Why take a boat between Bagan and Mandalay?
Whilst it’s quicker and cheaper to get the bus, which takes around 4 hours, and there’s even the option of flying, if you’re not pushed for time the boat is a far more relaxing and scenic way to travel. It’s also comfortable, with plenty of seating available both inside and outside depending on the weather.
Which company to travel with?
Several companies offer tickets for cruises – shop around to make your choice. We made ours basing on lots of positive reviews on the web: English-speaking staff, great safety records and online booking were of crucial importance for us. The boat we took was quite popular with travellers – indeed, there were no locals travelling on the day we took the journey. Normally you need to buy your tickets at least one day in advance – I am not sure if you can get a seat just showing up at the date of your departure.
What to expect?
For just 32USD, you’ll enjoy a 10 hour meandering cruise down the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay – whilst it describes itself as an ‘express’ service, don’t expect to be travelling too quickly! Although, if you catch the boat in the opposite direction you’ll be heading downstream which cuts several hours from the journey time. In a bonus for any budget travellers, the cruise ticket also includes a decent breakfast box (pastries, fruit and a boiled egg); lunch (freshly cooked rice, vegetables and chicken) and afternoon nibbles (French toast) to keep you going. It’s plenty of food to last the day so you don’t need to worry too much about stocking up on extra snacks, although plenty of water is a good idea.
Be prepared for a very early start, although if you’ve been chasing sunrises in Bagan for a few days it shouldn’t be too much of a shock to the system, and ensure to get to the jetty in Nyaung U for 5am. It cost us just 5000MMK (less than 4USD) for a taxi from the centre of town at such an anti social hour. Departures run daily in peak season (November–February) at 5.30am, but like our circular railway trip in Yangon, we did leave a little earlier than scheduled so be sure to arrive on time. Pack plenty of layers as well for a comfortable trip – whilst you’ll be relaxing on deck in the sun by the afternoon, the morning is pretty cold and despite the blankets on offer, you’ll need at least another warm jumper to avoid the cold.
On the journey you’ll be greeted by a spectacular sunrise reflecting across the river, definitely among our favourites from our time in Bagan. From mining activity taking place on the riverbanks, to local fishing boats and cargo vessels loaded with timber and other supplies, there’s plenty to take in en route. You’ll also be able to see many small, local pagodas in villages and towns that sit alongside the Irrawaddy River, making for great photo opportunities. On arrival in Mandalay, which is usually between 4–4.30pm, you’ll be accosted by a number of taxi options to help you on your onward journey – choose from shared trucks, scooters or more traditional taxicabs depending on your preference and budget.