As the sun continues to rise over the Ayeyarwady River, it’s impossible not to notice the handful of oblong shapes slowly drifting through the frigid morning air.
Unsure of what I was seeing, or even if my sleep deprived eyes had finally reached the point of non-function, I sat up in my chair and peered out from the deck of the Mandalay Ferry I was on.
Squinting into the distance, it quickly became clear what I was seeing…
At this point, sleep deprived really was a total understatement. After arriving in Mandalay at 5am via the No Sleep express, I was lucky enough to find a taxi driver to quickly take me to the ferry dock. Though, because the front of the cab was all filled up with mystery items, I had to hop into the back of a completely open truck bed.
But really, I was just thankful that we were on our way with plenty of time before the ferry’s 7am departure.
I just hoped that tickets were still available. Missing out on the day train from Yangon meant that I also had to skip the hotel I had booked in Mandalay, who was going to organize my ferry ticket.
So, no hotel = no ferry ticket.
In my overanxious sleep deprived head, I was already imagining arriving at the ferry docks only to be told that they were sold out. Or that there just wasn’t a ferry that day. Or a fill-in-the blank problem that would leave me to figure out how the heck I was actually going to make it to Bagan that day.
All that worrying ended up being completely misplaced though, as there was still plenty of availability once I arrived at the MGRG Express “dock”.
Sure, at $40 USD per person, the Mandalay Ferry is more than double the cost of traveling to Bagan via either train or bus, and the 8 hour trip is still about 1-2 hours longer. Even a 30 minute domestic flight only costs around $20 more.
But you know what? Cruising lazily down the Ayeyarwady River, all while drifting in and out of sleep, sounded pretty good to me. Add in the fact that both breakfast and lunch are included with each ticket and I was pretty much sold.
By the time our 7am departure had rolled around, the Mandalay ferry was pretty much filled with passengers. Like me, most had skipped the warmer enclosed lower deck and instead chose the wide open chilly views above.
Each firm wicker lounging chair had been draped with a soft colorful blanket – a requirement to help take the sting out of the morning air.
After that bone rattling train ride, this was pretty much paradise.
Pulling away from shore, our Mandalay ferry began its route downstream, puttering past large shipping vessels and other freighters.
Soon enough the lineup of other ships begins to disappear and the urban buildings along the shoreline transforms into hillsides sprayed with glimmering pagodas.
Thankfully, it was around this time that the breakfast boxes were passed out. Each contained a couple of pastries, a banana, and a hardboiled egg.
Not exactly what I would call fancy. But after ingesting nothing but beer and junk food the previous day, this was good eats.
Having gobbled up my breakfast box, and with nothing all that interesting to view from the deck of our Mandalay Ferry, I figured now was as good a time as any to hunker down and take a nap.
4 hours later, I was awoken by one of the ferry attendants.
“Excuse me sir. What do you want for lunch…?”
The choices were fried rice or noodles with chicken. Being the noodle lover that I am, I chose accordingly and was happily surprised by a big pile of hot food, complete with plenty of veggies mixed in (not all that common in Myanmar).
Scarfing down my meal, I looked out at the terrain to see a completely changed landscape. No more pagodas or houses or even buildings for that matter. Just wide open fields, with the only sign of life being the occasional tented campsite.
After a few more hours of slow and steady cruising, the tips of ancient pagodas could be seen peering up over the cliffs – a clear indication that we had reached Bagan.
Pulling closer to one of the long stretches of shoreline, a large crowd of locals had clustered up, awaiting our arrival. No dock or any other infrastructure was present for passengers to disembark. Instead, our ferry just pulled up as close as it could to shore and the operators bridged the watery gap by putting down a large wooden plank with handcrafted railing.
Doing my best to avoid face-planting in the mud, I stepped off the walkway and was immediately swarmed by the waiting locals, asking if I needed a taxi, or a room, or just help carrying my bags.
Like many of the operators looking to take advantage of the large influx of tourists in Myanmar, the taxi cab drivers here are absolute sharks. Luckily I had heard all about these guys beforehand and was able to negotiate a shared ride to my hotel for 5,000 Kyat (around $4 USD) per person, down from an initial offer of 20,000 ($16 USD)!
As my taxi pulled away, I couldn’t help but think about how great an experience I had had with MGRG. Coming off one of the most uncomfortable travel experiences of my life, I wanted nothing more than some peaceful relaxation and real food.
This Mandalay ferry delivered all of this, along with some stretches of amazing views. Hard to ask for much more.