Bagan to Mandalay by Boat

Up the Ayeyarwady River….

The boat from Bagan to Mandalay was a 12 hour treat from start to finish. The boat left the Bagan Jetty at 5:30 just as the sun rose over the river. The mists from a morning chill rose off the water but slowly dissipated as the sun rose above the plains of Bagan and shone down on the Ayeyarwady River. (I have also seen it spelled Irrawaddy but I suspect that is the anglicized version.) The river flows south through the middle of the country and the plain that it cuts through is as flat as it gets. In places, the high mud banks look like they were sliced flat with a knife and the scrubby grass that stands straight up above the banks give the appearance of a bad brush cut. In the west the plains end at the Chin State mountains and in the east at the Shan Hills.

Life along the river is vibrant; farming, fishing or the transport of people and goods keep something on the horizon to watch and wonder about. We passed all manner of vessels from scows to other tour boats and it was delightful to see whole families fishing in the river using, poles, traps and nets. Reminded me of my fishing days when the fishermen would take their families along for company and to share the work. Of course along the way we saw plenty more gold domed pagodas, a further reminder that Myanmar is a deeply Buddhist country. The settlements along the river were haphazard collections of tents and shacks where the fishermen and their families live during the dry season but relocate for the rainy season. Right now it’s “winter” in Myanmar, meaning that the temperatures plummet to the mid 20’s at night and in the morning.

On board the RV Panorama, part of the Alliance Cruise Group, there were about 32 passengers, most of them a tour group from Taiwan and the rest were Europeans except for me the lone Canadian. A woman from Slovenia told me she didn’t think Canadian’s travelled much. At first people snoozed below deck and I was lucky enough to have three seats to myself which made for a great bunk. After a nap I followed the lead of other passengers and went topside for breakfast and then out onto some really comfortable deck chairs on the stern.

The young men who were our stewards on the boat gave us a demonstration on the art of wearing the “longyi”. With a few deft twists and turns of fabric they created, hats, shorts, jackets, slings, back packs, carrying pouches and even an elephant. Then they demonstrated the use of “thanaka” a paste made from ground bark which the Myanmar wear on their faces as both a sun block and a skin cream. They even have some fancy designs that they create after the swirl of paste dries a bit and one of the Taiwanese passengers was eager to be a model.

Twelve hours evaporated and before I knew it we were approaching the mythical city of Mandalay, made famous in Kipling’s poem. Of course it bears little or no resemblance to the romantic version set out in the poem but it was impressive as we approached our dock.

There are other ways to get from Bagan to Mandalay but in my mind the 35 USD fare that included breakfast and lunch was the only way to go.

Solo Travel in Bagan Myanmar

Acres of pagodas….

Things happen where you might be tempted to panic but doing so isn’t going to help. I had decided on a private taxi tour of Bagan as the best way to see the most Buddhist structures in one day as they are spread over 67 sq kms and there are more than 2000.

But the best laid plans… and so I found myself at the arrival gate in Bagan searching fruitlessly for the handheld sign that would bear my name. Not to be, I was nevertheless hustled out the door and into an awaiting taxi who wanted 35usd for a days tour. A fair price given they last from early morning arrival until sunset. However I had already paid in Yangon and a few kms into the journey I realized that, contrary to what I had been led to believe, this was not my car or my driver and I instructed him to turn around and go back to the airport.  

Back inside the arrivals area I found a lovely helpful English speaking guide who called the number on my voucher and after a furious relay of other calls he assured me that although there had been a communication gap between Bagan and Yangon I would be picked up shortly. All in, I had 2 hours of waiting and my 8am tour started at 10am.

While I was getting in the right taxi the first taxi driver approached my pre-paid driver and demanded payment for the five minutes I was with him. My driver paid him and explained that he was paying him for taking me to the market, which he did not. No es mi pedo as my Mexican friends say.  

Bagan Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with good reason. Located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar, and sprouting from the flat plains along the river is the largest collection of Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries in the world. Time worn, reduced to rubble in some cases are stupas that show the bricks and mortar used to build them.Others are survivors, resplendently preserved and revered, covered in gold plate and gemstones they point the way to the heavens.

There are three settlements on the Bagan Temple plains; Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang U Town. My tour started at the Nyuang market bustling with women sellers of fruits, vegetables, fabrics, jewellery, puppets, clothing, toys and many other goodies. Markets offer great photo opportunities, every stall is piled high with something of beauty, be it a food or a piece of clothing proudly displayed, I was told many times “made here, not China”. I bought several items including my own “longyi” for temple visits and a long legged skort as a further nod to modesty.

The temples and pagoda jut out of the plain in seemingly random patterns. Some are huddled close together and others are some distance apart. Each one is notable for different reasons, the gold, the Buddhas, the cool dark passageways, frescos, etc. In no way can one visit all 2000 in one day but I managed to pack in a few which to be honest became somewhat of a blur.

My driver spoke enough English to get me from A to B but not enough to fill in the mysteries of these ancient reminders of the 9th & 10th centuries. There is something haunting about the plains and what is poignantly missing is the human presence of the people that built them. To quote Borges, some places, “try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something.”

The day ended with a short climb up a rare rise in the flat landscape to watch as the sun set behind the Temples of Bagan.

After a long day, especially considering my early start in Yangon, I was at last taken to the Bagan Wynn Hotel, one of the best hotels yet. Beautiful grounds and five star treatment at a very reasonable price through Hotels.com. My second day in Bagan was spent enjoying the pool and gardens of Bagan Wynn, catching my breath, working on my blog, answering friends emails and doing a little sink laundry. Tomorrow very early I am off to Mandalay, not by plane but by boat on the Irrawaddy River. Alarm set for 4:00 AM!