The road distance from Mandalay to Bagan is 180km. Buses cover it is less than five hours; trains need at least 7; and flying whisks you to the beautiful ancient pagodas in a mere hour. To add flavour to your journey, consider taking a boat from Mandalay to Bagan or detouring to Monywa which makes for a great out-of-the-beaten-track stop. If you are a rail travel buff, read carefully our notes below before buying your train ticket.
Flights from Mandalay to Bagan
The airport serving Bagan is located in Nyaung U. There are over half a dozen daily flights between Mandalay and Nyaung U airport operated by a handful of domestic airlines. The first flight of the day departs Mandalay at 8am and the last one – before 6pm. Regardless this sufficient offer, there is no competition as far as prices are concerned. Air tickets in Myanmar are nowhere to be cheap and low-cost operators still have to come to the country. Expect your Mandalay–Bagan flight to set you back from USD100 and up. During low season there are promotional fares but these ones are only 20%-30% lower than regular tickets.
But anyway, the panorama over the temples of Bagan from aboard a plane is terrific – not only it compensates partly the cost of the air ticket; it also allows you to save on hot air balloon adventure.
It takes one hour to reach Bagan from Mandalay by plane, but the stretch between the two cities is probably one of the most picturesque and can be done by boat, too – see below. So if you can spend some time on an overland journey, skip flying in this very case.
Bagan airport is located in Nyaung U, east of New and Old Bagan. The airport facilities are limited and do not include ATMs or exchange service – ensure you have enough local currency at hand. Taxi drivers at the airport ask between MMK5,000 and MMK8,000 for destinations in Nyaung U, New & Old Bagan. If you book your accommodation with one of the midrange or top hotels, check if they provide free transfer from the airport – many of them do.
Note You have to pay the entrance fee to Bagan Archaeological Zone right at the airport. You will not be let out of the terminal building without your Bagan ticket. Ticket costs MMK25,000/USD22. If by some chance you do exit without paying, you will be asked to pay at your hotel or guesthouse as the owners register ticket numbers at check-in.
From Mandalay to Bagan by bus
Mandalay has at least three large bus stations. To catch a bus to Bagan from Mandalay, head to the Highway Bus station, aka Chan Mya Shwe Pyi. As the overwhelming majority of bus stations in Myanmar it is located a good deal away from the centre – about 8km south.
There are regular departures to Bagan throughout the day operated by a variety of companies. Both prices and quality of service differ tremendously: you can hop onto a local cheapie with wooden benches and ceiling fans or opt for a more comfy air-con coach (approximately MMK8,000/USD6).
Again, as it is often the case in Myanmar, you can find quite weirdly timed departures, e.g. buses leaving Mandalay late in the evening after 9pm and arriving to Bagan after midnight. Do not be surprised as it is a very common thing in Myanmar – God knows why.
Bagan bus station is located next to its railway station, also in Nyaung U. Tuk-tuk drivers meet all the arriving buses, but if you want to save a couple of bucks, use shared taxis (MMK2,000) or exit the bus station, walk to the highway and flag down a car or a tuk-tuk to your destination, be it Old Bagan, New Bagan or Nyaung U (from MMK5,000).
From Mandalay to Bagan by train
Yes, it is possible to get from Mandalay to Bagan by train. There are, though, a couple of things to take a note of.
Note 1. There are two daily trains between Mandalay and Bagan: the night train #120 which departs Mandalay at 9pm and brings you to Bagan early the next morning by 5am, completing the route in less than 8 hours, and the day train #118, which leaves at 7.20am and reaches Bagan by 7pm, taking thus almost 12 hours.
Note 2. Train #120 used to have ordinary class seats and first class seats, but recently Myanmar Railways reported they had upgraded certain trains, #120 included, and now it has upper class seats, too. This still has to be confirmed – if you travel this route, let us know.
Train #118 offers ordinary class seats only. There are no sleepers in either train.
In terms of comfort first class seats do not differ much from ordinary seats – they have padded bottom seat but it does not help too much. Upper class seats are a step forward – they are soft reclining seats and are obviously a much better choice for loner journeys.
From Mandalay to Bagan by boat
Unless you are very short of time, we seriously recommend you to consider this option. Travelling from Mandalay to Bagan by boat is an adventure in itself. Depending on how much you are ready to invest, you can choose between ordinary commuter ferryboats (USD10) to more luxurious and speedy options (up to USD50). It is possible to travel between the two in the both directions – upstream or downstream. For more information and our personal experience about taking a boat along the Irrawaddy River read our Bagan–Mandalay cruise article.
Tip Using local ferries you can get from Mandalay as far as Yangon. Local ferries and luxury cruises travel from Mandalay to Bagan and some local ferries proceed further to Pyay where you have to change onto another boat bringing you up to Yangon.
Detouring to Monywa
There is a nice detour you can consider while travelling from Mandalay to Bagan. 130 km west of Mandalay lies Monywa. Very few visitors make it till here though the city can be easily reached by bus from both Mandalay and Bagan.
Whilst even the most tourist inhabited areas in Myanmar still feel very authentic, Monywa is a quintessentially Burmese place with locals living their daily lives without thinking much about catering to the needs of the guests what is actually fantastic.
Golden pagodas of Monywa, especially its glittering Shwezigon Paya, are spectacular, but the two main attractions both not far from the city are a stunning Buddha ‘skyscraper’, Bodhi Tataung, towering 130 m high 20 km southeast of Monywa and a vast complex of cave temples about 10 km west of the western banks of the Chindwin River, Pho Wing Taung and Shwe Bataung. The latter is even dubbed Burmese Petra, and though we wouldn’t go that far, the caves with endless stone niches, murals and Buddhas are very impressive.
It takes around 3 hours to get from Mandalay to Monywa by bus; a bit longer – up to 4 hours – from Monywa to Bagan (170 km). To Continue your trip to Bagan you can take a bus from Monywa to Pakkoku – they depart more often than Monywa–Bagan buses and take about 3 hours. From Pakkoku there are slow ferries to Nyaung U. It takes an hour to reach the environs of Bagan by boat and costs MMK1,000/USD1 only but foreigners are usually overcharged: expect to pay – to be asked to pay – around MMK5,000/USD5.
Why travel to Bagan
Well, it is not a secret that people come to this temple heavyweight exactly for temples. You are going to see plenty of them: small and big, inconspicuous and highly imposing, abandoned and full of worshippers. You will have temples for breakfast while trying to catch the best sunrise view of Bagan from the white Thatbyinnyu pagoda; you will have more temples for lunch while counting countless bumps with your bum in a horse cart touring the sights; and obviously another helping of temples at sunset – this time desperately climbing Shwesandaw pagoda; and finally temples again for dinner, this time dining really at one of the modest restaurants with its own paya in the yard. To sum it up – be ready for a serious temple overdose!
Onward travel from Bagan
If Bagan is your last port of call out of the Big Four group, you can easily get back to Yangon from there. There is one daily train to Yangon, a good choice of flights and all day bus departures.
Travelling east to Inle Lake rely on direct buses and flights. You can also travel to Inle Lake via Kalaw: take a bus to Kalaw, spend a day in the town and continue your journey to the Lake by bus or train. Or better take a two-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake – it is a highlight of any journey to Myanmar!
For destinations southeast of Yangon including Thaton, Hpa-An, Mawlamyine, Myawaddy, Ye and Dawei connect via Yangon.
For Mrauk U or Sittwe connect via Magwe.
There is no direct service to Ngapali Beach (Thandwe): instead take a bus to Pyay and from Pyay to Thandwe or fly via Yangon. There are direct flights from Yangon to Thandwe (one hour; from USD110).