Bagan sits only 180 km southwest of Mandalay, but travelling overland will take you a good deal of time. Buses are the fastest means of land transport – they need 5 hours to reach Bagan. Trains cover the same route in 7–12 hours, while a boat trip, though also takes time – up to 10 hours – is quite picturesque. Flights are costly but deliver you to your destination in less than one hour.
Flights from Bagan to Mandalay
The major disappointment about flying within Myanmar is the cost of the air tickets. Regardless quite a decent offer – there is about half a dozen daily flights operated by different companies between the two destinations – prices remain high. When you compare the domestic airfare in Myanmar to that of some of the neighbouring countries – e.g. Thailand with its great choice of low-cost airlines with tickets from as low as USD25 on certain routes –you will want to cry.
To get a seat on a Bagan–Mandalay flight be ready to depart with USD100 and up. You can sometimes grab a promotion ticket if travelling during the low season, but it will not normally cost you less than USD80 anyway.
Another thing to note is that flights are often delayed, cancelled or make additional stops en-route, though the latter happens less often these days.
But a big ‘pro’ point for flying to/from Bagan is a terrific panorama of the temples below your plane’s wing. It really compensates the expenses! Well, at least partially.
Bagan’s airport is located in Nyaung U, 10 km east of Old and New Bagan and about 5 km from the main tourist streets of Nyaung U proper. To get there, take a taxi – it should not cost more than MMK5,000/USD5 from Nyaung U and 8,000/USD8 from both Old and New Bagan.
In Mandalay, all flights from Bagan arrive to Mandalay International airport, aka Annisaton, located 45 km southwest of the city centre. If you have already booked your accommodation in Mandalay, it pays to ask your host whether they can help with transfer but if not, take a taxi: rates are quite reasonable for the long distance you have to cover: MMK12,000/USD10 for private taxi and MMK4,000/USD4 for a seat in a shared vehicle.
From Bagan to Mandalay by bus
Travelling by bus from Bagan to Mandalay is time saving compared to a boat trip and a train journey and money saving compared to flying, though the least interesting. The quality of buses and service vary greatly as some operators offer cramped and worn-out vehicles with wooden benches while others have air-conditioned coaches (for about MMK8,000/USD6) though even those are not the latest edition.
Note that the bus station for Bagan is located close to its railway station in Nyaung U. In Mandalay, most buses from Bagan arrive to the Highway Bus station south of the centre, Chan Mya Shwe Pyi.
From Bagan to Mandalay by train
There are two daily trains between Bagan and Mandalay. Neither of them offers sleeping carriages, but the day train #119 which departs from Bagan at 7am and arrives to Mandalay at 2.30pm is said to have upper class seats from March, 2017. The whole trip thus takes 7½ hours and can be a good option for travelling overland between the two, saving you from a bumpy bus ride.
Train #117 is not recommended: it is much slower departing at an unsocial hour of 4am and reaching Mandalay by 4pm; it also has the cheapest ordinary class seats only and while it is an extremely budget friendly option for MMK1300/USD1, it is awfully uncomfy.
Tip Trains in Myanmar have no air-conditioning. Normally you get enough fresh air from open windows and ceiling fans even during the hottest months, but if the air during the day hits +40C marks the idea of spending 7+ hours without air-conditioning may seem rather unattractive.
In Mandalay, the railway station sits at the intersection of 79 Street and 30 Street, south of the south-western corner of the park surrounding the Royal Palace.
From Bagan to Mandalay by boat
Local ferries and more luxurious cruises travel up and down Irrawaddy River. Taking a boat from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa is a great way to experience local life and enjoy the scenery. Travelling by boat is not fast: it takes up to 10 hours and costs between USD10 and USD50 depending on the type of the boat and the operator you travel with. Read about our experience of taking a boat from Bagan to Mandalay to get an idea what it is like.
If 10 hours look a bit too much, you can still put your feet on a boat on a shorter stretch of the river. There are regular local ferries from Nyaung U to Pakokku. They take about one hour and cost MMK1000 (for locals; as a foreigner, you will most probably be overcharged – expect to pay MMK5000/USD5).
From Pakokku there are buses to Mandalay, but if you do not have strict time limits, make a detour to Monywa. For an in-the-middle-of-nowhere town of its size Monywa has a lot to offer to a curious visitor – from wonderfully authentic atmosphere of a Burmese provincial town to amazing cave temples of Pho Wing Taung and Shwe Bataung which are an absolute must-see as they are no ordinary and contemporary cave temples you may been used to in Thailand or China but rather ancient Bagan-style creations beautifully decorated with murals you do not normally expect to find in a place like this.
It takes about 3 hours to get from Pakokku to Monywa and the same time to reach Mandalay from Monywa with buses departing regularly throughout the day.
Why travel to Mandalay
Gold leaves-clad Buddha images, wide lanes and boulevards, and a wealth of historical towns like Mingun, Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura dotting the environs of the city make Mandalay a great stop in your Burmese itinerary. Well, even the only name of the city is intriguing! Mandalay – oh, are you serious? Does it really exist? Yes, it does! You may find the views from Mandalay Hill less scenic than those over the endless pagodas of Bagan from atop of one of its temples; the city itself less meditative than Nyaungshwe by the Inle Lake; and less hectic and lacking that colonial heritage Yangon is proud of. But Mandalay definitely offers enough activities to keep you busy for days: witness daily washing of Buddha’s face at Mahamuni Paya; take a stroll over the cult U-Bein bridge and watch the locals hurrying up on their daily routine over the bridge at sunset; admire an amazing puppet show Mandalay-style; or learn to cook those mouth-watering Burmese curries during the cooking class in Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse – and your own road to Mandalay will add a zest to your whole Myanmar trip.
Onward travel from Mandalay
An easy one-hour flight brings you from Mandalay to Yangon, also easily reached by bus or train. Connect via Yangon for all destinations southeast, including Thaton, Hpa-An, Mawlamyine, Ye and Dawei. To visit the Kyaiktiyo Mount, take Yangon-bound buses or trains – they all pass via Bago.
The easiest way to reach Inle Lake is to fly to Heho airport, though buses do a good job, too, reaching Taunggyi and Shwenyaung in about 10 hours.
Buses to seaside destinations like Sittwe and Thandwe (for Ngapali Beach) are also available. They depart from Hlaing Thar Yar Bus Terminal in Mandalay. Note that the journey is quite long and bumpy and takes from 15 to 17 hours. Buses to Sittwe pass via Mrauk U, the 15-century capital of Arakanese Kingdom. Do not miss it, if old temples are your thing.
In recent years a handful of international flights from Mandalay have been introduced, and now there are direct air links to Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong from one to seven times a week depending on the destination.