MANDALAY, 14 February 2019: You could call it a lifetime dream to pack an overnight bag and board the slow river boat to Bagan to immerse in the fascinating life that unfolds on the banks of Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady River.
Usually called the Irrawaddy by foreigners, the river flows through the heartland of Myanmar’s ancient heritage with the most popular cruises plying the almost legendary stretch of water between Mandalay and Bagan.
Tap in the search words “cruises Irrawaddy” and the 12 best cruises pop up on Tour Radar a comparison site that does on the ground what Skyscanner achieves in the air.
Colourful narratives usually penned by writers who are enjoying a freebie in return for positive prose usually omit some basic practical matters. Just how much time and hard-earned cash can you spare for the river odyssey? The cruises could drain the wallet dry and wipe out your annual vacation days in one foul swoop.
Of the 12 best deals on river cruises from a starting point near Mandalay the selection is limited to just a handful of short three-day/two-night sailings if you are time starved.
Apparently the popular options will slow-boat you along this grand river for an amazing 11 days with just three itineraries on offer that give you river life for a mere three to five days. There goes the long weekend idea, the perfect getaway from urban dwellers in Singapore and Bangkok.
Belmond Road to Mandalay is definitely the top option, if you can find booking dates that are still open. Most of the cruises on this luxury river cruise line are booked solid for six to eight months in advance.
The lead-in two-night, three-day river cruise between Mandalay and Bagan costs USD1,200 per person. It’s a full-board trip that promises sumptuous dining and shore trips that will inspire.
The cruise price drops a few notches to USD725 if you book the three-day cruise on RV Zawgyi Pandaw.
The third option, in the three-day cruise category, is on offer from Metta Cruises on a no-name “local” boat that will set you back USDD427 per person.
The majority of the top 12 cruise options are eight to 11 days in duration with RV Orient Pandaw standing out for its value for money features on an eight-day cruise costing USD1,829.
Pandaw was the original river cruise operator in Myanmar but competition today is tough with more luxury boats including one from the Strand Hotel Yangon grabbing attention.
On the popular sailings from Mandalay to Bagan the signature shore trip focuses on the ancient pagoda landscape of Old Bagan on the morning of the second sailing day.
All of the cruise operators tell you can book a bicycle, or horse and cart, to tour through Bagan’s pagoda complex or you can opt to soar into the sunrise on a hot air balloon ride for bird’s eye view if you pay extra.
The cruises also offer an opportunity to explore Mingun and wander through local markets or perhaps enjoy the sights of the spiritual summit of Sagaing Hills, with a stop for an iconic photo shoot at U Bein Bridge.
At dawn on the second morning the river boat presents the first glimpse of Bagan’s famous pagodas on a stretch of the Irrawaddy where a fleet of bamboo rafts and working vessels are loading up with supplies rice, fruits, fresh vegetables and agricultural products.
All the cruise boats end their itineraries on the morning of the third day with a breakfast and a transfer to a hotel in Bagan town, or to the airport at Nyaung-U for flights to Mandalay or Yangon.
Having shelled out between USD700 to USD1,200 for the luxury cruise to Bagan that leaves the roundtrip fare to Mandalay to figure out.
The direct flight options from Mandalay to cities in Southeast Asia are sparse with services to just Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Singapore. There are direct flights to six cities in China including Kunming in Yunnan province, which is a key gateway city in the Mekong Region. Rround trip fares from Kunming to Mandalay start at THB7,392 (USD236).
The best deal out of Bangkok is on Thai AirAsia with a roundtrip fare of THB5,517 (USD177) for a daily direct flight to Mandalay that takes one-hour and 45 minutes from Don Meuang Airport.
Bangkok Airways offers a daily flight to Mandalay from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport for THB6,041 (USD194) roundtrip.
The airline also offers a direct flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay on four days of the week (Sunday, Monday. Wednesday and Friday). The roundtrip fare starts at THB6,932 (USD222).
From Singapore, Silk Air offers a service to Mandalay that makes a stop in Yangon on the outbound leg but flies direct from Mandalay on the return leg. It flies only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and the roundtrip fares start at USD629.
For Singapore residents it probably makes more sense, after completing the river cruise in Bagan, to fly to Yangon to connect with a low-cost flight home on Jetstar, departing 1935, rather than backtracking to Mandalay. The lowest one-way fare is USD82.