Why a 12hr Boat Trip up the Irrawaddy River Is Worth It

Because of recent events in Myanmar, we at World Nomads have had a long hard think about whether we should even continue publishing articles about the country. In the end we decided we should. Our reasoning is explained in this piece about ethical travel: "Controversial Destinations: To Boycott or Not?" Please read it.

Seeing Myanmar from the murky Irrawaddy River is hands-down one of the best experiences. Trade the hustle and bustle of sightseeing on land for a leisurely boat ride upriver from Bagan to Mandalay – two of the country’s biggest tourist spots. Our local insider Kristen shares her experience.

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Cruising this route may not seem like the most obvious choice – buses make the trip in six hours, compared to at least 12 on the river – but it’s the best way to discover rural life along the river’s banks.

Local Life on the River

It’s a simple life. From the deck, see kids playing and bathing in the river, farmers tending their fields, and fisherman reeling in their catch nearby.

Many boats make afternoon stops at riverside villages, like Yandabo, an historic town known for pots and other goods made of river clay. Visit with the friendly locals and see what their life is really like.

Pottery in Yandabo. Photo credit: Kristen Boatright

Sunrises and Sunsets

Boats leave Nyaung Oo Jetty in Bagan at 5:30 am. Resist the temptation to catch a few more zzz’s after you board. Watching the sun climb into the sky over Bagan’s temples is impressive, but the sunrises along the Irrawaddy are equally spectacular.

On the 12-hour trip, you’ll pull into Mandalay’s Gawein Jetty just in time to see the sun set on Myanmar’s second largest city.

Sunset from the Irrawaddy River. Photo credit: Kristen Boatright

Temples You’ll See

Keep your eyes open and your cameras ready to snap the thousands of sacred sites you’ll see from the boat. South of Mandalay, there are many hundreds of glittering pagodas in Sagaing, an ancient capital and Myanmar’s religious center.

A view of Sagaing from the Irrawaddy River. Photo credit: Kristen Boatright

Logistics

  • Government-owned boats cruise the route northbound in 12–15 hours and cost between US $10 and US $70. 

  • Private boats complete the trip in a day (like the MGRG Express, starting at US $31) or offer multi- night journeys. 

  • For day cruises, arrive early to secure a seat. Breakfast and lunch are provided, but bring snacks. 

  • Bundle up, as it can be chilly on deck before the sun comes up. 

  • Book your journey through your hotel or online, but if you’re paying cash, bring USD. 


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