Wednesday, February 18: I get up at the crack of dawn to go to the jetty in Mandalay, where I’m to take the N Maikha Shwe Keinnery ferry down the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan. It’s supposed to be a 10-hour trip. I should have remembered that from when I booked it ahead of time online for $40, but for some reason I’m confused this morning and am expecting a 5-hour trip!
The Korean guy, Peel, who I met yesterday at breakfast, shares a taxi with me; he gets dropped off first at one jetty and then I get dropped 5 minutes later at another. The approach to the boat is a steep dusty embankment and I wonder how on earth I’ll get my suitcase onto the boat. A porter appears to save the day and asks for 1,000 kyat, or $1, to carry the suitcase onto the boat. He hoists it over his head and walks across a rickety gangplank to the boat, with me following.
It’s dark when I board at 6:30 a.m., and my seat is at the very front. I’m one of the first to board, so I get to watch all the European tourists, mainly German and French, get settled. I hear some American women complaining about the sum they had to pay their porter to carry their suitcases on board. The porter is apparently asking for more money than they think they should pay. I paid mine 1,000, which I assume is the asking price, so I’m surprised they’re complaining.
Here’s my view as we get underway at 7:00 a.m.
As the ferry pulls away from the jetty, we can see the sun rising over the river.
Once we’re underway one of the boat crew announces that we can go up to the dining area for breakfast. I already ate some of the boxed breakfast provided by my hotel, but of course I have to take advantage of the breakfast provided on the boat trip. It turns out to be a hard-boiled egg, a piece of toast, and a cup of coffee. After I eat, I go outside to the upper deck to watch the scenery go by.
It isn’t long before we’re passing by Sagaing Hill, where I went on Monday. It’s 7:35, but here we slow down as the boatmen use poles to push the boat along the river. The river is obviously very shallow here. I hope we don’t run aground!
Another ferry approaches us from behind; it seems to be moving faster than we are. They soon pass us by. I wonder if Peel is on that boat.
We cruise under the Sagaing Bridge, and then the Ava Bridge in short order. By this time, I’ve moved from the seat in the enclosed lower level of the boat to the top deck, where I can watch life in Myanmar go by.
I love this kind of slow leisurely travel. I always love to travel by boat — not in a big cruise ship, which doesn’t appeal to me at all, but in small locally owned ferries or boats of any kind.
The landscape bordering the river is flat and the air is hazy. There really isn’t much to see but sandy shores or miles of uninhabited land. I do love looking at the colorful fishing boats, houseboats and commercial barges and tugboats.
I love watching the fishermen or the people cruising down the river in boats, or boat crewmen doing their jobs.
Apparently, Burmese fishermen erect temporary houses when the water levels are low, which they are in February. When the water levels rise, they’ll move their houses to higher land along the river.
We even see some livestock grazing along the riverbank.
It’s a long, lazy day on the boat, but I’m enjoying every minute. I’m able to talk to a number of fellow travelers. We sit in bamboo lounge chairs and watch the river go by and chat about our travels. I meet James and Molly, a couple who are teaching in Yunnan province. James is from Nashville, Tennessee, and Molly is from New York. They have only been dating a short while as they met when they came to China and they don’t even teach in the same town. This is their first trip together. We share a lot of stories of our travels and our lives.
Molly also recommends the Agga Youth Hotel in Yangon. The Germans and Shaun and Sarah had all recommended it when we went to Mingun together, and I booked it when I was in Mandalay. This place must be really great because everyone is recommending it.
I also meet another guy, John, who has been in Beijing for 8 years. He’s trying to start an entertainment company. It’s when I’m talking to him, nearly 5 hours into our trip, that I say “We should be arriving in Bagan soon.” He says, “But the boat ride is 10 hours. We still have a long way to go.” I’m surprised, but then it dawns on me that I do remember something about this. Later I consult my Lonely Planet Myanmar and find the ferry ride is in fact 10 hours!
As it gets hot in the afternoon, I go downstairs where it’s cool to read a while. I’ve brought along The Crazed by Ha Jin, which is good, but not nearly as engaging as his book Waiting, which I adored. I also read in Lonely Planet Myanmar about what I’ll be seeing in Bagan.
The sun starts to sink in the sky. I’ve been on this boat from sunrise to sunset and I’ve loved every minute of it. It reminds me of ancient journeys I’ve read about or seen in movies. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time by 50 or even 100 years. The journey is nostalgic, unhurried, relaxing. Sometimes I think we rush through things too quickly and don’t really savor moments like these.
We can finally see the shoreline at Bagan, with some of its pagodas and temples.
Finally, after what it turns out is closer to a 12-hour journey, we dock at the jetty in Bagan.
At the jetty are a lot of taxis waiting for the tourists to disembark. I find a driver to take me to the Floral Breeze Hotel for 15,000 kyat. I settle in and head outside to the courtyard, where I have a dinner of potato and pumpkin curry for 9,000 kyat. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect day. 🙂