Myanmar is one of the new cool travel destinations. A place that certainly will not disappoint you. One of the most memorable trips is to take the slow and shaky train from the city of Mandalay to the northern town of Naba from where a bus goes to the town of Katha where you go on board a large ship for the 16-hour sailing (in your private cabin) down the mighty Ayeyarwady River back to Mandalay. It’s a great trip as the boat stops at many villages along the way.
Boating down the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River sounds like Myanmar’s version of The Love Boat. It could be, but it certainly is not what I have in mind. But let’s first look at the river.
This river is big. It flows from its sources in the Himalayan glaciers of Upper Myanmar all the way south through the Ayeyarwady Delta and into the Andaman Sea. A distance of about 2,170 km. The river is home to the endangered Ayeyarwady dolphin and the Ayeyarwady river shark. The delta near the Andaman Sea is fertile and home to many species including the sambar deer, wild boar, Asian elephants, leopard, Bengal tiger, crab-eating macaque, wild dog, otters, saltwater crocodiles and many exotic animals.
Let’s get back to the boat. A large China-built passenger boat drifts down the Ayeyarwady River fairly regularly but infrequently from Myitkyina in the northern Kachin State down south to Mandalay. You can board the boat in Myitkyina, the most northern town on this route, or a bit downstream at Bhamo or further down at Katha (Myitkyina and Bhamo are often suspended). Getting to the point of boarding is challenging. Expensive flights go from Yangon or Mandalay to Myitkyina or Bhamo. However, boarding at Katha requires a long and bumpy bus or train ride from Mandalay. This is where the fun starts!
Book your train ticket a few days in advance from Mandalay to the village of Naba. This very interesting but bumpy train ride normally takes about 12 hours which means you will arrive in Naba at around 3 am. At the train station an old bus should be waiting to take the passengers on a 45 min ride (23 km) east to the town of Katha. Once you arrive in town, take a tricycle taxi to one of the three old shabby guest houses near the river. Choose among the Ayarwaddy Guest House, Eden Guest House and the New Diamond Hotel. The first two are extremely shabby while the latter is a tidbit better. Regard yourself lucky if you can board the big boat on the same day.
As you board the boat and settle down in your private, but basic, cabin, you will be delighted to leave the scruffy town of Katha. Once the boat pulls away from the ferry docks, the fun starts. That is if you remembered to buy snacks and a big bottle of Myanmar Rum. I promise you will need it during the long night on the boat!
As the sun sets over the Ayeyarwady, it’s time to buy a cold coke from the little shop on board and pull out your rum. Soon you will have several friends around you and as the boat ever so slowly drifts down the Ayeyarwady, so you and your friends will empty the bottle, and eat all your snacks.
Wake up early in the morning with a slight headache and watch as the boat continues its drift past many small villages with hordes of excited residents congregating to welcome the boat. Wave, take photos, smile. You are the main attraction because foreigners are scarce in this part of Myanmar.
The boat will come to a standstill a stone-throw away from the shore as it stops at a couple of villages along the route. Villagers will quickly place a few planks between the river’s muddy edge and the boat to let passengers get on and off. The village ladies will wade waist deep into the river to get close up to the boat to sell their wares. When you make eye contact, some fruits will fly through the air into your waiting hands, at which time you are expected to float down the money. Almost hard to resist the fruits… While they are not of great quality, they sure are cheap and the ladies are in dire need of some cash. Go ahead. Float down the money.
The exciting journey continues until you eventually reach Mandalay.