It was still dark when I got out of the taxi, somewhat groggy and disoriented after only managing a few hours of sleep. My luggage in hand, I walked down a sandy hill onto the beach of the Nyaung U jetty. From there I carefully made my way across a narrow wooden plank to the boat that would be my home for the next 12 hours. The final destination of my Irrawaddy river cruise would be Myanmar’s second-city of Mandalay. For the rest of the day, though, I was looking forward to getting to know the country’s most important waterway.
With some time to go before daylight, I looked for a seat on the boat’s upper deck which would guarantee a clear view of the sunrise – even if it meant having to brave the early morning cold. Despite the Bagan to Mandalay route being considerably less popular than the other way around, more and more people made their way onto the boat until nearly every seat was occupied.
Finally, the boat’s engines revved up and we officially began the journey. Less than an hour or so later, the other tired passengers and I gazed out at the beautiful sunrise in relative silence. Just as soon as we began, the main event was already over. Or was it?
After a modest breakfast of an egg, banana and pastry, as well as a much-needed cup of coffee, I found myself unsure of how I’d pass the rest of the day. Despite our remote location, the 4G signal worked surprisingly well. I pulled out my laptop and tried to do some work.
But something just didn’t feel right about staring at a computer screen as we cruised past old pagodas, rural villages and lush greenery. I decided to use my Irrawaddy river cruise as a rare opportunity to take a break from electronic stimulation, focusing instead on taking in my new surroundings.
'Just as soon as we began, the main event was already over. Or was it?'
The view from the boat
The Flowing Soul of Myanmar
At over 2,100 kilometers long, the Irrawaddy River is by far Myanmar’s most important body of water. It flows north to south from the mountainous area near the border with China, all the way down to Yangon, before finally spilling into the Andaman Sea. The river has been Myanmar’s most important waterway for thousands of years, and remains one of the country’s main methods of transporting goods to this day.
The river is also home to diverse wildlife, such as rare species of fish and birds. And of course, it’s also the body of water from which the beloved Irrawaddy dolphin derives its name. Though critically endangered, these smiling dolphins can still be occasionally spotted in the river, especially in the area north of Mandalay.
Sadly, many dolphins are still falling victim to illegal and brutal ‘electro-fishing’ practices. As more tourists start flooding into Myanmar, though, some locals are optimistic that the financial incentive for dolphin watching tours could outweigh the potential benefits of the archaic hunting methods.
Farmers tend to their crops on an unnamed island in the middle of the Irrawaddy, just outside the town of Nyaung U
The river is also home to a number of fertile islands where agriculture flourishes. Though no stops were made during my river cruise, I did get the opportunity to visit a river island the day before, just outside the town of Nyaung U in Bagan. Little infrastructure exists on many of these small islands, with the exception of modest housing for the several families who live on them.
“What’s the name of this island?” I asked a local resident. “It has no name,” he replied.
During my journey to Mandalay, I observed all kinds of boats transporting lumber, rice and other goods. Some of these loads were being shipped to other towns within Myanmar while some were destined for faraway lands. Thanks to the Irrawaddy’s connection with the Andaman Sea, it also serves as a vital link between Myanmar’s rural villages and the outside world.
Trade, agriculture and religion all flourish along the Irrawaddy
The River & The Spirits
If you look closely during your Irrawaddy river cruise, you may be able to spot the occasional floating shrine dedicated to U Shin Gyi, Myanmar’s main water deity. U Shin Gyi is one of Burmese culture’s many Nats, or terrestrial spirits that play a significant role in the country’s spiritual traditions. Though animistic in nature, Nat worship has coexisted alongside Theravada Buddhism for the past one thousand years.
Supposedly, U Shin Gyi was a very troubled youth. This all ended when he happened to come face to face with the Buddha himself. He was granted instant enlightenment on the condition that he watch over the Irrawaddy to ensure the safe travels of the river’s many boats and fisherman.
Even today, villages along the river hold special rituals with the purpose of channeling U Shin Gyi’s spirit through a medium. This is one way the locals try to stay in contact with the deity. Many believe his blessings are vital for the wellbeing of Myanmar’s most important waterway, a river which is also currently under threat from a proposed dam project.
The Controversial Dam
A hotly debated topic in Myanmar right now is the fate of a Chinese-backed project to build a number of dams along the Irrawaddy. The plan is overwhelmingly opposed by a majority of the local people due to the serious environmental consequences it could have.
Hundreds of villagers have already been displaced. The government remains indecisive on whether or not the plan will be carried out, leaving the displaced villagers stuck waiting for the final decision. In the mean time, they’re unable to work on their ancestral land.
The Chinese government claims that it has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the project. The current leadership of Myanmar must now figure out a solution to negotiations which were started by the former military government that ruled until 2011.
If they back out now, it could spell trouble for future diplomatic relations with Asia’s largest economy. Myanmar may either have to offer other lucrative projects to China in compensation, or pay China back all of the money – a difficult task for the cash-strapped nation.
There’s no easy solution to the proposed Myitsone Dam project, it seems. Even if the dam does not get built on the Irrawaddy, the ‘soul of Myanmar,’ locations of potential smaller projects would also likely upset many of the country’s ethnic minorities. Certain pockets of the country are already rife with ethnic tensions and new projects on certain pieces of land would surely complicate the issue.
Looking out at the peaceful scenery around me, the issues surrounding the Myitsone Dam project seemed like a world away. And Kachin State, in fact, is quite a distance from either Mandalay or Bagan. But as the entire river is connected, there’s no denying that the dam project could have serious consequences for the villages downstream.
'As the entire river is connected, there's no denying that the dam project could have serious consequences for the villages downstream.'
The Final Hours
After a long stretch of dull and uneventful scenery, we approached what would be one of the most fascinating parts of the journey. All of a sudden, large rolling hills topped with golden pagodas crept into view. Massive Buddha statues towered over the river and I could see people, markets and traffic from the boat.
This, I would later learn, is the ancient capital of Sagaing, just south of Mandalay. I would eventually visit Sagaing and walk along the top of those hills, coming face to face with landmarks such as the U Min Thonze cave. Whether or not you make it there, though, the beautiful views of Sagaing from the boat easily make up for the less eventful parts of the Irrawaddy river cruise.
The amazing views of the ancient capital of Sagaing were a highlight of the river cruise
Shortly after passing Sagaing, the journey down ‘The Road to Mandalay’ was finally complete. We arrived in Myanmar’s bustling second city just before sundown.
I was expecting to feel exhausted, but got off the boat feeling oddly refreshed. I walked past the taxi mob and hailed a driver down from the road for a much better deal. I checked into my hotel and immediately went out to explore the new city on foot. After 12 hours on a boat, all I wanted to do was walk.
GENERAL INFO: The standard Irrawaddy River Cruise, as described above, is run by the company MGRG. This is also referred to as the ‘express’ cruise, as opposed to more luxurious options which can last a few days or longer.
As the article title suggests, it lasts around 12 hours in total and does not make any stops. There are two bathrooms on board which are adequately stocked with toilet paper.
FOOD & DRINK: You’ll be served both a basic breakfast and lunch, but you may also want to pack some of your own snacks.
You’ll be treated to unlimited coffee or tea while both bottled water and beer are available for sale.
HOW TO BOOK: I simply booked the ride at my hotel in Bagan and the tickets cost around USD $30 per person. You should be able to book wherever you’re staying and if not, one of the many tour agencies in town should be able to help you. There’s no need to go to the boat area in advance to purchase a ticket.
TIME: The boat departs at 5:30am but you’ll want to get there early, so I arranged a taxi to pick my friend and I up at the hotel at around 4:30am.
The taxi itself cost 5,000 kyats, or roughly USD $4.
FROM MANDALAY TO BAGAN: The MGRG company also operates Irrawaddy river cruises from Mandalay to Bagan. As this journey is downstream, it lasts around 9 hours instead of 12.
Ask at your accommodation in Mandalay about booking a ticket.
The departure time for this route is 7am.