Destination: The Government ‘Slow Boat’ to Bagan
Number of days spent: 36 long hours
Where we stayed: On the cold, hard, wooden floor of the boat deck. Accompanying us in our humble, makeshift accommodations were several hungry mosquitoes and the sounds of two yelping dogs (after one escaped and swam to shore).
Best Restaurant: The cook on the boat was actually probably the best or one of the best we encountered in Burma. Every day she did a set veggie meal with soup, rice & 1-2 kinds of veggies (with toppings like chilis, peanuts, etc). We had a terrific green colored bean salad. Sadly I have no idea what it was called. All veggie meals 1,000 kyat ($1).
Best of: It was a bonding experience with the locals
Worst of: The sleeping accommodations were probably the worst of our trip so far.
Most memorable: Let’s just say we will never forget the entire trip.
Useful Tip: Do not take the slow boat in the dry season. Enough said.
Rejected bills: 2
Tip number one that your journey is going to take longer than expected: they claim it will be shorter. On the official sheet it read: “Depart Mandalay 04:30”, “Arrive Bagan 21:00” with the 21:00 crossed out and replaced with 18:00. I chuckled a little inside thinking to myself, what could have possibly changed that would make the trip 3 hours faster!?! To top that off, two more American bills were rejected bringing our unofficial tally to 9 rejected bills. Once again, the man inside was really friendly, much like the ticket man for the government ran train, and after a couple of minutes we were away with the tickets.
Below is a timeline account of our time aboard the Government ran ferry boat to Bagan.
Day 1, 3:30 am
- Depart from hotel. Wyn Wyn, our Blue taxi driver from a couple of days before and who we spoke with daily, surprised us by taking us personally instead of the cabbie we had talked to the night before to the jetty.
Day 1, 3:45 am
- After saying our good-bye’s we staked out a couple of chairs up top calculating where the sunrise would be coming from.
- First surprise of the day: there is an actual tour group getting on and they have ‘reserved’ all of front row seats on one side.
Day 1, 4:50 am
- Boat departs 20 minutes late
- All in all, there are nearly 30 foreigners on board, far more than we anticipated.
- Locals number around double that for a total of around 100 passengers
- Price of oranges – 3 times the normal rate.
Day 1, 5:45 am
- Boat gets stuck on a sandbar in Sagaing
- Sagaing is a 30 minute taxi ride from Mandalay
- Boat tries for the next hour trying to unlodge itself without assistance
Day 1, around 7:00 am
- Two men jump into the frigid water; one with a bamboo pole and the other with a log attempting to create some sort of leverage to assist the boat off the sand.
- The efforts fail in dislodging the boat.
- After two hours of multiple attempts, the men, freezing, give up
Day 1, 9:30 am
- After multiple sounds of the SOS signal and several ships passing; another boat finally pulls over
- The boat, powered by one long tail style motor unsuccessfully tries to pull us out but is certainly a step up from two men and a log. (Note their ‘bilge’ pump – a man constantly pumping by hand)
- Italian tour group, rare cell phone in hand, start to loose patience and begin making other plans.
Day 1, 1:00 pm
- A tugboat finally arrives & pulls us off the sandbar!
Day 1, 1:10 pm
- Boat pulls up to the shore in Sagaing & Italian tour group flees along with the cell phone
- Total cost of their trip to Bagan from Mandalay per person (including hired rescue bus): $95
- A handful of locals also depart – perhaps they know something we don’t?
Day 1, 2:00 pm
- We’re on our way again!
Day 1, 3:00 pm
- Boat gets stuck on another sandbar
- So successful the first time, the men jump back into the water to begin trying to dislodge the boat with a bamboo pole and a log with the same results as the first time
Day 1, 5:45 pm
- Monks inform us that we will be overnighting on the boat & that a tugboat will arrive first thing in the morning to pull us out
- They set up a phone in the interior cabin and charge people by the minute to make calls – they even have a business sign
- A small group of 2 French and 2 Germans contact their travel agent and arrange for a boat to come and pick them up also
Day 2, 2:30 am
- A splashing sound awakens us all from our restless sleep
- The boat for the group of 2 French & 2 Germans arrived, but while boarding 1 falls into the water & loses his glasses; they decide it’s not safe to take the small boat to shore in the dark & stay on the big boat for the night
Day 2, 6:30 am
- The sun rises & the promised tugboat does not appear
- The best English speaking monk gets on his own rescue boat along with another handful of locals that are going to villages close by
Day 2, 7:30 am
- The rest of the monks & half of the locals flee on a small boat
- Along with them goes the phone – our last lines of communication
- The only bit of good news is that the yelping puppies stuffed in a basket that cried the whole night got off the boat as well
Day 2, 7:30 am
- Our boat is now half empty
- price of oranges – regular price (or barter as we did, a small handful of cashews equaled 2 oranges)
Day 2, 9:00 am
- All 18 remaining foreigners & the 4 locals who tried selling us blankets (one of which speaks a little English) negotiate a small boat to take us to Nyuang U (Bagan) for 100,000
- Cheers and jubilation ensue
Day 2, 9:10 am
- Boat drivers pulls off to the shore and informs group that the price has went up to 200,000 kyat
- The local women on board fight for us but to no avail….
- He then decides that he only wants to go about halfway to Bagan, for 70,000K and from there you can catch a bus
- Debate immediately ensues with roughly half of the foreigners wanting to pay whatever it takes and the other half wanting to go back to the big boat and find an honest boat driver or at least negotiate a fair price to take us the rest of the way
- Meanwhile, the tugboat appears and begins working on dislodging the ferry
Day 2, 10:15 am
- The small boat driver, unwilling to budge on the made up price takes the small boat back to the ferry
- After threatening to not go at all, one foreigner gravels and begs (literally on hands and knees) until he decides that he will take them halfway for 70,000K
- 5 foreigners get off the small boat & back onto the original boat (us included)
- price of oranges – free (but none of us took any)
- Cost of getting to Bagan for the other 13 foreigners per person: we never got a straight answer but somewhere in the range of $30-$35 + $10 entrance fee to Bagan)
Day 2, 10:15 am – 11:30 am
- Tugboat tries to pull the boat out of the sand
- Word spreads around the boat of our heroically defiant stance on the fleecing that was about to occur
- We are showered with gifts of candy, bread and biscuits
Day 2, 11:30 am
- Boat is free but is pointed in the wrong direction; starts motoring back towards Mandalay
Day 2, 11:45 am
- Pulls over to the shore to take on more fuel, still pointed in the wrong direction
Day 2, 12:30 pm
- A a wide spans in the river, the captain feels this is a good place to turn around; with about 500 meters to play with he chooses about 50 meters from the shore to give it a go.
- Boat gets stuck for a 3rd time while turning around! Three men jump into the water to swim to the next village to get help (remember, the monks took the phone and the boat has no way to communicate)
Day 2, 1:10 pm
- Captain, doing one thing right, flags down a passing boat; the remaining 5 foreigners hire a small boat for 10,000 kyat to take us back to Sagaing
- We receive parting gifts of apples.
- We offer to take the remaining 20 or so locals with us on our boat, but they are true diehards
- The phrase “by hell or high water” has new meaning in my life
Day 2, 2:00 pm
- Arrive in Sagaing
- Happy to be back on dry land and in a familiar place
Day 2, 2:15 pm
- Catch a taxi to the Mandalay bus station (10,000 kyat for 5 people)
Day 2, 3:15 pm
- Arrive at Mandalay bus station
- They only have 3 regular seats left; two of us have to sit in the ‘jumper’ seats in the middle of the aisle
Day 2, 4:30 pm
- Take bus from Mandalay to Bagan (7,500 kyat per person)
- Of all 48 seats on the bus, I sit down in the one broken one that will not stay up
- For half the ride (and then it’s Tracy’s turn to sit in the ‘nice’ seat) I lean forward
Day 3, 12:00 am
- Arrive in Bagan!
- Total cost for us to get to Bagan per person: $21.50 (since we arrived so late, we were able to avoid the $10 entrance fee!)
- Memories of that fateful journey: priceless