The easiest way from Mandalay to Bagan is by bus and it takes around 6 hours. The prettiest way to go from Mandalay to Bagan is by slow boat … but it takes you 12 hours. If you have time to spare and fancy a really relaxing day I highly recommend it!
** Disclaimer ** I was travelling Myanmar in November, so as I am not an expert on the local climate everything below is only relevant to that time of year! If you travel in April and decide my blog has lulled you into a false sense of security then I will feel no guilt. You have been warned!
You can also take the boat from Bagan to Mandalay, so heading up the river. This takes a few hours longer though as you are going in the opposite direction from the way the river is flowing!
5am Alarm Call!
Pick up from the hostel was bright and early at 5:30am. I was picked up and driven to the docks in the dark. Arriving super early I was one of the first on the boat so I got myself a seat half way down. It isn’t the most luxurious little cruiser you’ll ever take – consider yourselves warned! It’s a simple boat, with a cover overhead then a row with two old wicker chairs, an isle, and then two more wicker chairs. No cushions so a lot of people were a bit grumbly about being uncomfortable. I was quite happy to be fair, but I have a significant amount of cushioning on my bum so that probably helped!
By 7am the boat was full and we set off as the sun was rising. The Irrawaddy River is Myanmar’s largest river and flows from the North to the South. It’s extremely flat and wide so if you get seasick you should still be ok on the slow boat!
Once the boat’s moving if I’m honest there’s not much else to it! You just sit, relax, eat, drink! I read my book and enjoyed the fresh air. It was pretty cold for the first couple of hours and I was glad I had my hoodie and another long sleeve top packed in my hand luggage. Once the sun was up it got nice and toasty and I needed to put some suncream on my left arm which was in the sun. Again, glad I had that to hand!
The boat was full so there wasn’t space to move around, so once I settled in my seat that was me for the day. We passed by local villages built on the rivers, women doing their washing in the river, fishermen heading out on boats. It was nice to see the local Burmese going about their daily life.
Giant Buddha’s and golden pagodas popped up in the distance from time to time and when we got closer to Bagan you could see the tops of the pagodas peeking out over walls and trees. I was pretty excited when I started to see those.
It was a bit of a culture shock getting off the boat if I am honest! It wasn’t a ‘pier’ as such, more some steps carved into a muddy river bank. The plank to get off the boat was literally a small plank of wood stuck into the mud. The handrail a pole being held by one man on the boat and one man on the shore! I’m not convinced that if I lost my balance it would have been any use what so ever. You can read all about the fairytale land of Bagan in this post.
Booking your ticket
I only booked my ticket the night before I travelled through the reception desk in my hostel. You can also book online and in peak times of year you may need to book in advance which you can do on this webpage.
It was $45 so pretty pricey compared with the bus option. BUT I was served with breakfast, lunch and a snack with coffee So if you think of it that way it’s basically your only cost for the whole day. One thing I would do though is stock up on snacks before getting on. They sell beers and cold drinks on board but not any food in addition to the meals provided in the ticket. I wasn’t particularly hungry but I boredom eat on long journeys and I hadn’t stocked up on crisps before setting off. Bad move!
Ok, so they aren’t the most appetising photos you’re about to see. But I was still pleasantly surprised!
Breakfast was a boiled egg, croissant, banana and a sweet pastry with a bottle of water. Could have been worse!
I completely forgot at the time of booking to let them know I was a vegetarian, so as breakfast was served I asked the staff if it would be possible to get a vegetarian meal at lunch time. He was super friendly and said it wasn’t a problem … phew!
When lunch time came we were all given a plate of rice, vermicelli noodles with a sauce and peanuts and some sautéed cabbage. I had a peek around and the meat eaters also had a dollop of some kind of meat curry but I couldn’t tell you what. I tucked in and am happy to report it was actually delicious!
The snack was less impressive, it was a strange gooey white ball which apparently was a rice ball with coconut. I had one bite and thought my jaw was going to get cemented shut so wrapped the rest in a tissue and took it directly to the bin.
What to keep in your hand bag?
You’ll obviously have all your worldly travel possessions with you in your main bag, but they’ll just get chucked into some storage space below deck as you get on. So don’t count on being able to access it again until you’re getting off!
I would recommend having the following packed somewhere so you have it to hand:
- Snacks – as I mentioned, they don’t sell them on board!
- A book – I was fully into my book, ‘Inside Hotel K’ all about the prison in Bali and time FLEW!
- Camera – do I need to explain!?
- Suncream – once the sun is out you don’t really have anywhere to hide with limited space on the boat!
- Jumper – it can be brrrrr-eezy on the river.
- Toilet roll – lets just call the facilities on board basic shall we and leave this there?
Slow Boat vs Bus:
So which is better? The slow boat is more expensive and takes longer then the bus. However, I loved being on the slow boat! But I love a good boat trip, so this was a treat.
On the other hand, one guy from my dorm room in Mandalay was travelling to Bagan the same day and taking the bus. When I left the room at 5:25am to get picked up he was fast asleep. When I arrived in Bagan at the hostel 10 hours later he was sat in the bar with a beer. So … it depends how you feel about that! It is called the SLOW boat to be fair!
If you decide to do the journey by bus I highly recommend JJ’s – I used them for my other bus journeys. They had big comfortable seats, food served (basic, but alright!) and ran on time. They were also cheap, which is nice.
I was certainly happy with my day on the slow boat, but I’m not sure I’d have been as keen the opposite way. Adding a few more hours may have been overkill. But it was a refreshing change from the overly air conditioned buses.
Which would you prefer? Slow boat or bus? Comment below!
You might also like the posts below about my trip to Myanmar: