Bagan (or Pagan) is the ancient capital city of the first Burmese empire, situated on the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy (officially Ayeyarwady) River, roughly 180km downstream (or south-west) of Mandalay, in the midst of the central plains of Myanmar. Of all the cities in Myanmar, Bagan is likely to be the only one you have ever come across. Ever seen a dream-like photo of hundreds of hot air balloons sailing over the tops of crumbling pagodas in some mystical land? Well, that’s Bagan.
This iconic photo is used by tour companies all over the world to promote the idea of travel and yet many of us don’t even know where it is – despite having gawped in awe at it on multiple occasions. More beautiful in person than you could ever imagine from a photograph, Bagan is home to over 2000 Buddhist temples and monuments scattered throughout a vast expanse of lush terrain. It is the pride and joy of Myanmar and an absolute must for anyone who might be passing through the country.
There are several departure locations in Myanmar from which you might start your journey to Bagan but we are going to focus on the main tourist destinations within the country as these are where you are probably going to be. For travelers in Myanmar the most popular cities are Mandalay, Yangon and Inle Lake.
The best way to travel Myanmar is by Irrawaddy River cruise. Since Myanmar’s infrastructure is still developing, and the tourism market is still emerging, travel by land can be quite a challenge. Rainforest Cruises offers a number of different boats, each with its own level of comfort and luxury and all providing top-quality food for guests to feast on. One of the benefits of a river cruise is that you do not need to worry about booking accommodation, which can be complicated. Another advantage is the viewpoint from which you will see the country. Rather than vistas of endless dusty roads, you will get panoramic views of Myanmar’s spectacular waterways and the thick, beautiful swathes of natural beauty that fringe their banks.
The itinerary of the river cruises has been tailored to make sure that its on-board guests get to see the very best of the country along with plenty of examples of authentic Burmese culture. Theatre and dance performances fill your evenings after days spent on guided tours of traditional villages, discovering secret caves and gawping at magnificent temples and pagodas. Most Myanmar river cruises either start or end in Bagan.
Although Yangon is no longer the capital of Myanmar (it lost this title to Naypyidaw in 2006), it is still the country’s most lively city. This thriving metropolis is the nation’s intellectual, commercial and economic hub and is anything and everything but boring. If your time is more important than money on this holiday then the best way to get from Yangon to Bagan is by flying from the Yangon International Airport into Nyaung U airport. From there you can just hop in a cab and be in Old Bagan in 10 minutes or New Bagan in 20. Flights go every day and take just over an hour. Alternatively, you can ride the overnight bus, which takes between 9-10 hours but really isn’t as bad as you’re probably imagining it to be right now. We don’t really recommend this route, however, the buses are pretty good quality and the roads aren’t too bad. The only issue is that you will arrive at around 4 am so make sure you have a hotel booked in advance and warn them you will be getting there early in the morning.
Getting From Mandalay to Bagan
Despite being so close on the map, it takes longer than you might expect to transit between Mandalay and Bagan. The easiest option, as always, is to hop on one of the 30-minute flights that leave regularly but if your budget doesn’t permit that then there are other options. There are two trains that leave for Bagan each day – a slow one that takes 11 hours and an express service that will have you there in a mere 8 hours. Lastly, there is a bus, which should have you there in around 5 hours.
If time is of the essence then you can sail the skies to get between these two tourist hotspots. Heho airport has regular flights to Nyaung U and they only take 40 minutes. The next best option after that is to jump on one of the VIP tourist buses and settle down for the 8-10 hour night journey.
As you can probably tell from what you’ve read so far, transport in Bagan is not the easiest or most efficient system in the world but with a bit of patience and some good planning, you will always be able to get yourself from A to B. As mentioned before, the best way to travel Myanmar is by an Irrawaddy River cruise. A cruise is the safest, most comfortable way to travel the country. You’ll get to enjoy the country’s cuisine on board and learn about the culture, all while exploring Myanmar’s highlights.
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