Traveling by boat is one of the nicest ways to get around Myanmar.
Thousands of travelers will stream into Myanmar this year, anxious to catch of glimpse of the ancient temples and famous hospitality that for so long have been kept in isolation. Unfortunately, transportation routes have not kept pace with the flow of visitors and it still takes considerable time to travel between cities that are quite close to one another.
This was the transportation dilemma we faced before deciding to include boat travel in our plans. We needed to go from Mandalay to Bagan, but the expense of flying was out of the question and neither the lengthy bus nor ancient train offered a comfortable or efficient option (as we would find out later in the trip!) That left the Irrawaddy River for a decidedly slow but relatively pleasant commute.
With an increasing amount of service providers operating on the Irrawaddy and recent guidebooks already out of date, I wanted to give a detailed account of our trip with MGRG Express (Myanmar Golden River Group) to help other travelers make an informed choice.
We booked our passage the day before through our guest house, paying $50 US per person (ticket plus their service fee). On the MGRG website (find it here http://www.mgrgexpress.com/) the rate is listed as $45 US per person. Our trip included two meals, water, and soft drinks. From what other travellers have told us, prices have remained steady since our trip in late 2013.
It's important to note that there really is no such thing as an "express" boat for passengers on the Irrawaddy. There are slower options, such as taking a multi-day 'cruise' or taking a passenger boat more heavily favored by locals, but there's not really any fast option. It is worth noting that it is about an hour faster to travel downstream, as we did, than to take the trip in reverse. For more information on local transportation, I found The Man in Seat 61 to be an invaluable resource.
The MGRG Express was quite comfortable, reasonably clean, and carried safety equipment. There was a choice of above deck seating in rattan lounge chairs or on padded benches, as well as an enclosed sitting area featuring padded chairs (which felt rather narrow - or maybe those seats were trying to send me a message!). There were two small washrooms which were clean. Part of the walkway around the edge of the boat was open and didn't have a safety railing - be careful you don't fall overboard!
We noticed a few mosquitoes on the water while we were waiting to depart but they quickly were blown away by the river breeze once we set sail. With a gentle wind blowing and without the midday sun, it was very chilly on the upper deck and we were soon adding layers to keep warm. Before long, my sleeves were rolled down, my shorts were swapped for jeans, a scarf was added, then a sweater! Of course, 4 hours later all the layers were coming off again and Ryan actually got a bad sunburn! Anyone traveling on the Irrawaddy would be wise to bring a warm layer of clothing at the top of their pack, along with a bottle of sunscreen!
Breakfast was served after about a hour of sailing and consisted of a pastry, a croissant style bun (which was delicious!) a banana (pre-sliced!) and a hard boiled egg (which unfortunately still had a raw spot.) Instant Burmese style coffee, with plenty of powdered creamer and sweetener, was served in large plastic cups. (It's worth noting that many guest houses include breakfast in their price and will prepare a breakfast box to go for early checkout. I mention this because often the price difference between boat companies lies in whether or not they include meals or serve breakfast)
By mid morning the staff went around to take lunch orders. We had a choice of noodles or rice, both of which were served with a scant amount of chicken and a bit of stir fried veggies, plus sliced raw tomato and onion on the side. The staff were happy to accommodate Ryan's request for vegetarian noodles (Ryan is allergic to shellfish and found it easiest to request vegetarian dishes in Myanmar instead of getting into the details of good fish/bad fish). Vegetarians should take note that noodles might have been prepared with a chicken based stock, but certainly there was no meat in the dish. Overall, the heaping plates of noodles and rice were very tasty and filling. Bottled water and soft drinks were free and large bottles of the local "Mandalay" beer was available for about 1,500 Kyat.
One of the things that attracted us to taking the boat as a means of transportation was the vivid guidebook descriptions about seeing so much of the countryside and bustling river activities as you sailed along. We wouldn't just be moving from A to B, we'd be enjoying a seldom-seen side of the country as well! Things started off well...
We passed a number of commercial and residential boats and could see the riverbanks teaming with activity. We passed impressive golden pagodas in the hills and sailed underneath Mandalay's famous teak bridge. But as the day went on the river widened until the banks were so far apart there was nothing to see but their dim shape in the distance. There was little in the way of river traffic and, aside from the occasional village or cow, there was little to look at for the bulk of the trip.
When we finally arrived in Nyaung U after 10 hours, we were happy to finally get back on solid land. Nyaung U lacks a formal pier and we disembarked via a few wooden planks. A dozen or so taxi drivers and their negotiators greeted us with what can most cheerfully described as overwhelming enthusiasm! We paid 5000 Kyat for the two of us to ride in the back of a jeep to the Amazing Bagan Resort (which was the hotel furthest away from the pier), while those traveling just a kilometer or two paid about half that rate (and those willing to go in horse drawn cart spent about 2000 Kyat!)
We had a good experience with MGRG Express - the staff were friendly, the service ran on schedule, and the boat was fairly comfortable. I would encourage anyone traveling in Myanmar to consider making part of their journey by river boat. It was calm, quiet, and relaxing - and, while the journey eased into boredom and we didn't see as much as we hoped, it was still a nice way to experience the countryside - and I hope you enjoy it too!
Mandalay-Bagan Travel Resources.
Please check out our other blog posts about Myanmar!
The BEST Travel Experience of my Life: Balloons Over Bagan
The WORST Travel Experience of my Life: The Overnight Train from Bagan to Yangon
Where to Stay in Bagan
Where To Eat In Bagan
Min-Ga-La-Ba Myanmar! All About Mandalay Airport
Day 9 of our Round-The-World Trip: Mandalay
Besotted with Bagan: Day 10 &11 of Our Round The World Trip
At Long Last: Yangon. Day 12 &13 of Our Round The World Trip
Guesthouse Review: Motherland Inn 2, Yangon
We'd love to hear from you!
We have more visitors to this article than anything else on the blog and we're SO excited that so many of you are traveling to Myanmar! We'd love to hear about your trip and, in particular, hear your thoughts about traveling on the Irrawaddy.
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We leave you with a few more pictures from our day along the Irrawaddy.