking for inside spots as a massive rain front ran over the boat. But it only took ten minutes before everyone was back to lounging in the wicker chairs.
Finally, at three, we started seeing the first brick temples on the Eastern riverbank: Bagan was near.
The boat reached Nyaung-U (also: NyaungOO) at 3:30 pm, an hour before schedule. Eager cab drivers stormed at the disembarking passengers offering their services. I learned that tourists are not allowed on regular motorcycles (and motorcycle taxis) in the Bagan. So I opted for Osman’s horse-drawn carriage. At 7,000 Kyat, he made the best offer for the 4 km journey to the Golden Rose Guesthouse. Before we could get onto the road, a friendly young man asked for 25,000 Kyat (or $25), the ticket for the Bagan Archeological Zone, which for the next five days would allow me to roam all the Pagan temples I could process.