Discover Myanmar’s Ancient Capitals: Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan - 8 Days

For first-time visitors to Myanmar looking to discover the country through its people and history, this trip plan is the perfect fit. In 8 days you will experience three very diverse destinations that reflect Myanmar's complex and colorful past as well as its rich culture. 

Highlights

  • Meet with an astrologer in the shadow of Shwedagon Pagoda
  • Hop on Yangon's commuter train for a look at true local life
  • Cycle through Inwa, one of Myanmar's former royal capitals
  • Sip tea and sample traditional snacks at a Mandalay tea shop
  • Wander through a 'secret' cave temple
  • Cruise along the Irrawaddy River to Bagan

Overview

This trip begins and ends in Yangon, a vibrant city reflecting the country's rich traditions and its rapid move into the 21st century. Pay homage at the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda, wander past fading colonial buildings and hop a ride on Yangon's fascinating commuter train all the while gaining insight into the local culture.

Then travel to Mandalay, a city immortalized by the poet Rudyard Kipling and the site of Myanmar's last royal kingdom. Follow in the footsteps of kings, visiting the last remaining building from the royal palace, cycling through the smaller former kingdom of Inwa, discovering Myanmar's spiritual side in Sagaing and more.

The final stop of this Myanmar adventure is Bagan, arriving in the best way possible: by boat. Your days in Bagan are filled with temple exploration, village visits and immersing yourself into the ways of life of the local residents.

Overview map

Detailed itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Yangon

Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon
Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon

Welcome to Myanmar! After clearing customs at the Yangon International Airport, your guide and driver will be waiting to greet you. Transfer into town (30-60 minutes depending on traffic) and check in to your hotel.

Day 2: Yangon Exploration

Fading colonial building in downtown Yangon

Set off for a full day exploring the former capital of Yangon with an expert local guide, getting a unique perspective on the city's colorful past and its modern ways of life.

You'll start the morning by heading downtown for a walking tour, where an impressive collection of 18th and 19th-century buildings stand alongside more modern structures. Amble down back streets, hearing the stories of these historic buildings and getting a feel for what life is like in Myanmar's largest city.  You will also learn about recent efforts - by the government and private businesses- to restore and repurpose some of these heritage sites. The walk comes to an end at one such building, where you will enjoy a refreshing juice or cup of local tea. 

Later this afternoon, you will visit Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's holiest site.  Explore the pagoda and its surroundings, learning about the country's deep spiritual beliefs and traditions. You will be surrounded by local worshipers and, quite often, Buddhist monks nuns who come to pray at the end of the day. Once night has fallen, return to your hotel for the evening or continue to a local restaurant for dinner.

Day 3: Fly to Mandalay; Discover the last royal capital

Whitewashed stupas at Mandalay's Kuthodaw Pagoda 
Whitewashed stupas at Mandalay's Kuthodaw Pagoda 

It's an early start today with a morning flight to Mandalay, Myanmar's last royal capital. Once off the plan, you will drive into the city with your local guide and pop into a tea shop for a snack. Tea shops are central to Mandalay's social fabric and while you sip sweet tea and try tasty treats, you will be in prime position for some people watching! 

Then you will continue to a fresh market to browse the aisles of produce and spices for sale. After a short walk or drive, you will arrive at the last remaining building of the former royal palace, Shwe Nandaw Kyaung. Explore this stunning teak structure then continue to Kuthodaw Pagoda, a collection of engraved marble slabs referred to as the ‘world's biggest book’.

Next up, stop by the moat of Mandalay Palace for photos, then head to the hotel to check in and take some time to freshen up.

Late this afternoon you will visit a workshop making gold leaf, a painstaking process that has not changed much since the days of the royal kingdom. Buy some if you wish before driving to a Buddhist pagoda rarely visited by tourists. Join the locals to buy offerings and, while walking around this serene site, get an introduction to Myanmar’s Buddhist culture. Then it’s off to dinner at a local restaurant or return to your hotel for dinner (own account).

Day 4: Cycle Historic Ava & Amarapura, Visit spiritual Sagaing

Historic monuments in Ava, one of Myanmar's former royal capitals
Historic monuments in Ava, one of Myanmar's former royal capitals

Fuel up with a good breakfast at the hotel for this morning's cycling adventure. First, you will transfer to the outskirts of town by car to escape the morning rush hour then hop on the bikes for a fabulous ride through the lanes of Inwa and Amarapura. Aside from seeing the sites, you will stop and chat with the friendly locals and discover scenes of rural village life. 

Around midday, you will pedal toward Thaungthaman Lake, home to the world-famous U Bein bridge. This 1.2-kilometer-long teak bridge is the longest of its kind and is the perfect ending point for this morning's bike ride! Relax, enjoy the breeze and take a few photos. 

After snapping some photos you will hop in the car and cross the Irrawaddy River to Sagaing, the Buddhist heart of Myanmar. Drive to the top of Sagaing hill to see some of the 300 Buddhist monuments that fill the town. Returning down the hill, you can stop at some atmospheric old ruins or visit a Buddhist nunnery or monastic education center.  Then it's back to Mandalay for a well-deserved rest.

Day 5: Drive and cruise into Bagan

One of Bagan's ancient temples as seen from the Irrawaddy River
One of Bagan's ancient temples as seen from the Irrawaddy River

Check out of the hotel after breakfast and hop in the car for the start of the journey to Bagan. Leaving Mandalay behind, the landscapes shift as you cross into the dry zone. You will drive through farming communities who grow crops such as garlic, chilies, and peanuts in the arid middle-Myanmar soil. 

Instead of driving all the way to Bagan, you will turn off the main road on the outskirt of the town at the 'hidden' temple of Kyauk Gu U Min. Explore this massive multi-story temple built into the side of a cliff, discovering meditation caves and impressive stone carvings. Then you will walk to the riverside where a private wooden boat awaits. Cast off and cruise the final hour into Bagan along the Irrawaddy River. Enjoy river views and watch as the temples of Bagan come into view in the distance.

Disembark and travel to your hotel for check-in.

Day 6: Bagan's Archaeological Wonders

Dhammayangyi Pagoda, Bagan's largest monument
Dhammayangyi Pagoda, Bagan's largest monument

Spend a full day exploring the temple plains with an expert local guide. During the day you will stop in at famous monuments and some lesser-known sites. You have the choice of traveling by car or opting for electric bikes (like scooters) to cut through the smaller laneways and deliver a truly unforgettable experience.

If you wish, a stop can be made at a lacquerware workshop to see this labor-intensive craft being made by hand. Wrap up the day with sunset viewing from a scenic spot among the temple plains. 

Day 7: Bagan Culinary Adventure - Fly to Yangon

Local produce for sale at Bagan's morning market
Local produce for sale at Bagan's morning market

This last day in Bagan starts with a culinary adventure. You will meet with the lovely Ma May at New Bagan's morning market and together you will shopping for ingredients for lunch. Then it's a short walk to her family home, getting a chance to see what life is like beyond Bagan's temple-filled plains. 

Spend the morning cooking and chatting, learning about the local culture and culinary secrets of Myanmar. (Please note: this is a join-in activity so other guests will join but it is a maximum of six people so it is still a very intimate experience.) 

Return to the hotel for a chance to freshen up and pack before driving to the airport for the return flight to Yangon. A driver will be waiting to greet you and transfer you to your hotel for your final night in Myanmar.

Day 8: Bye for now

The morning is free at leisure until it is time to depart. Your driver (no guide) will collect you at your hotel and transfer you to the international airport for your onward flight.