Myanmar is a country steeped in mystery and controversy. More or less closed to the outside world for 50 years by a military government, it opened up in 2012 and looked like it would soon become SE Asia’s hottest travel destination. It did take off, but hotel prices went through the roof, many people began to question the value of the rising cost of travel there, numbers tapered off, then the Rohingya crisis kicked off, seeing tourism numbers plunge by at least 40% in 2018. Whether or not you should travel to Myanmar is something we’ll leave to you to decide, and instead focus on our travel experiences to three of the country’s hotspots: Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.

Bagan Myanmar Talk Travel Asia podcast

Bagan, out and about.

Trevor 2002: My ex gal-pal Nat and I hired a car and driver for a 7 day road trip look from Yangon to Bagan to Inle Lake and back. I don’t think we saw a single other foreigner the entire time we were in the country. You couldn’t really even communicate with anyone outside of the country while there. But they had post 9-11 CNN coverage, which was surprising. It was the most different place I’ve ever been and we had such fascinating interactions with people that I was inspired to write a lengthy draft encouraging people to travel to Myanmar.

Scott: 2010: Yangon for 4-days: country still closed; 2012: Bagan for 3-nights – proposed to Erika; 2017: led training in Yangon for 9-days – shopping malls, traffic (still not motorcycles); 2017: Mandalay, Inle and Ngapali Beach with my parents and wife for about two-weeks. Note this is October 2018 when we’re recording and this is the kind of destination that can change quickly so double-check specific points before you set off.

Also, we are not experts, this is a very topline episode, just of our experiences. Research online – Travelfish – or pick up a Lonely Planet to dive in deeper. Also listen to Ep. 72: Northern Myanmar with Nick Ray

Longtime listener Peta Smith asked us to do an episode on these areas as she’s headed there in December 2018. See – we do read emails and usually respond. Thanks for the good suggestion Peta and we hope you have a great trip. Be sure to share a few photos after. And, now can you show us some love in the form of financial support via our Patreon page?

Bagan Myanmar


You can sponsor anywhere from $1/month upwards. These funds will help us cover costs of keeping the show going. Visit PATREON TO DONATE TO THE SHOW or the link from the left-side of our website, or search Talk Travel Asia Patreon. Thanks in advance for supporting the cost and helping to keep the travel talk happening.

Listen to Episode 89: Bagan, Mandalay & Inle Lake, Myanmar

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Bagan Myanmar Talk Travel Asia podcast

Bagan in the high desert: horsecart in foreground.

Bagan is an ancient city in central Myanmar, southwest of Mandalay. It’s on the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy River and is comprised of more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments, which look over almost desert-like plains. The empire began to form in the 9th century, gradually growing to be one of the two main kingdoms in SE Asia, the other being the Khmer empire in modern-day Cambodia. It grew and flourished until 1287 when Mongkol invaders scared everyone away and the area was abandoned. Today it’s gradually getting used to tourist arrivals and is also prone to earthquakes.

It’s interesting to know it was contemporaneous with the Angkor empire: 9th-13th centuries. I found it equally impressive in such a different way. Also overlaps a little with the rise of Chaing Mai and Sukhothai, the latter of which I think should be included as epic ancient city ruins

Getting here is a bit of a journey from Yangon.

  • I’ve heard the overnight buses are good and some have sleepers – about 10 hours I think.
  • The train is slow – about 14 hours – and jumps up and down off the tracks. Watch Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show to see this.
  • You could take a boat down Irrawaddy River from Mandalay (1-many days)
  • Flying is usually in a circular route: Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Inle – Yangon and flights are very early in the morning (note this could have all changed by the time you go.
  • Trevor: We drove from Yangon with a car and driver and Google maps says the old route we would have taken runs 12.5 hours but theres a new road through Napytaw that “only” 8.5. We stayed overnight in Pyay I think, but it would be cool to stop in Napytaw along the way I’m sure. The old road was farmland forever before converting to high desert, which is the climate around Bagan. Price per day for a car nowadays I have no clue, but it was such a great way to experience the countryside, being able to pull over here and there along the way.

You should plan three-days there; less will see you rushing. It’s hot as hell much of the year so you don’t want to be rushing. It’s a very large area as well so plan your days. It’s a nice area to see on bike (beware thorns and flats), via horse cart or car. In fact, it’s a good idea to plan to use all three on different days, perhaps saving the car until a day when you’re tired. Many of the small roads that lead to temples are sand/dirt. Consider an organized bike tour as well if you’re into riding.

Pleasures include just sitting atop a structure watching people and marveling at the landscapes. Chat with locals over a beer and meal. Nice to splurge on a hotel with a pool to cool off. Balloons over Bagan operates roughly from Nov – June and I’ve heard is awesome but over US$300.

Sunset over Mandalay Myanmar Talk Travel Asia podcast

Sunset over Mandalay Myanmar

Mandalay is 716 km north of Yangon, is the second largest city in the country and the last royal capital. It also sits on the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy River and has about 1.3-million people.

The name elicits exotic images in my mind – Mandalay!!

  • On 13 February 1857, King Mindon founded a new royal capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, to fulfill a prophecy on the founding of a metropolis of Buddhism in that exact place on the occasion of the 2,400th jubilee of Buddhism.
  • Mandalay ceased to be the capital on 28 November 1885 when the conquering British sent Thibaw Min and his queen Supayalat into exile.
  • It’s a very planned city.
  • Despite the exotic name, I was warned before visiting that it’s not such a nice city, busy, dusty and to get out of the city asap.
  • The old palace still has a moat around it – 3km on each side – not bad for a busy run if you’re really into jogging.
  • Go up Mandalay Hill for sunset with a thousand other people.
  • You can visit the silver district – only really interesting if you’ve never seen silver items being handmade.
  • U Bein Bridge is about 15km south of the city and is a good stop to/from the airport – but don’t go during sunrise or sunset – it’s a gongshow. It’s a 1.2km teak bridge, but really just looks like it’s made out of standard wooden boards. I was a bit let down.
  • 1-night is fine in Mandalay, 2 if you really like walking and perhaps to a bicycle tour outside of the city or I’ve heard there are fun tours on the back of motorbikes.
  • You can also check out the Moustache Brothers who have long had famous politically-charged comedy performances, although it’s in Burmese language.

The drive from Mandalay from Bagan looks to be around 4 hours. When I visited Bagan, we had to loop around Inle to get back to Yangon. I think flying into Mandalay first and then road tripping south through Bagan and Inle to Napytaw and Yangon sounds like a good route.


Balloon over Inle Lake, Myanmar Talk Travel Asia podcast

Balloon over Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake is in the Shan Hills of Myanmar. There are padogas along parts of its edge, and it’s one of Myanmar’s highest lakes at 880m. It’s 116sq/km and varies in depth from 3.7 – 1.5m depending on season (deepest July-Nov), so it’s not very deep. There are a number of famous temples on the lake, people who live on stilted houses and I’d guess ¼ of it is covered in farming. Trekking area Kalaw is also nearby making a good add-on to a visit here in either direction. You can do a three-day trek to/from. The airport is about one-hour away.

This is a good place to chill-out. A nice hotel is worth it if you can afford it. I really recommend Sanctum Inle Resort – awesome. It’s also famous for a unique rowing style where men use one leg to row using an oar, while standing on their boat. Today there are many such persons waiting to pose for photos for tourists out on boats – you should give them a bit of money if you want a good picture. Tourism!!

You have to get out on the lake for a day. There are all kinds of options and companies. I paid more for a boat with a muffler and nice, padded seats. They also arranged a very nice lunch in a local stilted house and we did a bit of kayaking from the house. Scott did Balloons Over Inle and talks about the experience.

If you like off-road biking, check out a bike trip here for a few hours which I really enjoyed. There’s also a winery in the area which is okay – not awesome wine – but a nice location and it’s easy to put down a couple glasses. Combines nicely with a bike tour! Three nights is good.

Trevor: I remember we went through some floating village and landed at some lakeside market where I tried some betel nut… ended up horribly sick. There’s some amazing video of this whole trip that sort of ends there for a few days. Gotta get that transferred off those mini DV tapes…

Conclusion: Overall for these three areas you want to plan on 7-9 nights without rushing. Great experience, all very different from one another and I recommend reading up on the people, history and such of areas you’re visiting.

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See a Photo Gallery of pictures from the areas we talked about on this episode.


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