It's not hard to reach Inle Lake from Mandalay—and once you arrive you'll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful views in Myanmar. It's roughly a 6-hour drive, sometimes less, between Myanmar's former capital and the cluster of waterways and river canals that make up Inle Lake. The distance is about 160 miles (260km) by road.
There are a handful of options for transportation including plane, private vehicle, minivan, bus, or train. The times range from 35 minutes by plane to a sluggish 27 hours by train.
If none of those options sound appealing, you can also book this 10-day trip which brings you through both cities (and includes a hot air balloon ride too), or this 8-day tour that features a cultural exchange with silk-weavers and monks.
Duration: 35 minutes
Air travel is the fastest and easiest way to get from Mandalay to Inle Lake by far. At least five arilines (Golden Myanmar Airlines, Mann Yadanarpon Airlines, Myanmar National Airlines, Myanmar Airways International (MAI), and Air KBZ) all operate direct flights that will take you from Mandalay International Airport (MDL), 20 miles (35 km) outside Mandalay in Tada-U, to He Hoe Airport (HEH), about 35 minutes outside Inle Lake.
Once you arrive in He Hoe, you can grab a taxi and be in Nyaung Shwe, the tourist hub of Inle Lake, in about 45 minutes. When you add up time to and from the airports and getting through security, the total trip time is about 4 hours—still much faster than traveling by road.
By Private Vehicle
Duration: 5.5 to 6 hours
Another fairly convenient way to get to Inle Lake if you'd rather skip the airport lines is to go by private vehicle.You have two options for this—hire a driver or rent a car. Whichever one you decide on, your journey will be the same.
You'll begin by taking Route 1 out of town until you arrive at the exit for Route 411. Follow this south for 130 miles (210km) to the junction toward Augpan. Head east for an hour to Shwenyaung, then south a few more miles to Nyaung Shwe. This is the main town and center of activity around Inle Lake.
Duration: 6 hours
Taking a minivan is an OK option if you're on a budget and you want to get there slightly faster than by bus. However, it's not quite as comfortable—and not much shorter—so unless you're in a big hurry the buses are actually better options.
Duration: 6.5 to 7 hours
Although traveling by bus can sometimes conjure images of cramped people in hot, sticky spaces, the buses from Mandalay to Inle Lake are actually pretty comfortable. They all have air conditioning with reclining seats and reasonable legroom. Additionally, they typically provide water, snacks, and charging ports for your devices. JJ Express, which is the primary bus operator, runs night buses that depart late evening and arrive just before sunrise. The VIP buses pick you up at your hotel and drop you off at the Nyaung Shwe bus station. From there, you can take a taxi to your accommodation.
Duration: 24 to 27 hours
Train travel is the slowest way to get to Inle Lake by a long shot and the cars are not renown for their comfort. They're often overcrowded with notably bumpy, jostling tracks that are unpleasant for anyone prone to motions sickness. That said, the views out of the windows are beautiful so if you have extra time and don't mind lack of creature comforts, it's an OK option.
If you do decide to make the journey, begin by taking a train from Mandalay to Thazi. You'll stay there overnight and take an early morning train to Shwenyaung (this route is exceptionally scenic). From there, it's a 30-minute taxi or bus ride south to Nyaung Shwe.