It is more common to travel clock-wise from Yangon, checking en-route all the three other star destinations in Myanmar: Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, but you can as well follow the reverse order, from Inle Lake heading to Mandalay and then to Bagan and back to Yangon. The most sensible – but costly – way to get to Mandalay from Inle Lake is to fly as road conditions between the two leave much to be desired which means you need around 8 hours to cover a not-so-long 250 km stretch of road by bus. Travelling by train is possible but even more inconvenient and long as you have to make a layover at Thazi.
Flights from Inle Lake to Mandalay
The airport serving the Inle Lake area is located in Heho. Heho is a small town 30 km northwest of Nyaungshwe. The easiest way to get there is to take a taxi which can be organized at your accommodation or at any travel agency in Nyaungshwe. Opposite to hefty Heho-Nyaungshwe rates, getting to Heho is cheaper – expect to pay MMK15,000/USD12. Travel agencies also offer shared transfer to the airport what can reduce your expenses on getting to Heho considerably, but you have to book a day before.
At least half a dozen airline companies operate daily flights between Heho airport and Mandalay, though during the low season you may unexpectedly end up on a code-sharing flight.
The flight is only 30 minutes long and whilst it can seem unreasonable to fly such a short distance, it still makes sense as the road between the Lake and Mandalay is still waiting for its facelift and remains extremely bumpy.
Airfare to Mandalay – similarly to all other destinations within Myanmar – is not low: a great chunk of what you pay for your air-ticket rests in the governmental pockets. Inle–Mandalay ticket will cost you between USD75 and USD90 with FMI Air and Golden Myanmar often offering the lowest rates.
In Mandalay, the new airport is a good way out of the centre – but taxi rates are quite reasonable at MMK12,000/USD10 taking into consideration that you have to cover 45 km to get to the city. Shared taxis are also available at MMK4,000/USD4 per person (you may need to pay for your luggage extra).
From Inle Lake to Mandalay by train
Travelling from Inle Lake to Mandalay takes time and requires changing trains at Thazi. You can also miss your connection and have to spend the night at this dusty junction town.
Taking into account the above mentioned the obvious question comes to your mind: why travel from Inle Lake to Mandalay by train? In our opinion, the only reason which can make you do it is the amazing scenery you are going to see between Inle Lake and Thazi with the most picturesque part of it lying between Inle Lake and Kalaw.
The railway station for Inle Lake is located 13 km north of Nyaungshwe in the town of Shwenyaung. To get there, take a taxi.
Currently there is one train a day from Inle Lake to Thazi leaving Shwenyang at 8am (#142) and arriving to Thazi at 7pm. There used to be the second one, train #144, leaving after #142 at 9.40am and reaching Thazi before 9pm, but it does not run at present and it is not clear whether it resumes or not. Anyway, both connect well with two night trains from Thazi to Mandalay (#5 and #3) and offer seats only – ordinary class and upper class (up to MMK6,000/USD6).
From Thazi you will have to take one of the express trains from Yangon to Mandalay – there are three of them: #11 at 6.15 which is only helpful if you decide to spend the night in Thazi (e.g. to make a day-trip to Meiktila) and two night trains, #5 at 2am and #3 at 5am.
All the three reach Mandalay in less than 3 hours and offer ordinary class seats and upper class seats (up to USD5 per seat). Train #3 has sleepers, too, but there is not much sense in paying for a berth for a couple of hours.
Tip Sitting at the crossroads, the town of Meiktila does not offer many sights, but a couple of handsome pagodas, the idyllic lake and welcoming teahouses along the main road make it a pleasant out-of-the-beaten-track stop, thanks to which it is sometimes featured in Mandalay itineraries. Located only 20 km east of Thazi it is easier reached from there than from Mandalay. As an idea, you can buy a ticket for a slow train from Shwenyaung to Thazi to take in the scenery en route; then spend the night in Thazi to get to Meiktila by van in the morning, see what you want to see there, and hop onto a bus to Mandalay from Meiktila.
Note Moonlight Guesthouse in Thazi is the address you need to head to if you, the wayfarer, need a shelter for the night (USD10-USD15). They also run their own restaurant that won’t let you die of hunger.
From Inle Lake to Mandalay by bus
Yes, the road between Inle Lake and Mandalay is far from being perfect. And yes, it is ridiculous that you need from 8 to 10 hours to cover 250 km. But the bus ride is cheap, there are different types of buses on offer and you can catch one a few steps from your guesthouse in Nyaungshwe – though there is a choice of departures from Taunggyi and Shwenyaung, close to the train station, too.
There is no bus station in Nyaungshwe with buses departing from around the town – check the location carefully when buying your ticket. Some operators provide pick up from your accommodation, if not – you are always just a few minutes walk from the departure point.
Many operators provide ‘free’ transfer to Taunggyi as well, so you can consider taking a bus from there if the choice in Nyaungshwe does not satisfy you by some reason.
There are both local fan and VIP air-con buses. The latter tend to keep temperatures inside the coach freezing so come prepared. Buses make at least one stop en route for meal.
Night buses depart between 7pm and 9pm often arriving to Mandalay at a weird hour around 3am. Tickets cost MMK8,000/USD8 and up. Should you leave Nyaungshwe in the morning, you are most likely to be put on a minibus.
Why go 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
One of the two international air harbours in the country, Mandalay is connected by air to several other cities in the region, including Chiang Mai and Bangkok in Thailand, as well as Singapore and Hong Kong.
There are daily flights to all major destinations throughout the country including Yangon or Nyaung U (for Bagan) operated by domestic airlines (from USD75 one-way).
Buses from Highway bus station head to Bagan (from 5 hours; MMK10,000/USD9) and Yangon (10 hours; MMK12,000/USD10-MMK23,000/USD17).
An interesting detour on your way from Mandalay to Bagan, Monywa is also reached by bus, and so is Pakokku, the starting point for a one-hour ferry to Bagan.
Buses to seaside destinations like Sittwe and Thandwe (for Ngapali Beach) 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.