Romancing The Irrawaddy – Mandalay to Yangon River Cruise

Updated September 2020

A river cruise isn’t mandatory for a Myanmar itinerary. Most central Burmese attractions are easily accessed from Mandalay or Bagan by road or public ferry. 

But there is something about a river cruise, about being adrift on an ancient body of water while witnessing life unfold along its banks that is immersive. We had experienced the magic on the Nile and the Irrawaddy, with its pagoda studded banks, was even more enchanting.

A boat cruise, unlike large ocean cruises, is about getting intimate with the land. Excursions began early, most times divided into two shifts interspersed with a leisurely lunch.

The Irrawaddy Explorer
The Irrawaddy Explorer
From the sun deck

The 52 people on board the Irrawaddy Explorer were divided into three manageable groups and the order of visits staggered so cruise mates didn’t bump into each other at every stop. The group excursions took some getting used to, after so many years of independent travel. But I soon became adept at avoiding inadvertent photo bombers and finding my own space during each visit.

It was remarkable how easy it was to fall into the slow rhythm of that schedule. Aided greatly by an extremely talented chef and bottomless tankards of beer.

That internet was practically non existent was actually a positive. We resolved to try to stick to the ‘early to bed, early to rise’ schedule when we returned, but that went out of the window as soon as we fully reconnected with the World Wide Web.

Lahpet Thoke, Myanmar
Lahpet Thoke (Tea Leaf Salad) making demo and tasting in the Writer’s Lounge on the Irrawaddy Explorer.
The Irrawaddy Explorer
The spacious cabin. (Bed reflected in closet mirror)
The Irrawaddy Explorer

Our (cruise) itinerary traced the evolution of Burmese history – and their royals’ penchant for building and abandoning capital cities – in reverse*. From Mandalay, the last capital where the monarchy met its ignominious end, all the way to the ancient Pyu city state of Sri Ksetra: the birthplace of the Tibeto Burman race, as well as the Bagan (Pagan) kingdom.

Mandalay felt like the Mumbai of Myanmar. Crowded and edgy. Its principal monument, King Thibaw’s famed Glass Palace, a newish reconstruction and currently occupied by the army.

The only major original structure from the complex to have survived Allied bombing during World War II, is the ornately carved Shwenandaw Pagoda, itself dismantled from Thibaw’s father’s palace in Amarapura and re-erected here for use as a monastery.

Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay
A few of the 729 shrines that house the incribed stone tablets that comprise the ‘World’s Largest Book’.
Shwenndaw Pagoda, Mandalay
The exquisite teakwood monastery is encrusted with carvings depicting characters and stories from the Jataka Tales.
UBein Bridge, Myanmar
The 1.2km teakwood footbridge that spans Taungthaman Lake near Amarapura. It is believed to be the oldest and the longest such bridge in the world.

The Mahamuni pagoda with its 13ft tall gold leaf encrusted Buddha and the Kuthodaw pagoda that holds the largest book in the world, are both important pilgrimage spots and great places for people watching.

It was a bit of a let down though to discover that the ‘book’, although impressive, was a series of large inscribed stone ‘pages’ in individual shrines and not the giant book I had envisaged.

Our rather packed first day ended spectacularly on a sampan in Amarapura, just in time to watch the sun slip behind Ubein bridge: the longest teak wood foot bridge in the world. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to walk across it at dawn.

We stopped a while at the Settawaya Paya (Stupa) on the edge of the riverbank on our stroll through the erstwhile royal residence of Mingun next morning, before continuing on to the circular Hsinbyume Paya.

I was half hoping to spot playful young novice monks cavorting over the wavy white terraces of the latter like I had seen in glossy photo spreads online. I discovered much later that those ‘professional’ galleries routinely use paid models!

Mingun, Myanmar
Charming public transport in Mingun.
Mingun, Myanmar
The sinuous white washed terraces of the Hsinbyume Paya.
Mingun, Myanmar
A monk offers prayers at he gigantic Mingun Bell.
Mingun, Myanmar
Panoramic view from the sun deck, of the brilliant white Settawaya Paya juxtaposed against the unfinished Mingun Paya.
Ava (Inwa), Myanmar
An idyllic Ava landscape even with the scaffolding..

Mingun’s claim to fame is the enormous 18th century unfinished stupa – the Mingun Paya – that was meant to rival the Pyramids of Giza as the largest structure on the planet. It was abandoned when only one third complete, based on a prophesy – possibly concocted by ministers appalled at the extravagance – that its completion would lead to king Bodhawpaya’s demise.Then there is the Mingun bell. Also gigantic.And the remnants of what were once the formidable guardian dragon/lions (Chinte) of the gigantic Paya.

That afternoon, each couple was bundled into horse carts for a bone rattling convoy into Ava (Innwa), evocative of its 360 year imperial history. The key attractions here are the exquisite teak Bagaye monastery and the unusual (for the time), masonry monastery of Maha Aungmye Bonzan, commissioned, uncommonly again, by the queen.

Ava (Inwa), Myanmar
Horse carriages at the ready…
Ava (Inwa), Myanmar
Entry gate to the Maha Aungmye Bonzan
Ava (Inwa), Myanmar
Carved door and window frames of the Bagaye monastery

Over the ensuing week, we explored the Hpowindaung caves near Monywa with innumerable Buddhas in varying sizes and postures; the rather garish and Disneyfied (in 1939) but ever so popular 13CE Thanboddhay Pagoda with Buddhas in the thousands; the amazing stupa fields of Bagan (over two days) including a drive to Tan Kyi for panoramic views over the Bagan plains; colonial buildings and the intricately carved wooden Youqson Kyaung Taw Gyi  (a replica of the Crown Prince house in Mandalay) in Salay; the Mya Tha Lun pagoda in Magwe; the 5CE walls and gates of the UNESCO listed Pyu capital of Sri Ksetra, the ancient and unadorned Phayagyi: one of three earliest surviving stupas in the country, and in nearby Pyay the glittering Shwesandaw pagoda nearly as grand as the Shwedagon in Yangon.

Yes, a bit of a temple overload! Perhaps more than a bit. But there were delightful village walks, visits to markets and schools, topical lectures and cookery demonstrations (I won myself a beautiful Longyi for my skill in tossing tea leaf salad!) in between, to ward off pagoda fatigue.

And on this particular sailing, even an impromptu New Year’s Eve ‘beach’ party complete with fireworks!

Hpowindaung caves
An enormous sleeping Buddha and overhead frescoes in one of the cave shrines at the Hpowindaung caves near Monywa
Youqson Kyaung in Salay
The ornate teakwood Youqson Kyaung in Salay that is a replica of the ‘Crown Prince House’ in Mandalay.
At the charming pottery village of Yandabo
Bagan, Myanmar
Radiant pagodas in Bagan.
Phayagyi - Sri Ksetra, Myanmar
Phayagyi in the ancient capital of Sri Ksetra is one of three oldest surviving stupas in the country. (And no, that isn’t a paid model! :/)
Mahamuni Paya
The impressive 13 ft tall seated Buddha in the Mahamuni Paya, whose body has accumulated a 6″ layer of solid gold from centuries of votive gold leaf applications! That the proportions aren’t too off, is believed to be a miracle and the reason why this is referred to as the ‘Living Buddha!

The boat itself was lovely. The cabins surprisingly spacious and well appointed and with ample seating and enough power sockets to charge all our electronics and cameras at one go. The floor length and wall to wall glass windows through which we witnessed some brilliant sunrises right from our bed, was my favourite feature. As well as the comfortable sun deck, to which we decamped at every opportunity and from where we had our ringside view to the goings on around the river. 

The exceptionally friendly and helpful staff deserve particular mention. Especially the sweet Mr Thong, who accompanied us on every excursion, handed out wipes to clean our feet at the end of every temple visit, and generally ensured our comfort and well being in the gentlest manner possible. Apart from Steven Stubblefield, the American cruise director, they were all young local Burmese, wholly dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. Their farewell message on our final night aboard, was a telling request to share the beauty of their country and of the beautiful river that bisects it. “We need your help, now more than ever.”

*The upstream itinerary from Yangon to Mandalay does it oldest capital first.

IRRAWADDY CRUISE DETAILS

DISCLAIMER – We availed generous press discounts for the cruise portion of our trip from Haimark Travel. 
Update: The Irrawaddy Explorer is now being marketed by Ayravata Cruises.

Pandaw Cruises are the most reputed in Myanmar. We took the 9 day Treasures Of Golden Myanmar from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy Explorer with the Haimark group. The boat has since been taken over by Paukan Cruises.

We aren’t generally cruise people. I even go so far as to suggest not joining a Nile Cruise in Egypt for better utilisation of time and money . But with far less sightseeing on this journey we found the cruise a most enjoyable way to explore the sites all the way upto Pyay.

A cruise will, however, be far pricier than doing it on your own.

GETTING TO MANDALAY

By direct flight. Several international airlines fly direct to Mandalay at least a few times a week if not daily. We flew Bangkok Air with a stopover in Bangkok. Alternatively, fly into Yangon and then take domestic flights into Mandalay if not embarking from Yangon)

By train from Yangon: Trains take 16 – 18 hours.

By Bus from Yangon: JJ Express takes around 8 hours including comfort stops. Both day and night buses available.

Note: Schedules on this sector might remain disrupted until 2023 due to lines being modernised. Find more details at Seat 61.

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An Irrawaddy river cruise that includes most attractions from Mandalay to Prome near Yangon is an enchanting way to explore Myanmar
An Irrawaddy river cruise that includes most attractions from Mandalay to Prome near Yangon is an enchanting way to explore Myanmar

 

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

55 thoughts on “Romancing The Irrawaddy – Mandalay to Yangon River Cruise

    1. You are right Colline, we got to experience rural Burma more intimately than if we had done day trips from Mandalay.

  1. A most amazing cruise Madhu. Loved the photography of the special stops that awaited you along the Irrawaddy cruise – from the culture and history, to the beautiful shots of the people.

    1. Thank you Mary. The village visits were the highlights for me. Thought I would feature themt in another post since this was already image heavy.

    1. I had no idea. Thought the Mississippi was a large river. The irrawaddy was shallow at parts, so navigating all the way to Yangon was an issue. We had to do the last stretch from Pyay by coach. The levels apparently rise dramatically soon after the monsoons. Must be an amazing sight, although not for those living on the banks.

  2. It seems like floating down the Irrawaddy would be a perfect way to get into the flow of the culture as well ~ great photos, giving us a sense of what you saw and heard. Sigh…what a great country 🙂

    1. Indeed. I can’t seem to get it out of my system! 🙂 Time and price are huge constraints, otherwise a cruise would be the best option. It slowed things down so we got to experience the villages and markets in a more unhurried manner than we would have on day trips.

    1. I am not a regular cruise person either and was apprehensive about being stuck in a boat for nine days, so I am certain you would have more than survived this Gilly 🙂

  3. I’ve never been on a cruise. The ones on the ocean scare me. But your description of a river cruise sounds delightful. A leisurely-paced trip with a ride on a horsecart to boot. The sights along the way, with the culture and history included, are a real treat. Wonderful! 😉

    1. I haven’t been on a regular cruise either Judy. I would be bored to death! 🙂 The only other time we were on a boat for longer than a day was on the four night Nile cruise. Both were equally enjoyable experiences.

  4. What a place. I never thought of doing a river cruise but that looks like a nice option. Did you feel like you had enough time on land each day?

    1. We have only ever been on the Nile cruise before Jeff and loved it as well. The best thing about a river cruise is the minimal sailing time. They rarely ever sail at night.

      Over all I thought the excursions were well planned. Bagan was the biggest destination en-route and we were docked there for three nights and two full days in which we managed a fair number of temples. Craft workshop visits were unavoidable, though most considered it a welcome break from the pagodas. On hindsight we should have explored one of the two days on our own. We were free to return at midday and after dinner if we wanted to.

    1. I don’t know Thailand beyond Bangkok Ian, so I can’t really say. I am guessing the landscape is similar, but the flavour distinctly simpler, unhurried.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful experience, thanks for showing me some of the sights (I am unlikely to go myself, heat and humidity would be the problem)

    1. Most welcome Sue. Dec/ Jan would be pleasant weather throughout. Perhaps even chilly around Inle Lake and the hills.

  6. How wonderful, Madhu, and Irrawaddy is my favourite river name, I fell in love with it as a kid, it’s so much fun to say. 🙂

    1. Irrawaddy is indeed a special name. You should plan a trip then Ailsa. And perhaps pop into India along the way 🙂

  7. You visit stunning and legendary places: the Irrawaddy features in my imaginative map from childhood. And you write about them and photograph them so enticingly. Thank you for letting me be your virtual travelling companion.

  8. You’re so lucky with the weather, Madhu! On our two-week stay in Myanmar, not a single day in Mandalay was a sunny day. It was always rainy and gloomy. I really wanted to visit Mingun Paya and Hsinbyume Paya (I didn’t know about the paid models!), but because of the weather we decided to save them for our future trip — as well as U Bein bridge. Glad to see those beautiful images of Mandalay and the surrounding regions, and well done for the tea leaf salad! 🙂

    1. Yes, we really lucked out with weather. Dec/ Jan is probably the best time to visit Bama. Mingun and Ava were both beautiful. I regretted missing Sagaing. You can’t possibly do everything in one shot. As for the tea leaf salad contest, my delight was tempered by the fact that my only competitor hadn’t cooked before!:)

  9. Beautiful images. Regarding the special nature of a river cruise. Between the calmness of the river, the changing scenery, and the views that we wouldn’t see from land, I’m with you on that thought.

  10. Get me to that boat immediately! 🙂 🙂 The romance of it all has quite gone to my head and some of your images are so alluring.
    I’m teetering at the minute, Madhu. I’ve always gone to the Algarve without benefit of t’Internet, and I love the switch off from the world, but this time our new neighbours had Wifi and we had the use of it 😦 On the occasional evening at home it had it’s uses.

  11. Oh, wonderful, Madhu! The footbridge photo is especially strong to me. I wanted to be inside it, or maybe to eat it or something! 😉

  12. Looks like a very nice trip Madhu. Burma has always been on my TTT list. One day. pagoda overload? Quite understandable. I suffer from chronic Aztec/Maya temple overload. 😉

  13. As you always do, you transport me. Oh to be a anything small to sit on your shoulder. Madhu, this was a wonderful trip, beautiful pictures and has added to my already far to long bucket list.

  14. Life has gone a little nuts on me the last few weeks; otherwise I would have commented sooner on your lovely post. Can’t wait to see this fascinating country for myself!

  15. Beautiful pictures!! We wanted to go on the cruise but it was summer and the water levels were too low. I’m glad to at least get a glimpse of what it may have been.

  16. Thanks Madhu. Always a joy to know about different places through your writings and images. I hadn’t ‘visited’ you in a while.. will try to catch up on all that I missed 🙂

  17. Radiant pagodas view is mind-blowing. How many are there? They kind of look like mushrooms after the rain. This is a different look of your page. (I have been away for too long), very different, but lovely.

  18. Madhu…another marvelous post. I’m jealous you get to “avail” yourself of discounts on things like boat trips. I’m so glad you posted this, because I’m planning a trip to Myanmar next month and I thought ddoing a boat trip would be cool. I’m hoping there are shorter trips, and I’m also hoping I don’t have to take a tour. When I went down the Nile, I simply left the tour guide and wandered about the ruins on my own. Is the photo of the “radiant pagodas” of Bagan taken from Tan Kyi?

    1. Thank you very much BF. Guess I got lucky 😉

      No, the sunset view is from lvl four of Shwesandaw pagoda. I think the ban on climbing the pagoda has been repealed, but cross check your options with your hotel. Be warned, it is jam packed with sun worshippers usually. Any that isn’t might score on the atmosphere, but will not have quite the same view. (The reason my dawn photos do not have balloons soaring over the main cluster of pagodas. It was magical nevertheless.)

      1. Did you WANT a photo with a balloon? I’m actually thinking of doing a balloon ride…but…are they like really expensive?

  19. OH MY GOD what ambitious trip! I am BLOWN AWAY by these photos! I am TOTALLY Transported! I may need bug spray…

  20. Madhu, it’s clear that you saw much more of Myanmar than Bama and I did on our trip. The places you visited between Mandalay and Yangon sound so enticing – I imagine the Pyu capital did not attract the same number of crowds as Bagan and Inle Lake. As Bama mentioned, our lucky streak with the weather ended in Mandalay and we spent much of that time stuck indoors. It looks like we’ll have to embark on a similar river cruise the next time we go!

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