What shocks me is how unlike Angkor Wat Bagan is. Angkor Wat is an ancient ruin of a city that was rediscovered. There is something solemn, mysterious and hidden about it. Bagan on the another hand is a complex of temples started in the 9th century and continually updated until today. These are living buildings and people are worshipping there. Because if this they have many an anachronistic modern touch. It isn’t often that you are able to feel as if you are discovering something. It feels more as if you are joining a party.
It feels more as if you are joining a party.
I feel kind of bad saying it but there isn’t a whole lot of variety here. The architecture is the same, the décor is the same, the frescos are the same. Seen one seen them all? We were initially disappointed that we would only be spending one day touring Bagan. I am cool with it now. Pagoda, temple, seated Buddha, reclining Buddha, Buddha in the enlightenment position. Sprinkle with gold leaf. Then accidentally spill all the gold leaf.
We did get to an abandoned temple. The grass was taken over and it felt as if we aware all alone in the world. There aren’t many tourist or local but this is one of those times when finding a moment alone enhances the experience. It is different than at the other Pagodas that we have been to. There the crowds were part of the fascination. You can only see so many Pagodas without going mad. When there is so much authenticity to soak up. It is the best part of Myanmar. No one is performing. No one is putting on a show. No one cares that I am here. They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.
They are going about a part of their life and for a little bit I get to share that.
While we are in Bagan we decided that we should go all out and take the balloon ride over the whole site. First of all we woke up at 4:30 in the morning. For the second day in a row. I had never been in a hot air balloon and aside from attending the Wellesley Balloon festival several times. My knowledge of balloon travel is limited to The Wizard of Oz and the part in The Silver Chair where Jill is riding a cloud (weird CS Lewis references FTW!).
The wind shifted before we were picked up so the balloons had to start in a different place than we were initially driven to.. I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) at how many people we picked up. Three separate buses arrived at out hotel. They separate out the different balloon groups. Second surprise: there are 16 people to a balloon. 17 counting the pilot. Our pilot was a young blond man from the south of England who had been doing this for five years. Sometimes real life is so weird.
Sometimes real life is so weird.
There was a safely lecture which was reassuring. I was impressed with how professional and well-handled everything was. I guess I was expecting it to be like what I imagine a hot air balloon ride in China would be like. Which would not include safety. There was an enormous crew of energetic young men who I imagine are the unsung heroes of the operation running about pulling ropes, untwisting balloons, keeping the inflating balloon from rolling over and squashing us.
The take-off didn’t feel like an elevator (I was surprised by this and surprised by my surprise. Why wouldn’t it?) there was a slight initial lurch and then it was airborne. I am surprised by how fast we rose in the air. We were allowed to stand pretty much right away. There are four separate compartment for passengers and Carsten and I were on the inside. Damn Australians and their, “After you's” Jerks.
You don’t really feel as if you are moving. Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.
Even when the balloon spins it feels as if it is the world moving and not you.
Bagan lays spread before you and it is only when you are this high you can see just how huge an area it covers and just how many temples, pagodas, and shrines there are. The gold glints in the morning light and dazzles the eye.
We were incredibly fortunate in our visibility this morning. Often it is too hazy to see as much as we did. We had to stay about 500 feet most of the times because of new regulations which is unfortunate because the lower views were pretty damn impressive and allow a glimpse of life that you normally don’t see.
Afterwards we sat in a makeshift area of a harvested rice paddy and sipped champagne. There was a 4-6 year old trying to sell us “postcards” crayon drawings of Bagan. Both the children and the drawings were so cute that I almost caved and bought one ever though it is pretty clear that it is never a good thing to buy things from children in a random field in Myanmar. No. But so cute.
The afternoon was spent at Mount Popa. It is about an hour's drive from Bagan. It is sheer sided volcanic protrusion with a bustling little town at the base and a truly endless set of stairs to the top. Possibly a couple of thousand. Every time I thought that we had almost come to the top there was another staircase. Barefoot. Because we were going to end up in a monastery. Three things that kept it from being hell: a) the stairs were even b) it wasn’t that hot and there was a breeze c) there was almost constant shade.
We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit.
The stairs were filthy. We have had to been barefoot a lot on this trip and usually the temples are spotless and people are constantly cleaning them as an act of merit. But these steps were covered with paper and pieces of eggs and other shit I do not want to think about. There were people who were half-assedly sweeping and mopping the steps and ask for money. It was constant but it only made the steps slippery.
There were monkeys everywhere and people feeding them. The monkey food was wrapped in paper for some reason and monkeys are not particularly conscientious about disposing of their trash. They are also not afraid of people in the slightest. The monkey's were blatently grabbing peoples food. We were told that sometimes they steal cameras and hold them for ransom in return for more food. I hope that that is an exaggeration because I don't think that the world needs a super smart gang of monkeys in it. One is enough.