We decided that the best way for us to travel from Bagan to Mandalay was via a 9 hour boat trip up the famous Irrawaddy River.
This was definitely the right decision. After a jam-packed few days in Bagan, it was unexpectedly nice being stuck in a boat with nowhere to go.
We talked to a tour operator in Bagan, and decided that the MGRG Express was our best option. Don't pay any attention to the word 'express' - it's still 9 hours long.
I think we paid about $35 US each. This includes breakfast, lunch (fried rice or noodles) and water. And you can buy beers on board!
We were picked up by the company at 5.30am, and were taken to the boat. Don't freak out when you have about 15 men surround your van in the darkness...I think they are just boat helpers. You then descend down the sand bank to the skinny, wooden planks you walk across to get onto the boat - don't fall! Get on, grab your seats - sit up on top deck - and relax. You'll get your breakfast right away. Also, there is unlimited tea and coffee in the morning.
The pay off of having to get up so early was that you get to watch the sunrise over the river (as long as you don't sleep through it....). It was incredible, and pretty captivating watching life on the river wake up.
It can get quite hot up on top, so bring sunscreen and seek out lower deck if you need to cool off slightly. Also take some extra food, you don't get served that much for lunch and breakfast, and there is nothing extra to buy.
We spent the day napping the sun, reading, playing cards, and drinking beer. It was a much-needed break.
We arrived in Mandalay around 4pm. The last hour is probably the best part of the trip, after sunrise, as the hills around Mandalay are dotted with pagodas and Buddha statues. Make sure you're awake for this!
To get off the boat we had to walk across 3 other boats so be careful as you have to carry your luggage. You'll get swamped by taxis when you get off, barter a good price, or walk up to the street and along a bit to find a cheaper one.
Then get ready for a crazy stay in frenetic Mandalay!