Besides the tourist boat, you can travel by slow local boat, leaving twice a week, Wednesday and Sunday, from Mandalay to Bagan. The fare for tourists is 15 USD and allows you to have a seat in a plastic chair. Locals pay 1 USD.
05:30 - 19:30
There are new quick boat connections between both places that take only 6h. But because of the tense situation and the lack of tourists during my time this offer was closed for this time.
But it is a nice alternative to the bumpy 8h busride, if it gets on schedule again, soon.
Take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan - arriving to a sea of pagodas is spectacular compared to the Bagan to Mandalay boat trip.
The boat trip itself is a wonderful way to see ordinary life along the river. You see numerous pagodas, people farming, fishermen, people bathing in the water and numerous other sights. It is also a time for you to take a break and really reflect on what you see at a leisurely pace.
The seats are quite comfortable but what you will find is that almost immediately after you leave Mandalay people will move to the various decks to take photographs, chat with other passengers or simply to "chill out".
The trip takes about 9-12 hours depending on the season. You leave at 6am. Make sure you organise with your hotel that they provide you with a boxed breakfast. The cost is US$18.00. The boats do not run on a Sunday.
There are two brief stops along the way: one where women sell various fruits and another where women sell blankets. The stops are not enough for anyone to get on board or for you to leave.
Most of the passengers are tourists although you might find some Burmese on board. However, this should not deter you from taking the trip.
When you arrive in Bagan there is an immediate change of pace. You have to climb some steps and you are met by various touts, porters and officials. Be prepared with your passport and US $10.00 the fee to see the Bagan sights.
[Note: There is no boat on a Sunday during the Monsoon season.]
See also the article on the Air Mandalay site: http://www.airmandalay.com/english/current.php
The best way to get to Bagan is by boat. The arrival is breathtaking and comes like a blessing after a full day on the boat.
Around 10 USD one way. Ask you guest house in Mandalay to purchase the ticket. Usual commission is 1 USD but save you a lot of time and useless stress