Sitting almost 630 km north of Yangon, the former royal capital and the second-largest city in Myanmar can be easily reached by bus, rail or flight. The majority of package tourists with limited time make a quick hop between the two cities – flying takes less than one and a half hour. Travelling overland is obviously more tiring and takes from 10 to 15 hours depending on the means of transport you opt for. Buses are often cramped but in general are faster and cheaper than trains. Trains are surprisingly punctual and offer several types of carriages to choose from.
From Yangon to Mandalay by train
The major part of the railway tracks in Myanmar is British built. The two main railway hubs, Yangon and Mandalay, are connected by rail with each other and lower and upper part of the country respectively.
Note In 2012 massive changes into train schedule in Myanmar were introduced, but there is still a lot of out-of-date information on the web – always double-check the information when planning your train journey. Myanmar Railways themselves neither have the official web site, nor support online booking.
Travelling from Yangon to Mandalay by train is a great experience in itself. The route is if not scenic in the full sense of the word, yet gives you the taste of the real country with slender silhouettes of palm trees against the sky, grazing buffalos, vendors patrolling the carriages at the stations and carrying their goods on their heads and local children happily waving to the passing by trains.
The whole journey takes 15 hours and trains are almost always depart and arrive exactly on schedule. Currently there are three daily trains to Mandalay – one morning train #11 leaving Yangon at 6am and arriving to Mandalay at 9pm and two afternoon trains – at 3pm (#5) and at 5pm (#3). Schedule-wise they are the most convenient way to get to Mandalay bringing you to your destination early in the morning (at 6am and 8am respectively). Note though, that neither train #11 nor train #5 have sleeping carriages and offer seats only.
There are two types of seats – ordinary seats and upper class seats. The former are the cheapest way to travel but are far from being comfortable. Basically they are just usual hard seats and nothing else. Upper class seats are soft reclining seats though in some carriages you may found them in fully reclined mode without a chance to put them into upright position. These seats cost twice as much as ordinary seats (MMK30,000/USD20-USD25).
Train #3 has both seats and sleeping carriages. The latter are closed compartments for four passengers with two lower and two upper berths and are definitely a great choice for families or groups of friends. Berths cost about USD6-USD8 more compared to upper class seats.
Note There is no air-conditioning in carriages. Some have ceiling fans and others get their portion of fresh air from the open windows but generally it is not a problem even if travelling during the hottest months (April and May). It also pays to have some warm clothes at hand as it can get rather chilly at night.
In Yangon, Yangon Central Railway Station is located in Kun Chan Road, opposite the stadium. 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.
Tip Trains (except for the express ones) heading from Yangon to Mandalay, pass Bago, the jumping point to the Golden Rock. If Kyaiktiyo Mount is in your must-visit list, consider visiting it first and then hopping onto the train to Mandalay in Bago.
From Yangon to Mandalay by bus
There are several bus stations in Yangon, but the main one for Mandalay-bound buses is Highway Bus Station, aka Aung Mingalar Bus Terminal. It is located well out of the city, 500 m east off Aung Mingalar Highway, between Sat Hmu Street and Sa Gaing Street; further 7 km northeast from Yangon International airport.
Bus tickets can be purchased in the city from counters by the stadium, north of Yangon Central Railway Station. You will surely enjoy the process – normally nobody uses computer systems and when you need a ticket there are at least several people involved to discuss, to phone each other, to make a note in a notebook. But somehow it all functions quite ok – if you get your ticket, you will get a seat, too; do not worry.
The majority of the bus companies offer transfer to the bus terminal as well – a seat in a shared taxi costs MMK1.000 (a bit less than USD1). Bus tickets cost between MMK12,000/USD10 and MMK23,000/USD17. Do not expect extra comfort – buses are usually cramped with rather limited leg space and worn-out though now several ‘Elite’ buses with three seats per row instead of usual four also serve the route and are recommended if you decide to travel by bus. The journey takes from 8 to 10 hours with late afternoon and evening departures available.
Buses from Yangon arrive to Mandalay Highway Bus Station located 8 km from the city centre. To get to the city, you have three options: a taxi, a motorbike taxi or a pick-up truck which is basically the local form of public transport. Taxis offer quite inflated rates – e.g. MMK7,000 per vehicle; motorbike taxis are cheaper (MMK2,500). To get a ride in a pick-up truck you have to walk out of the station to the road where they will be more than happy to give you a lift for MMK500-MMK1000.
Flights from Yangon to Mandalay
Yangon to Mandalay is arguably the most popular air route in Myanmar. It is served by a handful of regional and domestic airline companies including Myanmar Airways, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways among others. Together they operate up to a dozen daily flights. Prices normally start from USD100 one-way and include checked luggage – though it always pays to check with the airline in advance. Flying time is from one hour to 1 hour 25 minutes.
In Yangon, Yangon International airport lies 17 km north from the Central Railway Station. It is not served by public transport – to get there you have to take a taxi (MMK8,000/USD8). You still can cover the major part of the distance between the city and the airport by bus – look for any bus heading to Maha Si (ask locals, otherwise you are unlikely to figure out which bus is ok for you) and then walk up Yangon Airport Road – it is 2.5 km to the terminal building. A taxi from the stop should cost you about USD1.
Mandalay International airport sits 45 km southwest, a good deal away from the city. Taxi fares to the city, to our big surprise, are rather reasonable: expect to pay MMK12,000/USD10 for a private vehicle. Shared options are also available (MMK4,000/USD4). If you have already booked your hotel in Mandalay, check with your host first if they provide transfer from the airport. Even if they do not, they can help to organise it at a bit lower price.
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
If you are following the Big Four itinerary, your two next destinations are either Bagan (from 5 hours; MMK10,000/USD9) or Taunggyi (for Inle Lake) (10 hours; MMK10,000/USD9). Both are connected to Mandalay by buses leaving from Highway Bus Station. If heading to Bagan, you can add a bit of colour to your trip taking a bus to Pakkoku first and then boarding a boat from Pakkoku to Nyaung-U (one hour). Nyaung-U has a very specific means of public transport in the form of horse-carriages (you can take the same carriage to tour the temples of Bagan, too).
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.