Travelling between Bagan and Mandalay

The magic and mystery of Myanmar lends itself to the adventurous traveller. The more you go looking for adventure in this fascinating country, the more you will be impressed. Yangon is hectic yet charming at the same time, Bagan is sleepy and has its collection of mesmeric temples and pagodas, whereas Mandalay is the largest and historically most important of all cities in Myanmar.

Shwesandaw Pagoda
Shwesandaw Pagoda is one of the many great sights in Bagan

For many people, Bagan represents one of the last major “unexplored” regions of South East Asia. 50 years ago, the mass of temples and pagodas here is what Angkor Wat must have looked like if our grandparents had went backpacking! Of course, tourism is on the rise here, but Bagan remains a very sleepy town, where meandering travel on a horse and cart from pagoda to pagoda is considered the norm. Yet a lot of travellers want to explore more of Myanmar, and presuming that you’ve already came from Yangon, then the next logical place to visit will be the ancient city of Mandalay.

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If you want to travel from Bagan to Mandalay, you can take a bus, a train, or a boat down the Irrawaddy River. There is an option to fly on domestic airlines within Myanmar, but these are not recommended due to poor reliability and the odd tragic crash every now and then. The dusty roads of Old Bagan and Nyaung-U will soon be a distant memory as you take the busier highways (or railways!) north to Mandalay.

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6 hours might not sound like a long time…
mandalaybus
Kew Se Kan Bus Station in Mandalay

By bus, it takes at least 6 hours to get to Mandalay, and there are departures from Bagan at 8am, 9am, 4pm, and 9.30pm (this last one arrives 3.30am the next morning!). The journey should cost around $8-9 per person with semi-reputable bus companies such as OK Bus, Aye Chan Maung, and Pyi Taw Aye. What I found remarkable about my journey on bus between Bagan and Mandalay is that there is no such thing as a “full” bus – when the seats are all taken, the driver just pulled over, took out some plastic seats from the luggage compartment, and handed them out to other passengers. They all say down on their tiny plastic seats in the middle of the narrow aisle for the rest of the journey! I don’t think this is particularly safe, but the Burmese people don’t seem to care! Barring an accident enroute (!), you will be arriving at Kwe Se Kan Bus Station in Mandalay, from where you will need a short taxi ride to downtown (6,000 Kyat).

Your journey starts here
Your journey starts here
The impressive Mandalay Central Train Station
The impressive façade of Mandalay Central Train Station

There is one train per day from Bagan to Mandalay, and this leaves at 7am, arriving in Mandalay at 2.30pm approx. I am told this train journey is very bumpy and uncomfortable – but it only costs $13 per person in upper class. The really cool thing with using the train to arrive in Mandalay (as opposed to the airport that is over an hour away) is that the train station is right in the centre of the city, and is actually within reasonable walking distance to Mandalay Palace and some popular pagodas.

A slow boat down the Irrawaddy.
A slow boat down the Irrawaddy.

Fast boats down the Irrawaddy between Bagan and Mandalay can cost 25,000 Kyat per person (12 hours journey time minimum), but these are more advisable than the slow boats (which can take up to 2 days depending on the water level), which are rickety old vessels with 3-legged plastic chairs and insufficient toilets!

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It seems most travellers report that all forms of transport from Bagan to Mandalay are inferior to those used on the Yangon to Bagan route. Whether it’s a bus or a train, it always seem bumpier and hellish on the way to Mandalay. One of the reasons for this could be that budget backpackers are more inclined to skip Mandalay altogether (just see Yangon and Bagan before flying out again), therefore the necessity to improve transportation standards on this route are not yet apparent. Luxury travellers are usually the ones who travel between Mandalay and Bagan, and they are more likely to use private cars supplied to them by expensive tour operators (such as Voyages Jules Verne) rather than shabby public buses – so why would Burmese companies worry too much about the standards of service if comparatively few people use it? The Yangon to Bagan route now is so popular that more care and attention must be given by the tour companies, as it is a competitive business to earn the $ of the tourists (Joyous Journeys are the best option for the Yangon-Bagan route, but as of early 2016, they don’t go to Mandalay from Bagan).

When you do finally arrive in Mandalay, you will be in an historic city with a wealth of cultural attractions (including the fascinating U-Bien Bridge just outside the city). In addition to this, the Burmese people here are very friendly towards foreigners and there are little to no scams to be wary of – unlike in Yangon!

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20 thoughts on “Travelling between Bagan and Mandalay

      1. Yes, I was there in 2014! At that point Yangon had more tourists than it could cater for, but I assume with the increase in tourism in recent years the amount of hostels etc should have boomed!

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        1. Hotel numbers have increased, but so far I haven’t seen prices get lower! 😉 One good thing with Myanmar, is that there is always an option for budget travel (if not budget accom), like the bus to Mandalay for example.

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  1. Yiur blogs are invaluable to me and my girlfriend who are planning to visit Myanmar in September. Do you know what the weather will be like in that Tim of year? Thanks Danny and Kellie

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  2. Your detailed blog is genius and super entertaining. I am returning to Myanmar for the first time since 2006 this April which is also during the Water Festival. Would you have any guest house or medium priced hotels ideally with a warm and family owned feel that you can recommend for:
    Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Hsipaw
    Many thanks and regards,
    Tish

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    1. Hi Tish, thanks for reading. 🙂

      I hope you have a great time in Myanmar in April, I wish I was coming with you! 😛 Regarding hotels, well the best bet is to check tripadvisor or Agoda to see what fits in your price range. For Yangon, there is somewhere called Panda Hotel, Cherry Hills, or Hotel Accord. Bagan has lots of good value hotels, check out my top 5 hotels in Bagan post (Thazin Garden springs to mind). Not sure about the other cities you mention.

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      1. Yea. I’m doing something unorthodox. I’ll be coming in overland from Mae Sai Thailand into Myanmar. Then I’ll be flying into Inle Lake from Tachileik and go from there. It’ll be an interesting journey!

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  3. Hi Avonord. How was your bus trip o Mandalay from Bagan in July? Was the bus ride comfortable? Was air conditioning cold enough? I heard that some buses are very hot inside even if they claim there are air conditioning. And also how did you book your Aye Chan Maung bus ticket? Thanks in advance!!

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  4. Great blog! Really puts my mind at ease. Will be heading to Myanmar late late May (Yangon > Bagan > Mandalay). Anyone here going around that time?

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  5. Hey Avo. Very helpful blog, I’m looking forward to start my honey moon trip in Myanmar next May… if you have to choose 2 places in Myanmar to visit which ones would it be? My choose so far would be Bagan and Yangon and another one… how many days would you spend in each if you schedule is tight. Thanks in advance!

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    1. Hi Angel. Spend a couple of nights in Yangon, and 3-4 nights in Bagan. Also think about visiting Mandalay for a few nights. You can do the whole triangular journey by train (or bus), although between Bagan and Mandalay transportation standards slip a bit…

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  6. Hello,

    Just wondering if you know about bussing and training with a toddler under 2. Do the locals have car seats that they use on the bus and taxis or is it not of high importance as it is in the Western World? I will be traveling with my 1.5 year old son for 10 days. Thanks

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    1. Taxis- you will be lucky to find one with functional seat belts.

      For bus, you can check with those VIP bus companies. Those buses are quite luxurious (better than anything I’ve seen in western countries) and have seat belts. But for baby seats, I still doubt it.

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