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On The Road to Mandalay, From Yangon to Bagan

(Part 2 of 3) Yangon > Pyay > Magway & Minbu > Bagan

Bagan temples along old dirt track at Sunset

We ended the last article with starting our backpacking Myanmar trip back in Yangon, after a 5 day trip to Kyakityo and Mawlemyine.  In this guide, we see more of Yangon's Downtown and then travel by bus up to Pyay (otherwise known as Prome during colonial era) to see the Pyu city of Sri Kestra.  We then travelled up to Magway (Magwe) for a short overnight stay to see the Mud Volcano's of Minbu, before taking a bus to Bagan where we stayed for 4 nights before reaching Mandalay.

To recap… Our route around Myanmar:

Myanmar Budget Backpacking Guide Map

Map Key: 1 Yangon, 2 Kyakityo, 3 Mawlemyine, 4 Pyay, 5 Magway (Minbu), 6 Bagan,7 Mandalay, 8 Chuang Tha Beach (Pathein). In this part, we cover points 4-6.

Days 5 & 6: Back in Yangon for Afternoon Tea at The Strand and planning our journey north

Our Afternoon Tea has arrived!

Our Afternoon Tea has arrived!

The bus from Mawlamyine got into Yangon around 1pm, but little did we realise Aung Mingalar bus station is 45 minutes away from downtown (although it took us 1 hour because of traffic).  Naturally when you get off the bus, there are a swarm of taxi drivers waiting for your fare.  Whatever they offer you is roughly 30% higher than the typical fare they charge locals.  The fare into downtown shouldn't cost more than 8-9,000 Kyat.  If you pay any more than 10,000 Kyat you are getting really ripped off.

We had already booked a hotel before we left Yangon last time for our stay at May Fair Inn ($25 per night). Although we ended up being a day early, they had plenty of availability.  By the time you travel by bus, get from the bus station to your hotel and settled in.. The time usually is already hitting past 3pm and it's time to make plans for dinner.  If you are looking for a good supermarket in downtown Yangon, I can recommend a few options..

Supermarket 1: On the same road as The Grand Hotel, on Bo Aung Kyaw Street, towards the Southern end just before you hit Strand Road.  This stocks everything you would ever need, plus some British favourites like Cadbury's chocolate and McVities biscuits.

Supermarket 2: Gamone Pwint Shopping Center, Merchant Road.  Opposite 42nd Street. There is a large supermarket inside with a good selection of groceries.

Supermarket 3: On Montgomery Road, opposite 30th Street is a modern looking shopping mall.  In the basement there is a foreigners / expat supermarket.  This is fully stocked with everything you can get back home.  Best supermarket we came across, very close to Traders Hotel and Scotts Market.

24 Hour Convenience Store: Around about 44th street junction of Merchant Road.  If it's not there, it's a little past here.  In the evening it's shining pure white onto Merchant Road. Small but good selection of essentials and open around the clock.

On the next morning we had May Fair Inn check out some prices on buses up to Pyay for us.  We managed to book a bus from Aung Mingalar station to Pyay for 6,000 Kyat each.

We spent the day walking around downtown and then around 4pm headed to The Strand for some Afternoon Tea.  The Strand is a grand old hotel built in 1901.  The rooms go for anything from $400 per night!  So the Afternoon Tea and set business lunch available is a real steal.  With taxes and service charge, it came to $39 in total for the two of us (£24 / £12 each).  Bearing in mind this is the top hotel in Yangon / Myanmar and the same would cost us double in Hong Kong or Shanghai.  Not bad deal!

Day 7 & 8: Travelling up to Pyay (Prome) and discovering the ancient Pyu city of Sri Kestra

We arrived in Pyay just after lunchtime and managed to book our bus ticket for 2 days time up to Magway (5,000 Kyat each) before heading into town to search for accommodation for our 2 nights here.  We came across a few options that were recommended elsewhere online and in the Lonely Planet guide.

There are a few guest-houses dotted around town which are the standard box room with shared bathroom sort going for $10 per night.  However we want budget comfort and in Pyay you will be paying a minimum of $30 per night for that.  The 2 recommended options for accommodation are as below..

Hotel Name Address Standard Twin Superior Double Basic Room Facilities
Lucky Dragon No.772, Strand Road,
Pyay.
$40 $50 N/A Breakfast Included, A/C, Hot Water, WiFi, 24 Hour Electricity, Taxi / Bus Booking Available. Book online
Strand Hotel No. 773, Strand Road, Pyay. (Next door to LD) $35 $40 $30 A/C, Hot Water, 24 Hour Electricity

We wasted no time and went for some lunch around the corner.  There are a number of beer stations dotted around the main roundabout.  All offer clean and good value food.

The weather turned on us for the first day, so we decided to wait until the next day to go and see the sights that Pyay offered.

The next morning we enjoyed our breakfast, which consisted of 2 eggs cooked your way and bread / jam.  Standard fare for Myanmar! Along with tea / coffee.  We then walked into town towards the roundabout and asked around the local pickups for ‘Sri Kestra'. Incidentally Sleepy Dragon offers a taxi driver for the day that will take you to the archaeological sight and back for 20,000.  At first glance it seems very steep, but after our travelling around in an old pick-up and getting ripped off (mostly because of language difficulties on both sides) we would recommend this option to get the most out of a day spent at the site.

Sri Kestra – the younger version of Bagan and site of early prototype Stupas

We managed to get a pick-up to take us all the way to the museum entrance.  There we paid our entrance and the driver got help from the Museum on where to drive to see the bigger sights.  All around Pyay and especially this area has very little foreigners visiting. Have a read of the visitor guestbook before heading out of the museum and we worked out maybe just a few hundred Brits visit this site every year.

The pick-up took us out to see a few of the sights in the area.

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After visiting a few other sights that the pick-up driver recommended, we started getting low on funds.  Every drive out to somewhere not originally agreed upon was starting to clock up more and more.  We finally asked to be taken back to town and agreed on 5,000 Kyat to be taken back into town where we found them.  We arrived halfway back to town and were first taken to another old Stupa.  We got talking with the local monk who managed it and eventually made a small donation before leaving. He was very thankful and called out on the loud speaker who I was, where I was from and how much I had donated.  It was a very odd experience.  He then took us for a short tour around the Stupa and showed us a tree that had been planted during the time when the first Buddha was alive.

When we had finished we assumed the pick-up would continue taking us back to town.. However mis-translation had meant they wanted us to pay more that privilege (the town was just a few miles away) and wanted 7,000 Kyat.  After arguing for a while, we gave up thinking anger would solve anything.  The local monk helped us find another pick-up going into town for a much more reasonable 200 Kyat each.  So lesson of this story, if you are planning to visit this archaeological site, use a taxi from your hotel.  It will likely cost no more and you will save yourself any problems arising.

As we arrived back into town, it started to rain and we headed to a beer station for some lunch before heading back to the hotel.  For dinner we heard of a recommendation in the Lonely Planet guide “Hline Ayar”.  It is meant to be on the river front, with live music around 7pm every night and great food.  We walked over and heard the place, before spotting it. It was a Saturday night, so the place was buzzing with activity.  The first thing we noticed though was the stage area had scantily dressed young girls in a line, I'm assuming we just got here when the show was about to start, to present the singers.  However one thing didn't feel right, never in Myanmar would you usually see such short skirts on girls..  Also this place was 99% men.

Anyway, we ordered drinks and took a look at the menu.  The food is reasonably priced and looked like good portions.  We ordered some sweet and sour pork and honey duck. The food was really really good and the entertainment kept us there for a good hour or so afters.  The only thing I will say, is that what struck me the most was every time a girl had finished her song, they had tinsel placed around their necks and then escorted over to a busy table.  There is definitely something seedy going on here, but I'm not sure what it is. Trust The Lonely Planet guide to have something like this in their “top picks” of Pyay!!

Anyway, we headed back to the room to get an early night before our 6am departure to Magway..

Day 9: Minbu Mud Volcano's – less deadly than regular volcano's.. but a little bit more holy!

Darryl at the Mud Volcano's in Minbu

Darryl at the Mud Volcano's in Minbu

We arrived in Magway at a reasonably early time of 11:30am.  The bus station is down the road from downtown area (which isn't really much anyway!).  We decided on staying at a barebones for the night, as the last hotel had cost us $40 a night, far above our budget!

We ended up staying at Sein San Guesthouse.  Asking any motorcycle taxi at the bus station will get you to the right place.  The town only has a few options, and this is a decent option at $15 per night for a twin room with shared bathroom.

Down the road there is a new shopping mall with a large supermarket, electronics store, clothes and top level cafe that serves milkshakes and simple food (it also has WiFi). Opposite the shopping mall is a decent beer station that serves all the traditional fare.  We stopped here for lunch, after getting recommended it by some local red faced men sitting around at the bus stop.  After lunch we decided to ask them about transportation across to Minbu Mud Volcano's for the afternoon.  The translation was fairly easy, given my impression of a volcano erupting.

They agreed to take us both for 6,000 Kyat each return.  After agreeing, we hung around a little while for them to pickup their motorcycles.  We soon started offer across the Aywerwaddy Bridge and across to the Minbu side. After a 15 – 20 minute motorcycle ride we came to the entrance.

The rare geological occurrence of mud volcanoes are always a sight to behold, and the fields of bubbling liquid dirt in the small town of Minbu are no exception.

Mud volcanoes are formed from methane gases trapped deep below the ground being forced to the surface. In some instances the pressure will push through the water table and mix with the clay or mud in the surrounding areas to create a “volcano” such as the ones found in Minbu. Unlike regular volcanoes, there is no heating involved and in fact, the mud is cool to the touch. The landscape is in Minbu looks like the surface of the moon (if the satellite had active geology) with multiple vents bubbling out of ever-growing craters in the ground.

The area is revered as a religious site by the locals who hold the tradition that the volcanoes are powered by dragons deep within the earth. Visitors to the Minbu mud volcanoes are required to remove their shoes when they visit, but these volcanic surroundings aren't about to burn anyone's feet.  You can read my article on Atlas Obscura and find more unusual places to visit in Myanmar.

After a dinner at the same beer station we had lunch, we headed back to the hotel for an early night as usual for another ultra early bus start.

Days 10 – 12: Soaking up the old world glory of Bagan and hiring electric motorcycles to explore the area

One thing to note before going any further is understanding the local area and where each town is placed around Bagan.

Nyaung-U

Located the most north of old towns around Bagan temple area. This is the cheapest place you can stay as a backpacker. Accommodation can go for as little as $15 a night for a bare bones guesthouse. If you get a bus into Bagan, unless it explicitly says it stops elsewhere.. you will find yourself here. Nyaung-U represents the most young traveller friendly, with bars along the main roads and more conveniences than Old & New Bagan do. Its also the furthest away from the main attractions.

Old Bagan

This was previously the main town for 100's of years. That is until the military government ordered the locals to move out in the 90's and move south to a new township called ‘New Bagan'. Don't ask me why, as I don't understand the full politics around the reason. If you are looking at $100+ hotels for your stay and want to be closest to the Bagan temple area.. Old Bagan is your best bet.

New Bagan

The new township doesn't appear very new. Its a dusty old town with a main road that is where most places to eat are located. The hotels are more expensive than Nyaung-U but represent better mid-range choice. We stayed here and you can read about the cheapest hotels available in our previous post Our first night in Bagan and seeing the sunset.

Some lunch Burmese style.

Some lunch Burmese style.

We arrived in Nyuang-U, after failing to realise the bus we were on didn't stop in New Bagan, even though it drives through the town! When we got off, we had to find a reasonable price for a taxi back the way we had just came. That wasn't so hard..

A tip if you plan on getting a hotel on arrival.. know a list of places to try before arriving. And I'm not talking about what's in Lonely Planet.. because those hotels are artificially inflated in price and lack availability. Research through blogs and forums. The places we list here are researched and the price you see will likely be the price you pay. We got ripped off at our first hotel because of our stupidity of trusting our taxi driver, after finding the hotels in Lonely Planet guide were fully booked and waaaaay out of our price league. But walk down the road a little while and you find other hotels just as nice are empty and half the price!

Anyway, once we were sorted on our hotel we settled in and decided on walking to Swesandaw Paya to see the sunset. This is one of the best places to see the famous sunset over Bagan. Be prepared to expect massive crowds from the coach loads of geriatrics embarking on the same journey.

There are plenty of other temples to see the sunset from that are equally spectacular, we might slag the Lonely Planet guide off quite a bit for inaccurate / out of date information on hotels. But it's your no.1 reference point for Bagan temples area along with reasonably accurate walking maps.  It also gives you a list of less busy Paya's (Pagoda's) to watch the sunset from.

On the 2nd day in Bagan, we rented Electric Bicycles that give you around 25 – 30 miles of range and travel at maybe up to 20mph at their fastest.  They gave us the opportunity to travel around the main temple areas faster and travel more ground, as we only had 2 full days of our visit, so wanted to make the most of it.  The electric bicycles cost 4,000 each for a half day (anytime after 11am).  That's just $4 (or £3) for a half day, half a day is much better value than taking them for the full day, especially if like us you like to have a lay-in the mornings.  You have them up to 7pm, so it gives you more than enough time to see enough temples, before you get mind numbingly bored of the same sights!

Many temples around Bagan are locked up or harder to access.  If you are lucky, there may be a Key Master nearby you can open the temples up for you.  But whilst we were there we didn't get this lucky and found disappointingly only able to walk around and not wander in.

Our adventure at Bagan was very short lived.  We found ourselves on the 3rd day of being in Bagan going out to look at a few temples but getting back fairly early to just relax.  After so much time staring at temples, pagoda's, stupa's, relics and ruins for the past 10 months and last years adventure in SE Asia where we visited Laos & Cambodia.. We are getting less impressed by these small wonders of the world.  My advice to any longer term travellers is like most people recommend, don't get templed out.  Make sure you mix up your travels sufficiently with new & old world sights.  Otherwise you will hit you traveling wall far sooner.

Day 13: Leaving Bagan behind to discover Mandalay

Another early start to the day, one of our final bus trips (thank god!!) took us all the way up to Mandalay.  We decided against the ferry as it was expensive to travel on, expensive to travel to (the port) and took far longer than a bus would.  Our bus ticket from Old Bagan > Mandalay was one of the most expensive on our trip, costing 9,000 Kyat each.  We expected some small luxury for this, given its the main tourist route and cost a lot.  Far from it..

The bus journey from Bagan > Mandalay was the worst experiences we had.  First we got picked up in an old pickup to take us to the bus station, with no seats and far too many people packed in.  It was fortunately not too long a ride.  The bus we then took from Bagan had air conditioning that kept breaking down, tiny seats with everyone we sat behind wanting to push back their chairs, which literally kept crushing my legs.

The halfway stop for early lunch was a fly infested pit, even the locals weren't eat at. We were so happy when we arrived in Mandalay and got off.  We spent most of our time on buses in Burma, how could the busiest route be so bad!??

This guide was from a 3 part series on our travels around Myanmar (Burma), read the below guides for more information and inspiration for your adventures!

Interested in reading our other Travel Guides on Myanmar?

If you enjoyed this blog and series, please share via the link below!  Thank you.

About Darryl Hall (85 Articles)
Darryl left the shorelines of England in 2013 to study and travel in China and South East Asia for a year. Darryl is a co-founder of escapingthedesk.com, a travel blog with the aim of sharing travel tips, country & city guides for other backpackers. Visit my Google+ page.

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