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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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!