The slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan stands out in my memory as one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar. Nothing much happened over the course of a ten-hour day on the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwady is the official spelling) and yet at the same time there was so much to see, and also time to absorb and reflect about this very special country.
The boats leave the Mandalay Jetty (on Strand Rd between 35th & 26th Streets). I had booked my tickets online a few months before and it cost $50 per person including a simple breakfast and lunch. There are daily sailings from October through to the end of February. Departure time is at 7am and the ticket said check in at 6am but our Mandalay hotel said it was fine to get there at 6.30am and that proved to be no problem (in mid December).
As we pulled away from the dock the first rays of the sunlight were turning the sweep of clouds a delicate shade of pink. As we left Mandalay behind the landscape beside the river looked jungly and misty. A white egret stood like a statue on a sandbank, while a soaring kite hovered over the rippled waters.
The Irrawaddy is the most important Myanmar river and has been its main commercial transport waterway since around the 6th century. If you look at an Irrawaddy River map you can see that it flows through the entire country from north to south, eventually draining into the Andaman Sea. It is sometimes called the real ‘Road to Mandalay’, referencing Rudyard Kipling’s famous and controversial poem.
On the bank there were white Brahmin cattle harnessed to wooden carts, standing beside thatched bamboo huts. They were ready to start the day’s work in the small fields of maize and bamboo nearby. Women spread laundry along the sandbanks, making a colourful patchwork. Travel by boat is incredibly peaceful and allows plenty of time for observation and reflection.
We enjoyed magnificent views of Sagaing hill, with the morning light glinting on the crowds of golden pagodas as we continued our journey from Mandalay to Bagan.
Sagaing is a significant religious and monastic centre in Myanmar and was briefly a royal capital back in the 14th century.
As I said, the views were amazing as we slowly chugged past.
Our boat was dwarfed passing under the two massive bridges that cross the Irrawaddy here. First the Old Ava Bridge, which was built by the British in 1934, and then the new Ayeyarwady Bridge (or Yadanabon Bridge) finished in 2008.
Rivercraft on the Irrawaddy must weave its way through the channels of the river, so that sometimes we passed close to one bank and sometimes the other. Occasionally an elegant pagoda appeared through the trees as we relaxed in our deck chairs, watching the riverside life. Because the river really is life here – providing not only transport but also irrigation and food.
On the river and tied up at the banks were barges and cargo boats, sampans and houseboats, and long, slender fishing boats. Sometimes a broad golden sand beach would hove into view, with people bathing or maybe a fishing shack at the water’s edge where a man arranged his nets under the full glare of the sun.
On the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan there is inside cabin seating (they can turn the air conditioning on in here) upstairs and downstairs, as well as the seats out on deck, some of which are in shade and some not. We had allocated seats inside and could sit anywhere outside.
There only about 10 passengers on board the day we took the Mandalay to Bagan boat so we could comfortably move about and change position depending on the sun. If you want to sit outside (and you will) make sure you have a hat and sunscreen. Some extra snacks are probably a good idea also. You can buy soft drinks, including cold beer, onboard.
In the middle of the day a long period of somnolence descended on the boat. The light became hazy and the passengers read or snoozed, the atmosphere only interjected by the quick barefoot pad of crew members passing along the footboards below.
I love to read books about or set in the country I am visiting and this day I was reading Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace and trying to imagine a fleet carrying 10,000 British soldiers coming upriver in 1885, causing the defenders to flee all the way along the river way to Mandalay.
One of their goals was control of the teak wood forests of central Myanmar. We could see the descendants of this colonial industry today. Mighty rafts of teak logs are moored to the shore here and there, each with a tiny bamboo hut for the boatman, ready to be floated downriver. Later I saw more modern barges, loaded with enormous logs of hardwood.
Just imagine the sight of the river awash with logs during the monsoon floods at the turn of the 20th century. It took five weeks to flat the logs from the forest to Rangoon. It must have been a difficult and risky occupation steering these unwieldly log rafts through the sandbanks.
There is always tea available on board in urns and there was fried rice with crunchy peanuts and vegetables for lunch. There is even toast and jam if you haven’t had breakfast before you board.
Then from around three o’clock in the afternoon the light begins to be clearer and we started the beautiful approach to Bagan. I could see many stupas on the skyline, the Bagan temples silhouetted atop the river cliffs.
We balanced along the narrow gangplanks to reach the shore and carried our bags up the river bank to where drivers are waiting. There was birdsong instead of the dull roar of the engine and a new Myanmar adventure awaited amid the temples of Bagan.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you taken the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan?
If you liked this post why not pin it?