Looking for a unique way to travel in Myanmar, while watching life ebb and flow on the country’s largest river? Travelers can choose from the tourist class accommodations operated by various private companies or opt for the government ferries run by the Inland Water Transport division. The government ferries are a totally local experience requiring time, patience and a bit of roughing it.
After 2 days of visiting the Temples of Bagan, we are up early and on the street by 430AM. We walked about 2KM’s in the dark, down the dusty street to the Nyaung U jetty a kilometer northeast of the market. There were few signs of life, but as we approached the jetty we started making out shadowy forms moving in the same general direction we were headed. Upon reaching the jetty we walked over to the boat where men were loading baskets of produce, carefully wrapped bales of goods and assorted livestock. After navigating the gangplank and boarding the boat, we were intercepted by the ship’s captain who checked our passports and collected $15 USD per passenger. He took us to the top deck and gave us 2 plastic chairs, VIP class. We dropped our backpacks and staked our claim to some deck space.
At 530AM we cast off as the sun was coming up, headed upriver for the next 36hrs to Mandalay. The previous day I had wandered into at least 6 different places looking to buy tickets or ascertain the ferry schedule. Every person claimed to know nothing of this ferry and wanted to sell me a seat on the tourist boat. Eventually, I walked down to the jetty where I stumbled upon the Inland Water Transport building/shack which was wide open but unattended. I did notice a hand written note nailed to the side of the building which had the ferry schedule scrawled on it. It was coming together!
The boat is a double-decker affair. The bow of the top deck is enclosed with a few wooden benches for sleeping that had been claimed by monks in orange robes. A small canteen at the back of the boat is cooking food using water pumped in directly from the river and serving drinks. The remaining area is full of passengers, most sitting on mats and cardboard, snuggled under blankets with their assorted bundles, baskets of live chickens and food for the journey. The lower deck contains the wheelhouse at the bow and the stern has a few rudimentary spaces with holes cut in the deck that empty straight into the river, serving as the ships head (toilet). The remainder of the lower deck contains a small crew area surrounded by cargo.
As we slowly motored up the river I realize it is Christmas Eve, not that it meant anything here in this Buddhist country. I am wishing I had bought a blanket at the market. I thought Myanmar would be hot and humid everywhere but the mornings and evenings are a bit cool while the sun is absent. A nice lady let us borrow a mat to lie on and another was hawking blankets and we bartered a bit and scored one for the equivalent of $9 USD. Suffering the effects of a very early morning and a chill in the air, I began to wonder how I was going to entertain myself for the next 36hrs.
Shortly after departing Bagan, the sun rises and things began to warm up. It looks to be a great day on the river, the scenery is magnificent with the rising sun casting its rays on the golden steeples of the pagodas and stupas off in the distance. The river is slowly coming to life as we watch and wave at the southbound boats while taking in the ever-changing scenery and activity along the riverbank. I feel hypnotized by the slow but steady movement of the boat and the hum of the diesel engine below me. I realize that this will be a quick 36hrs. I am humbled by both the serenity and simplicity that surrounds me.
Watching the crowd on the boat was as interesting as the landscape we were floating past. With my Burmese vocabulary limited to ming-la-bar (hello) it was difficult to speak with the people on the boat. Regardless, they were all smiles and laughs. The folks were genuinely interested in us and we seemed to provide endless amusement. The children onboard were very curious but initially shy. Once we broke out the camera and began showing them their pictures we had a crowd gathered. Many of the kids came forward and wanted to touch us. One small boy was particularly intrigued with the hair on my arms! We purchased a few thousand Kyatt worth of candy and snacks and passed them out to the kids. The mothers made sure that all of the kids shared their snacks with each other.
As the sun begins to set on the first day our boat slows and we approach a pier along the bank where we tie up for the evening. The boats move up and down the river without any electronic navigation aids and operate during hours of daylight only. To keep the boat in the deeper channels of the river, the crew uses the old technique of bamboo poling to check water depth. I wake at 4AM to the sound of squealing pigs. I notice that another boat had tied off to us during the evening and the lower deck is full of pigs.
As the fog on the river begins to burn-off, we untie and begin moving up the river. As the boat comes to life, people are putting away their blankets and having breakfast. A lady sitting near me offers me rice and some kind of vegetable with pork. It doesn’t look very appetizing but I try a bit in recognition of her kindness. As I look around, I notice many of the women rubbing small pieces of wood on flat stones and adding water to the mix. The women are preparing thanaka, a whitish/yellow paste, prepared from tree bark. The use of thanaka in Myanmar is a striking visual imagine in this country. It is a cross between sun block, makeup and skin moisturizer. The concoction is applied in a variety of ways, often as square patches or the impression of a leaf on the cheeks, or a single dot on the nose and cheeks. Thanaka can be used as a full face covering and I have even seen it applied on the arms. Mothers also put thanaka on their children. Noticing my interest in thanaka preparation, one of the ladies motions me over and applies a small amount of thanaka to my arm, we both laugh and smile!
The boat lists six stops on the itinerary; Pakokku, Myaung, Myinyan, Myinmu, Ngazun and Sagaing before reaching Mandalay. I tried to follow along on my map as we moved up river but with no signs or landmarks it was pretty difficult. At one stop we tied off to a barge serving as a pier. Most stops required the boatmen to jump into the water at the river’s edge and pull two very long wooden planks out to reach the dry land. Most of the villages were higher up on the hillside or just out of sight, tucked away from the river’s edge, safe from the rising waters during the rainy season. Every stop was interesting, with crowds of people waiting along the shoreline to load and unload goods from the ship. In some cases people scurried up and down dirt paths from the villages or stood on white sand beaches next to their ox carts. It was obvious that the boats arrival was a big deal at each village.
During the stops, people moved goods on and off the vessel using the wooden gangways. Passengers came and went and then food vendors flooded both decks of the boat competing with each other to sell their snacks. With a short window of opportunity, the vendors were aggressive and quick. They moved through the crowd selling all sorts of fruit, corn on the cob, sticky rice and my favorite, fried samosas. The goods were placed in baskets which they balanced on their head as they moved through the crowd. The vendors worked hard with the limited time window to make a sale but it was all good-natured with smiles and laughter. And yes, those samosas stuffed with curry were damn good.
As the trip was wrapping up and we approached Mandalay, the amount and size of pagodas and Buddha statues along the banks increased. It was easy to tell we were approaching Myanmar’s second largest city and last royal capital. Excited to reach the city for the next adventure but sad to leave this one behind. The trip seemed pretty quick and did not become the long 36hr drag I was expecting. As I look back on my 28 days in Myanmar, the slow boat up the Irrawaddy was probably the highlight.
If you go:
The slow boat from Bagan (Nyaung U Jetty) to Mandalay sails on Monday and Thursdays at 530AM. The boat from Mandalay to Bagan sails on Wednesdays and Sundays at 5:30am.
Bring the required items to spend an evening sleeping on the deck of the boat. Suggest a mat, blanket and some food/snacks. The food prepared on the slow boat is questionable at best.