Thousands of travelers are going to Myanmar each 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.
Boat travel in Myanmar can be an alternative to bus or train, connecting some major destinations and allowing visitors to get a real taste of life on the river; taking in sunsets over stupa-lined river banks, and mixing with the locals. Riverboats navigate at slower pace, but it is an enjoyable way to experience the exotic sights, scents and sounds of the country. From ancient river villages, bustling ports, to ever-changing vistas of plains, mountains, and forest valleys, all of them are inspirational.
Riverboats are for those who want to escape from fast paced life to enjoy and relax among natural scenery. There are 8000 kilometers of navigable rivers in Myanmar. Here are the main rivers:
The Irrawaddy River (also known as Ayeyarwady)
Myanmar’s longest river runs 2100 kilometers in length, flowing from north to south. Before cars and trains, it is referred to as ‘the road to Mandalay’. If you have time, travelling on the Irrawaddy River is an interesting way to get to some destinations. It affords a magnificent view on riversides dotted with golden pagodas as well as glimpse of locals’ life on the busy river.
The Chindwin River
The Chindwin River is a major tributary to the Irrawaddy, running 965 kilometers in length. It flows south and joins the Irrawaddy near Bagan. A cruise on the Chindwin promises to bring cultural and natural wonders with ancient villages, stunning views of mountains, fields, and jungles.
The Thanlwin River
One of the longest free- flowing rivers in Asia with nearly 3000 kilometers in length. However the river is is only navigable for 125 kilometers from its mouth at Mawlamyine, and only at the wet season. This part of the river is very beautiful, and the route from Mawlamyine to Hpa-An is one of the most popular tourist journeys.
Types of boat
Myanmar welcomes you by a large option of boats, from small, privately owned boats, to large government-run ferries, and multi-deck luxury boats.
A number of private boats offer short cruises to visit sights near the large port cities like Yangon and Mandalay. Visitors can take slow boats or fast boats.
Traveling by slow boat is one of the cheapest way to travel on water and a unique opportunity to meet the local people. If you have a longer journey, you might have to sleep overnight on the floor even though some slow boats provide simple cabins.
Fast boats, in comparison, are more expensive, faster and usually more comfortable. Unlike slow boats, fast boats only operate during the day.
Ferries are mostly government-run, especially Inland Water Transport (IWT) which has over 500 boats. Today, most of IWT boats are not in good condition, they are rather rundown and crumbling. Many of passengers are traders who make stops along the way to pick up or deliver goods. Some ferries carry foreigners on the upper deck and local people on the lower. There are also express ferries for tourists, with observation deck and a dining hall…
The luxurious all suite cruise ship will take you in style on voyages of breathtaking beauty and discovery on the great rivers of Myanmar: on the majestic Irrawaddy from Bagan to Mandalay visiting temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries along the way. The ship has luxury cabins and upscale services. Some features on board include spa and massage, cultural entertainment… The high-priced luxury cruises are either run by privately boats or by a joint-venture operation.
Ticket and time
Ferry ticket can be booked through your hotel, via travel agency, or through the Myanmar Travel & Tour (MTT, a government tourist information) offices in large towns. You can also book them through IWT, which has offices in most cities. These offices are located at or near jetties.
If you want to take a luxury cruise, you have to book it well in advance through a travel agency before you arrive at Myanmar.
Like trains and buses, Myanmar’s boats departure early in the morning. It is noticeable that traveling by boat take far longer than publicized, especially in cool season when water levels are low and when boat may stuck at sandbanks.
Popular routes for tourists
The cruise between the two ancient capitals is one of the best journeys you can make through the country by boat. From Mandalay, the boat travels south to the spectacular ruins of Bagan via the legendary Irrawaddy River. Golden temples, burgundy-robber monks, ancient legend and gracious people are waiting to be revealed. During this journey, you will have time to enjoy beautiful scenery of riversides, delve deep into the culture and authentic life of local people living on the river or in villages on the river banks, the ‘real taste’ of Burma. This trip may last 10 hours to a couple of days depending on the type of boat you travel with. Mandalay- Bagan cruise may be fantastic on its own, or an add-on to your trip to Myanmar.
Mawlamyine- Hpa An
The river trip from Mawlamyine through Thanlwin River to Hpa An is one of the most beautiful river cruises in Myanmar. This journey can take you through the landscape of countryside and karst mountain scenery. The scenery is great and changes impressive when coming closer to Hpa An, mountains are dotted with golden pagodas, small villages with waving children and big limestone cliffs. The government ferry does not run any longer as there is a new road bridge, so visitors may get a private boat from Mawlamyine.
Not like any other routes, this line is really an adventure journey. The trip needs plenty of time but itself is a rewarding trip. The best option is go to Myitkyina or Bhamo by airplane or train from Mandalay, then take a downstream cruise on the Irrawaddy. It is noticeable that due to the political situation, traveling to this northern part of the country is unfortunately restricted.
Boat travel in Myanmar is an exciting option for travelers looking for a slower and more scenic way. For those who don’t have to rush, take a slow boat along the legendary Irrawaddy River to contemplate the beautiful riversides, the authentic life of Burmese people living on the busy river. Consider shorter cruises like Mandalay- Mingun or Mawlamyine- Hpa An to taste a different side of the ‘Golden Land’.