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How to Travel Bagan to Mandalay by Boat on an Irrawaddy Cruise

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Travelling around Myanmar can be a bit of a chore. To get from A to B can be bumpy, cold (or both as in the case of the night train from Yangon to Bagan). However, an amazing exception to this is the Mandalay Bagan boat. The Irrawaddy Cruise boats have a much smoother time of it! So, if you are interested in travelling Bagan to Mandalay by boat, read on to find out how.

The Irrawaddy River/The Ayeyarwady River

The Irrawaddy River is the main artery that flows for 1,350 miles through Myanmar from North to South. The name means “abounding in riches” and this is an apt moniker as it is the heart of trade for many of the settlements it passes through. Teak logs, Myanmar’s main export travel downstream on huge rafts, fish is caught and consumed and the waters are used to irrigate the large rice paddies of Myanmar.

Options for Travelling the Irrawaddy River

The Slow Boat

Chugging along at a more sedate pace, it can take the slow boat almost a whole 24 hours to traverse this stretch of river. If you are short of funds, or keen to meet some local travellers then this is the best bet. However, it is worth noting that some don’t have anywhere official to sleep and people bunk down on the floor so come prepared with something to sit/sleep on and clothes/blanket to keep you warm.

The Fast Boat

The fast boat, or speed boat, is kind of a misnomer as it just means faster. This boat advertises speeds of 7 hours to travel from Mandalay to Bagan but this is usually around 10 in reality. For travel in the other direction, Bagan to Mandalay, add two hours. You could also add an hour tr two during the dry season as the river is shallower and the boat must be directed around the Irrawaddy sandbanks.

Fast boats only operate during the day so are a little safer and in general, the standards are better with padded chairs, clean toilets and nice outside areas.

Luxury Irrawaddy Cruise

If you fancy splashing the cash, you can reserve a spot on one of the luxury cruise boats seen. These floating hotels are all clad in gorgeous teak wood and are all-inclusive.

The most famous boat to run this route over 2 nights is The Strand Cruise despite only taking to the water in 2015. It is linked to The Strand Hotel, Yangon’s top accommodation, and so you can expect fine dining with the tablecloths, a cocktail bar, comfortable double bedrooms with huge windows out to the river and even a small swimming pool on the sun deck.

For this review, we will be focusing on the fast boat option, as this is what we tried (but I wouldn’t have minded taking that luxury cruise). 

MGRG vs RV Panorama

There are two companies that run the fast Bagan Mandalay boats:

  • Myanmar Golden River Group (MGRG) Express – The cheaper of the two. Expect a slightly shabbier boat with cheaper food. If you are backpacking Myanmar but have decided to splash out on this experience, this is the option for you. We chose this company to save some pennies.
  • Alliance Myanmar River Cruise, RV Panorama – Previously called MS Aura. this company is a little costlier but the improved comfort may be worth it for the long journey. You will find wooden tables and chairs rather than the light metal type and a proper bar set up rather than the hostel-style kitchen on MGRG. You may even be treated to some entertainment. We have heard stories of cultural lessons…but this might have just been for the lucky few.

How to Book Tickets for the Bagan Mandalay Boat

  • Book Online – There are several travel agencies that will help you book these tickets. We opted for as they seemed to have a good deal, but having a quick look around, we have found a great option on on the RV Panorama.
  • Ask your Hotel/Guesthouse -Any guesthouse in Bagan will have connections able to source tickets. You may struggle a little with this in Mandalay as not all hotels consider this a priority but they can usually point you in the right direction for someone who can help.

No matter which of these options you choose, we advise you do this at least 2 days in advance to secure your spot. This is especially true if you are travelling from Mandalay to Bagan as this is the busier route.

What is it Like on the MGRG Irrawaddy Cruise Boat?

The Cabin

Boarding the craft, guests were directed into the main seating cabins. On some boats, these are two abreast but on ours, it was triple berth seating. They were more comfortable than plane seats, a little like old trains. As there were only about 10 tourists aboard, there was room to spread out, a definite advantage of travelling against the flow of tourist traffic.

There was an airconditioning unit but the morning and evening were distinctly chilly so it wasn’t used. During the day, the door was left open and the breeze from the movement down the river cooled the room enough to be comfortable.

The Sundeck

Up a small thin of stairs was the dining and sunbathing area. By the food preparation space was a couple of lines of lightweight tables and chairs. This is where passengers sat to eat, write and research.

At the back of the boat was the sundeck proper. Here, the wooden chairs were quickly shifted to catch the best of the suns rays by a couple of people who had come prepared with swimwear.

The Food

MGRG, being the cheaper of the two fast boat companies, provide a lower quality meal. Breakfast consisted of bananas, bread, boiled eggs and bright yellow butter. Tea and coffee were available in abundance. It was like a very cheap hostel breakfast, although we had been eating great hostel breakfasts so it was slightly more disappointing.

Lunch was a simple collection of hot dishes. Rice, noodles and two stirfry dishes, one chicken and one vegetarian. For afters, there was fresh fruit. There was more free tea but for those with a sweet tooth soft drinks could be purchased from the fridge, along with local beer.

Our Day Travelling Bagan to Mandalay by Boat

The day after an early morning balloon hunt, the 04:30 alarm was genuinely painful. With distinctly blurry eyes we crammed the last few bits into our backpacks and prayed that our taxi would arrive on time. Thankfully we were sitting in the back seat just a few minutes later and the taxi whisked us down to a muddy riverbank for the 05:00 arrival. A few bright white lights showed us the way down the wooden plank used as a bridge to the boat.

It was so early that we genuinely thought calling the River Irrawaddy, “Richard Ayowade” was funny.

We were still an hour away from the sunrise and so, once our seats were secured and the boat pushed away from the bank, we both dropped back off to sleep. I stirred to watch the sun come up and sip on the breakfast coffee but accidentally fell back asleep after that. The coffee can’t have been that strong. Mr Fluskey slept soundly through to the point the cabin began to warm up.

From our seats we watched the two sailors helping the captain navigate the sandbanks. They worked with long poles, testing the riverbed, banging and calling out in a mesmerising rhythm.

Once the day’s heat really set in, we moved up to the outside area. It was incredibly relaxing to watch the world slip by, noisy little fishing boats puttering past in the opposite direction and huge tankers chugging slowly, left behind in our small wake. Far in the distance, the riverbanks were home to Burmese life of all kinds. Fisherman bobbed in the shallows, people did laundry in the water and children splashed and played. We were too far to wave and we wondered if they even noticed us.

After lunch, a lot of planning for the rest of the trip and little sun, the afternoon lull hit. Mr Fluskey head back down for another sneaky nap while I went to find a private space to relax. Usually, sitting at the front of a boat is my favourite spot. As this wasn’t allowed, I perched on the doorstep to the work area watching the water disappearing behind me. I enjoyed the breeze whipping through my hair.

The time we were due to dock in Mandalay came and went and the light began to fail. We and our fellow passengers were treated to a fabulous sunset. The river turned from liquid platinum to fluid gold.

Passing under two bridges we saw a large number of boats and I decided confidently that we were almost there. Packing our bags, we sat in our chairs for another 90 minutes or so watching the sky change colour again.

The boat finally arrived at Mandalay around 2.5 later than expected. Luckily, we had no plans for the evening other than checking in to our hotel and finding some dinner. We climbed the steep hill, politely refusing tuk-tuk rides. Our place was just 25 minutes walk away and we had done no exercise all day, relaxing on the boat.

And so, along one of Mandalay’s wide avenues we trudged, hungry but thoroughly happy we hadn’t chosen a night bus!

Final Thoughts on Travelling Bagan to Mandalay by Boat

Part transport, part experience, long boat journeys are a fantastic excuse to stop and relax on a crazy backpacking adventure. The early morning is rather painful but you can have a nap and you won’t be missing anything. No matter if you are travelling up or downriver, it’s a lovely way to travel. Plus, with the ticket including food, it really isn’t bad value so overall, it comes highly recommended.

Rosie xx

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