Nyaung U’s airport (NYU) provides direct daily links with Heho (for Inle Lake), Yangon and Mandalay. It’s served by at least six airlines: KBZ, Asian Wings, Golden Myanmar, Myanma National Air, Yangon Airways and Yadanarpon Air. KBZ is the most expensive. Their published prices for mid-2016 were: Heho $94-$104, Mandalay $73-$83 and Yangon $113-$123.
Shopping around and digging out off-peak discounts a very helpful travel agent came up with the rates of Mandalay, $40-53, Heho $60-64 and Yangon $75-83. Yadanarpon are usually the cheapest but check on the airlines’ websites or a Bagan travel agents for up-to-date costs.
The airport is around 3 kilometres southeast of town. A taxi should set you back 5,000 kyat for Nyaung U or 7,000 and 8,000 respectively for Old and New Bagan. Do try to snare a window seat on the plane since views over the temples at landing and take-off can be spectacular.
Trains depart Bagan for Yangon in the south or Mandalay to the north. For Yangon, the official schedule has a train departing at 17:00 and arriving the next morning at 10:30. Posted rates as of mid-2016 are 16,500 kyat upper class sleeper, 12,000 kyat upper class and 4,500 kyat ordinary class.
For Mandalay, two trains run at 04:00 and 07:00. The early one is a slow train, ordinary class only and takes a minimum of 11 hours while the express takes approximately eight hours. First class is 1,800 kyat, ordinary class 1,300 kyat.
Nyaung U’s station is a way out of town, a couple more kilometres past the airport, and the official taxi rate is 7,000-8,000 for destinations in Nyaung U, or New and Old Bagan.
Bagan’s main long-distance bus station is a couple of kilometres up the airport road outside of Nyaung U. Of main interest to visitors will be the Mandalay, Yangon and Kalaw/Inle routes. A small local bus station is situated on Main Road in Nyaung U and services Magwe, Pakokku and Monywa.
For Mandalay, you have a choice between minibuses, 24-seaters and full-sized 45-seater coaches. Ticket price range is 8,000-10,000 kyat range; minibuses are usually slightly more expensive and larger buses a few kyat more again. Standard transit time is around five hours but the larger buses stop more and will take longer. Plenty of departures leave between 05:00 and 09:30 but late morning and afternoon services are much scarcer.
For Yangon, the choice is between morning and evening departures, split between regular air-con and VIP coaches. The former are priced at around the 13,000 mark while VIP night buses cost 18,500 kyat. Departures are scheduled between 07:00 and 08:30, and 19:00 and 20:30, with the VIP one (run by Bagan Minn Thar) leaving at 20:00. All should take nine hours or so.
Buses on the Thazi, Kalaw, Inle run leave at 07:30 and 08:00, then 19:30 and 20:00. The first morning one is an air-con bus with tickets 11,000 kyat and the second is a shared taxi at 15,000 kyat. The 19:00 is also a bus, costing 11,000 kyat, and 20:00 is a VIP sleeper. The more expensive shared taxis shave two hours off an otherwise 10-hour trip.
Unscheduled shared taxis for both Inle and Mandalay (10-seaters, not saloon cars) tend to leave whenever they can find enough passengers. Ask your hotel reception the day before and they can check for you.
Other destinations include a Naypyidaw night bus at 18:00 for 11,000 taking 8 hours, or fan and air-con buses for Pyay, both leaving at 13:00 and costing 11,000 and 13,000 respectively (takes 9 hours). Monywa shared taxis take 3.5 hours via Pakokku for 4,000 kyat.
With the exception of the Pyay bus, all services will include pick-up from your lodging and all can be booked through your guesthouse or hotel reception. Commissions are usually minimal and less than a taxi fare to the bus station. We saw several guesthouses selling for example the 11,000 bus tickets at 13,000 kyat, so that’s a $1.50 fee for sorting it out for you. If you are quoted what you consider an exaggerated service fee, wander down the road and ask somewhere else – you’re never far from a travel agent. Bear in mind too, before you get grumpy with your receptionist, that different companies’ prices do vary a bit, as do bus types.
With improving roads, river travel in Burma is waning slightly these days among locals, though government boats do still ply the Ayeyarwady between Bagan and Mandalay and private companies organise regular boats. For Chindwin services you will have to travel overland to Monywa first as there are no boats there from Bagan. For shorter distances and for example sunset cruises you can hire boats from one of the jetties in Nyaung U as well as Old and New Bagan.
Bagan to Mandalay via a day cruise down the mighty Ayeyarwaddy can be an opportunity to avoid bumpy roads, crowded buses and second-rate lunch stops. The public boat services on the Ayeyarwaddy are determined by two factors: ticket demand and water levels. In the high season months from October onwards services are daily, but come the quiet months from June to October and schedules are reduced to once or twice per week. Though it varies year to year, low water levels during the dry, hot season from February to May often means that navigation is not possible. The wide river is shallow and as water goes down, myriad sandbanks emerge.
We’d recommend instead of the public boats one of the more modern, faster boats offering tourist services. Boats depart and arrive at the central riverside stretch in Mandalay or the beach at Nyaung U. The duration of a trip again of course again depends upon water levels and flow. Going downstream from Mandalay with a 07:00 departure, the best case scenario would be a 15:00 arrival, while during drier months this could well be 18:00 or 19:00. Expect upstream to add a few hours.
The scenery is good for an hour after departure and an hour nearing arrival in both directions. Early morning or late afternoon the boat will either be running past the sandy, stupa-topped cliffs approaching Bagan or passing the spectacular temples and golden spires of Sagaing. Between times, bearing in mind the width of the river, you won’t see a lot apart from some passing river traffic unless you have some binoculars or a high powered camera zoom. Beers and soft drinks are sold on board. Be warned that after some 10 hours drinking in the sun we have seen passengers having to be carried down the gangplank by the time the boat reaches its terminus.
Different boats vary in specifications, so some are a bit roomier, others a bit faster, but all are generally comfortable and offer a choice of downstairs air-con seats or upper deck plastic or cane chairs. You will be given a seat number but as passengers migrate up and down decks, free seats usually seem to be available. If you want to get a well-placed, non-assigned deck seat then you’ll need to board early. All the boats we’ve travelled on provide free breakfasts of unlimited coffee, tea and toast and jam, and serve simple lunches on board. With an early departure, many hotels will provide breakfast boxes of varying quality. On the larger boats you order in a restaurant and on smaller ones they’ll come round and take your order. Expect fried noodles or fried rice for 2,000-2,500 kyat, while some boats throw in a free lunch. Snacks are usually available on board and boats occasionally stop enroute – for example at Myaung, where we assume they drop off or pick up passengers for Monywa – and where vendors will wade out into the river to hurl samosas or bananas at the boat. It will be the most exciting thing you see all day.
You’ll need to check your baggage. Bags will be ticketed, you’ll receive a stub and crew will stow the luggage. Be careful of unsolicited porters grabbing your bag out of a tuk tuk, dumping it on the boat and then demanding 1,000 kyat. Carry your bag yourself and leave it with a crew member. Arrival by gangplank on the beach at Nyaung U can be particularly chaotic. Upstream Mandalay boats leave at 06:00 while Bagan-bound boats depart at 07:00.
Schedules can be unpredictable but in rainy season 2016 government slow boats were departing on Thursdays and Mondays from Bagan and Wednesdays and Sundays from Mandalay, with foreigners charged $18 to $20. A private, fast service was run on Fridays only from Bagan to Mandalay at $32 and Thursdays in the reverse direction for $42 per person. More departures were planned for the August mini-high season but you will need to both check and book in advance. All hotels, guesthouses and travel agents ought to be able to provide you with up-to-date info and tickets.
In busy periods boats will alternate between the Shwe Keinnery and Malikha. The former is a larger three-deck craft while the latter is smaller and more streamlined. They also have a funky looking new wooden boat too. Prices are similar. If we’ve understood correctly, though different boats have different owners, all travel is organised by Myanmar River Cruises. Check schedules and prices.
In short: If you have a day to spare it does make a relaxing change from the often arduous travelling in Burma. The scenery is not however non-stop brilliant. And travel times can be a lot more than scheduled.
Myanmar River Cruises: T: (01) 294 669, (01) 901 0757, (099) 7296 2028; email@example.com.
Pick-up buses ply the road between Nyaung U, Wet Kyi Inn, Old Bagan, Myinkaba and New Bagan, and in theory drop off and pick up passengers anywhere along the route. The terminus in Nyaung U is on the roundabout by the market and in New Bagan by the morning market on Khayea Pin Street. Fare is a flat 1,000 kyat for foreigners.
Otherwise it’s taxi, horse and cart, bicycle or e-bike. A day temple tour by horse-drawn buggy should set you back 20,000 to 25,000 or so and taxi around $35 to $40 for a full day, or $20 to $25 for a half-day. The novelty of horse-drawn buggies can wear off very quickly but they will know the area well and are your best bet for locating key-holders of the more obscure temples, even if they may try drop you outside a souvenir shop from time to time. Hiring from a Nyaung U guesthouse or high-end Old Bagan resort will boost the price, as will including sunrise or sunset visits. A quiet week for the driver can also induce a discount.
The train station is 7,000-8,000 by taxi, and the airport is 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 from Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan respectively. A half-day return taxi trip to Mt Popa will be $35 to $40 as well, but don’t try doing that by horse and cart.
E-bikes have become ubiquitous throughout Bagan in recent years. At best these small, brightly coloured, electronic scooters are a cheap and convenient means for independent temple visits. At worst they are an accident waiting to happen.
It used to be that, unless you booked a tour, Bagan visits were done by bicycle, horse and cart or taxis. With the flood of e-bikes, horse and carts are become scarcer -- though you’ll still see plenty -- while tourists are banned from renting standard motorbikes of the Honda Dream variety. Taxis are pricey and do tend to isolate you from your surroundings. Horse powered buggies can be fun for a short while but laborious and uncomfortable for a whole day. This leaves bicycles or e-bikes.
Bicycles are fine if you’re not planning on going far, though bear in mind the sharp thorns from the widespread acacias can be fatal for rubber tyres and in hot season especially it would be advised to shelter during the middle of the day. Bicycles cost 1,000-2,000 kyat per day, though the majority are not great quality.
E-bikes vary in price -- often depending upon how much commission your guesthouse tags on -- but the standard rate is 8,000 per day. Off season sees the rate fall as low as 5,000 kyat. That’s for dawn to dusk hire, and while of course you can book one for several days, they need to return to base to be recharged every evening. Some of the newer versions now arriving in town are slightly more powerful and supposedly have longer battery life. Do check!
The e-bikes can be a relatively cheap and practical way to get around the sites, though they’re not immune to the larger thorns either, and push it a bit too far and the battery may conk out in the middle of nowhere. Make sure, for bicycle or e-bike hire, you have taken a phone number in case things go awry.
The e-bikes are eco-friendly and easy to ride; perhaps too easy to ride. It’s a simple automatic accelerator and brake system, so while anyone should learn basic technique in a few minutes, they are still motor vehicles, can pick up a fair speed and you still drive them on public highways. It’s easy to get rapidly over-confident. Off piste -- which many temple sites are -- can be treacherous with their sandy tracks. These are far from being off-road bikes. Also, while excellent for keeping down noise pollution they make no sound so people around you won’t hear you or another one coming; it’s also easy to forget your own engine’s turned on.
Prices and bikes seem similar at most rental spots. AW, centrally located opposite Zfreeti in Nyaung U, presented the sensible advantage of being able to try one out on a quiet track away from traffic rather than getting one right outside a main road guesthouse.
If you are doing two days of temples, then perhaps you could ride a bicycle one day for the closer sites, and an e-bike for the other for further flung temples. Whatever you do, do take care as they’re not toys, whatever they may look like. You can come to serious harm, not to mention ending up having to pay bike repairs.