A great variety of boats – from creaky old government-run ferries to luxurious private cruise ships – ply Myanmar's waterways.
In addition to the rivers, it's possible to travel along the Bay of Bengal between Sittwe and Taunggok (north of Ngapali Beach).
Myanma Five Star Line, the government-owned ocean transport enterprise, is only cargo now, but you can try to see about jumping on a boat to Thandwe, Taunggok or Sittwe, or south to Dawei, Myeik or Kawthoung, at some point in the future.
Inland Water Transport (IWT; www.iwt.gov.mm) boats offer basic levels of comfort and are often ramshackle and crowded, but they provide remarkable glimpses into local river life. Some of the passengers on the long-distance ferries are traders who make stops along the way to pick up or deliver goods.
Along the heavily trafficked 262-mile-long Yangon–Pyay–Mandalay route there are 28 ferry landings where merchants can ply their trade. IWT offices, usually located near the jetty, can offer information, schedules and fare details, and usually tickets (officially, the offices accept US dollars only).
Some short trips are handled by small covered wooden ferries that fit about 25 people. Often there are also smaller private boats that you can negotiate with the driver to use. Private boat services are listed whenever possible. However, because of their size, riding on private boats isn't always as safe as riding on bigger government ferries.
Several luxury boats travel the upper and lower reaches of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River as well as the Chindwin River. Rates usually include all meals and excursions from the boats. The starting point for most trips is either Bagan or Mandalay, but occasionally itineraries originate in Yangon.
Amara Cruise Owned by a German and his Myanmar wife, this company runs cruises between Mandalay and Bagan (four days, three nights single/double from €2045/2614). There's also the option of a six-night Mandalay–Bhamo cruise. Its two medium-sized teak boats each have seven comfy cabins and are traditionally styled but recently built.
Avalon Waterways You'll spend 10 nights sailing between Bagan and Bhamo aboard the 18–state room Avalon Myanmar, built in 2015. The basic itinerary (from US$4349 per person) starts and finishes in Yangon – note airfares for getting to and from the cruise portion of the trip are extra.
Pandaw Cruises Offers various high-end cruises aboard a replica of the teak-and-brass IFC fleet, such as a 10-night trip between Yangon and Mandalay (single/double from US$2859/5718) and a 20-day itinerary that charts the Chindwin and upper reaches of the Ayeyarwady River (single/double US$7055/14,110). New since 2016 is its cruise from Ranong in southern Myanmar via the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago to Yangon.
Paukan Cruises Beautifully restored river steamers are used for this company's trips, which range from one night between Mandalay and Bagan (single/twin from US$380/870) to 10-day itineraries including sights along the Chindwin River (single/twin US$4175/9600).
Road to Mandalay These luxury cruises are run by the operators of the Orient Express and range between two and 12 nights on two boats. The Road to Mandalay, a 43-berth liner that is huge by Ayeyarwady standards, includes an on-board swimming pool and wellness centre. In high season it does mostly Bagan–Mandalay, but there are occasional trips to Bhamo, too. The newer, four-deck Orcaella has 25 cabins and also has a small top-deck pool, a fitness and wellness centre, and boutique. Three-day/two-night cruises start at US$660 per person.
Sanctuary Ananda Launched in 2014, this sleek Myanmar-built craft offers 20 suites spread over three decks. There's a small plunge pool on the top deck and a spa/gym inside. Itineraries range from the three-day Bagan–Mandalay route (from UK£714 per person) to the 11 nights sailing between Mandalay and Yangon or Mandalay and Bhamo (both from UK£2989 per person).
The Strand Cruise Named after its sister property in Yangon, this new luxury boat has 27 en-suite cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows and tiny balconies for full river views. There's a small pool surrounded by sun loungers and complimentary spa treatments during the three- or four-night cruises between Mandalay and Bagan (or vice versa).
Viking River Cruises This British operator runs the Viking Mandalay, refurbished in 2013, on its two-week Myanmar Explorer itinerary originating in Bangkok, with flights to Yangon and then onto Inle Lake and Mandalay where you board the boat for a trip downriver as far as Sale. Rates start around UK£5569 per person.