We had heard mixed reviews about Inle Lake and given that Mike needed to get back stateside sooner rather than later, we opted to skip it. If you do have a chance, I'd recommend incorporating it into your visit, as I'm sure it would be worth a short stay.
There are several options for getting from Yangon to Bagan. You can hire a car, take an overnight bus, or fly. Although the internet is filled with warnings about flying in Myanmar given their short domestic aviation record and ample accident history, we opted to fly based on the recommendation of the Mango Hill's proprietor. Although expensive (about $100 one way), it was incredibly easy and convenient. Purchase tickets through your hotel, who will arrange a courier to collect payment and provide confirmation (and can also help you select a safe domestic carrier). When you head to the airport, you'll exchange your confirmation note for handwritten tickets and then breeze through the easiest security check possible. Then you'll wait in the general gate area until your flight number is called over the airport telecom and signaled by a placard with your carrier' name. After a short one hour flight, you'll arrive Nyaung U Airport where you can negotiate a fare into New Bagan. Old Bagan only has a couple of more upscale places to stay, so you'll find most of the accommodations in New Bagan or in Nyaung U.
The backpacker hub is Ostello Bello Hostel. It's located in center of town and surrounded by restaurants and other services like laundry and e-bikes. We stayed here one night in a separate room (we both agreed that our days of shared dormitories with this crowd were behind us), but after that initial night they didn't have any availability for a private room so we moved over to the nearby Myanmar Treasure Resort to escape the constant hostel hubbub. Mike was especially looking forward to the hotel's pool, but then came back pretty defeated when he told me that all the "Ostello Bellos" paid a day fee to invade his Treasure Resort pool-side serenity.
After a stroll around New Bagan, you quickly realize there's really only one activity to do here. Everyone rents an e-bike (definitely opt for the bigger ones or you'll find yourself with a host of issues like flat tires, dead batteries, etc.) and heads towards the temple complex before sunrise and sunset each day. Pick the temples you'll aim to visit before each outing and navigate there through a mixture of roads and dirt paths. Explore a couple of the smaller temples on your way to your final destination, which should be a temple tall enough to view the incredible sunsets and sunrises. Find a nice ledge to sit on and then take pictures for an hour–you won't get tired of it.
We thoroughly enjoyed revving up our e-bikes and exploring the vast complex of scattered temples in Bagan. Each temple is unique and if you're lucky, you'll find yourself in an almost deserted one with an uninterrupted view. Brush your hand against the exposed and eroded brick exteriors, crawl up small hidden stairways, and climb up steps and stupas to be rewarded with memorable views and experiences. Be sure to pack some water, a longyi, and a headlamp, as your e-bike lights may not be sufficient. On one of our outings I actually randomly ran into my friend Andrea, who I hadn't seen in years while we were navigating some dirt backroads, and on another Mike and I met an engaging globe-hopping couple who we shared a meal with after a Bagan sunset.
During the day, you'll want to just escape the unbearable heat. Additionally, there are a scattering of great restaurants in the area to visit to bookend your temple excursions. We spent 4 nights in the area, but 3 would have been perfect. Unfortunately during our visit the hot air balloons were grounded, as they only operate from October to April. And whatever you do, don't visit Mt. Popa–it may seem like a great trip at first (especially since we had run out of things to do by then), but once you see all the peddlers, beggars, and mutilated monkeys along the stairway to the top, you'll want to turn back immediately and seriously shower.
- 7 Sisters: An open air restaurant run by 7 sisters that serves a mixture of Burmese, Chinese, Thai, and European cuisines.
- Black Rose Restaurant: Conveniently located in the town center and across from Ostello Bello. Reasonably priced standard fare.
- Be Kind to Animals the Moon: Yes that's the name of the restaurant and you should go here. Likely the best vegetarian restaurant in the area, with a mixture of international and local food. And if I remember correctly, they have ice cream as well.
- Nanda Restaurant and Puppet Show: A couple we met while exploring the temples suggested sharing a meal at this restaurant that has a mixture of Burmese and Chinese food. More memorable than the food, was a discussion of current state of affairs of American politics with our foreign friends while watching an extravagant puppet show.
Additionally Ostello Bello has some well-priced fare and the occasional complimentary leftovers. The Myanmar Treasure Resort's food wasn't anything noteworthy, although on one night they were having their annual company party and we were extended invitations. This was a pretty massive and loud affair, a mixture of EDM, an extensive Burmese buffet, and male-dominated drinking. After about an hour of awkwardly viewing presentations, awards, and drunken story telling in a language we didn't comprehend, we snuck away to our room and tried to drown out the bass-heavy EDM with our earplugs.
We planned to depart from Mandalay and had arranged a bus ride there, which included short portions to and from the bus stations in the back of a pickup truck. In Mandalay we stayed one night at a budget hotel and grabbed a nice meal at MinGaLaBar with my friend Andrea and some of her friends. The city is truly one to be skipped.