Bagan and Irrawaddy River Tour
There is nothing quite like the spectacular view across the temples of the Bagan plains that emerge majestically from the verdant landscape like a palatial forest of stone as far as the eye can see. Very recently made an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Bagan archaeological zone lies in Upper Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, on a bend of the Irrawaddy River. Bagan is an absolute must if planning a visit to Myanmar, and conveniently included as part of most cruise itineraries on the Irrawaddy.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries, the ancient city of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan, which later became modern day Myanmar. Over 10,000 Theravada Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built there in an exquisite exhibition of ancient Burmese craftsmanship, architectural design and artistry. Since then, many have been devastatingly ravaged by earthquakes and the cruelty of time, but nearly a quarter of these beautiful structures still stand.
It's a good idea to narrow down your to-see list to a manageable handful of temples to explore, as the site is 104 km2 (40 square miles)! Try and get to a mix of large and small temples as they differ enormously in style and atmosphere. The white temple of Thatbyinnyu (meaning 'omniscience') is the tallest at 61 meters, and you'll love the pagoda of Ananda, whose four soaring gold Buddha statues will take your breath away. Built by King Anawrahta in 1057, the terraced Shwesandaw Pagoda provides heart-stopping views - for a different backdrop head to one of the riverside stupas. Bu Paya Pagoda is a good bet as the cooling breeze from the Irrawaddy gives a welcome respite from the heat. Wear shoes you can slip off as you'll be required to walk barefoot in the temples. Oh, and you should remember to dress conservatively, with clothing that covers shoulders and knees.
This stunning waterway starts and ends within Myanmar and is its longest and most important river, flowing a full 1,348 miles (2,170 km) before draining into the Andaman Sea. The Irrawaddy is the country's fundamental transport and trade link. It emerges in the northern mountains and passes through the dry zone of the Mandalay and Magway regions to the fertile delta complex in the south, winding up in the Andaman Sea. Every conceivable trade good traverses the heartland of Myanmar via the Irrawaddy. The best way to explore Myanmar is without a doubt by water as the roads can be perilous! At Rainforest Cruises, we have plenty of Irrawaddy cruises to choose from. The magical tranquility of waking early and watching the sunrise over pagoda-peppered banks from the upper deck of one of our cruise boats is an experience that cannot be matched!
Traveling through Myanmar via the river Irrawaddy will give you a unique and privileged aural tapestry of all aspects of the country's day-to-day life; From the hypnotic chanting of Buddhist monks at dawn, the serene rattle of the farmer's ox and yoke, the raucous cacophony of town markets, the noiseless bamboo rafts drifting downriver to the sputtering river craft upstream.
Visually, you'll be hard pushed to take it all in, but make sure you keep your eyes on the water too as you might be able to spot the beautiful and critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphin! Myanmar is fortunate to have one of the few remaining stable populations in all of Southeast Asia. The river hosts a remarkably diverse ecosystem with about 200 species of fish (most of which can be found nowhere else in the world). The greater Irrawaddy Delta is an important region for wildlife as it is home to charismatic megafauna such as Asian elephants (the closest living creature in existence to the long extinct wooly mammoth), leopards, Bengal tigers, wild boar, a vast number of birds, and even some species of sea turtle.
A Tour of Bagan and the Irrawaddy River
When planning your Irrawaddy cruise you'll need to decide which direction to travel on the river. If you go upstream, you'll start your cruise at Bagan and sail up to Mandalay, whereas the downstream option is reversed. We recommend allowing a day or two extra at Bagan. This can be before or after your cruise, depending on your chosen direction route in order to fully explore the site. Options for visiting the temple complex include horse cart, bicycle or even aboard a hot air balloon. Certainly a lifetime photo opportunity!
The prime travel period for visitors to Myanmar is between November and February when the climate is cooler and humidity levels lower. But if you'd rather a cheaper trip opt for the shoulder season - March to May. This time is hotter but still a dry time of year to head to the Irrawaddy and you'll find less tourists about. This can be a blessing amongst the temples of Bagan, but beware of the high temperatures and plan your days there accordingly to not wear yourself out! The rainy season might not seem ideal for a river cruise, but the higher water levels can unlock parts of the waterway that can't usually be visited. For example, the only time of year for a cruise along the Chindwin River, the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy, is when river levels are at their highest in the summer. Have a look at our Myanmar Travel Guide for more tips before planning your visit. Please show your interest in Bagan and Irrawaddy River Tours by sending us an enquiry or calling 1-888-215-3555.