Travel like a local: a boat from Mandalay to Bagan
If you want to slow down in Myanmar to observe the life of locals along the banks of Myanmar’s largest river, hop on a boat that will remind you of the old Burmese days on the Irrawaddy river.
As the Irrawaddy river flows downstream, the best way is to go from Mandalay to Bagan, but it’s possible to travel upstream as well. The journey would still take 10 – 12 hours either way. Life in Myanmar normally begins at dawn and our boat was scheduled to leave around 5 AM from Mandalay’s Gaw Wein jetty. People heading to the markets with fresh goods, tea shops being covered in smoke from early cooking, Buddhist monks going for alms and passengers waiting with us at the busy pier. With the usual delay typical for Myanmar, we are set to go. Once aboard, the calm morning on the river is an excuse for some to get back to sleep and for others to get ready for the day, putting thanaka – the traditional tree bark paste – on their faces. Small cookstove place serving as the boat kitchen hasn’t opened yet, so we have settled down in the ‘foreigners’ corner’, sitting on our plastic chairs. When the dawn starts to turn into day, the river takes on soft glow of pastel colours and we are silently watching one of the most beautiful sunsets.
I venture to explore the boat and find baskets full of fresh mangoes – sweet-scented seintalone, Burmese best mangos – that are ready for the markets alongside the river. Boat is a convenient way to transport large quantities of locally-grown fruit and vegetables.
Life along the river
The approximate boat schedule is confirmed by a deafening horn before approaching any village. With every stop, the villagers come to load and unload goods and some passengers get off while new ones join our crew. Entrepreneurial market ladies board the boat, balancing baskets with all kind of snacks, fruits and even souvenirs on their head. There is never a shortage of food when you travel in Myanmar, if you’re curious enough there is plenty of options to choose from: try sweet sticky rice, quail eggs or other fresh snacks on offer.
Small boats come to pick up passengers who need to reach other villages on the river. We catch a glimpse of golden pagodas on the shore and hear a distant sound of a prayer. Even with the sun high up, light pleasant breeze is cooling us while we watch life unfold in front of us and occasionally wave at people sailing by in their fishing boats. The kitchen now serves fried rice for lunch, after which it’s time to join the others and take a nap.
Bagan, at last
At sunset, increasing number of pagodas along the shore signalled that we were approaching Bagan. Our journey took a good 12 hours, but in a good company and with a camera and an interesting book, it did not feel that long. At least the river takes you further. While local boats run year-round, there are other options to experience the peaceful life alongside of Myanmar longest river. Talk to us about comfortable river cruises and we’ll help you book an unforgettable experience of Myanmar’s way of life.
Taking a boat might not be the fastest option to go around. But travelling in Myanmar is not about destination, it’s about the journey.