Perhaps the easiest way to check out Bagan, although certainly the most expensive — albeit well-worth the splurge — is via a hot air balloon.
by Dave Stamboulis.
Dawn is a special time in Bagan. The weather is cool, the air is still, and chants from the surrounding monasteries fill the air. Photographers and avid temple tourists climb impossibly steep stairs by flashlight beam, navigating stone steps so vertical as to induce dizziness upon reaching the top. On Shwesandaw Paya, a five-terraced cylindrical pagoda, built by King Anawrahta in 1057, the eager crowd flocks to the southeast wall, awaiting the coming of the sun.
It’s homage of sorts, to one of Southeast Asia’s most iconic and magnificent sights. The temples of Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, number over 2000, all spread out on an arid sandy plain nestled up next to the Ayeryarwady River (Irrawaddy to most English speakers). There were originally 10,000 temples here, built from the 9th century onwards, part of an empire of Burmese kings and Buddhist scholars, which flourished from the mid 1000’s to around 1287, after which a series of Mongol invasions led to its decline.
Earthquakes have also helped to decimate the temples, as Bagan sits along a fault line, and while the former military government of Burma didn’t mess with the holy site (although they did do some disputed nouvelle restorations), Myanmar’s former status as a pariah state kept Bagan well off the map for most of mass tourism.
These days, the temples and ruins are the darling of the Southeast Asian tourist trade, and Myanmar’s most visited destination. While roads and infrastructure have been improved, with a small airport in the village of Nyaung U handling a dozen flights a day and leading to speeded access, Bagan still remains a sleepy and extremely atmospheric place. The main temples next to the road get the bus tourists coming in for sunset and if they can manage the early wake up call, sunrise, but there are still hundreds of temples that lie down sand tracks, which either have to be navigated on foot or with a bicycle, and the most jaded traveller can still find a set of stone steps to ascend via a hidden passage, to a rooftop terrace overlooking the plains, with nary a tourist in sight.
Perhaps the easiest way to check out Bagan, and certainly the most expensive, although well worth the romantic splurge, is via hot air balloon. Khin Omar Win, a Burmese raised in the UK, had returned to Myanmar in the late 1990’s to pursuit tourism development, and she teamed up with Australian Brett Melzer, who had also come to Myanmar to find an opportunity in tourism, and the duo launched a novel small company with a lone balloon and a crew of eight, taking intrepid travellers soaring over the temples of Bagan. Their outfit, Balloons Over Bagan (www.easternsafaris.com), now has 12 balloons, 16 foreign pilots, and well over 100 local staff. It has become the most talked about tourist must-do while in Myanmar.
Just before sunrise, in a field near the holy Shwezigon Pagoda, balloons are pumped up, filled with gas, and set soaring for the flight of a lifetime. The baskets attached to the balloons can hold either eight passengers, or else 16 separated into four compartments, and the flights take around 45 minutes to an hour, with a celebratory champagne breakfast included in the finish.
The views from above are spectacular, watching the sun rising in the east, with the temples either silhouetted or turned flaming orange by the glowing ball of the sun, depending on which side one looks out at. The balloons languidly drift over Dhammayangyi, Sulamani, Ananda Patho, and all the most famed temples of Bagan, with views further on across the Ayeyarwady and even across to Mount Popa, a temple complex perched on a cliff top, when the weather is clear. Bagan is situated in this completely arid zone, meaning that most of the year, almost no rain falls, and in the bone dry winter, haze rising off the ground creates what looks like mist rising from the temples, making the entire sight look even that much more mystical.
Farmers are up early, taking their herds of cattle out to graze, or riding in their photogenic ox-carts with giant teak wheels. Young novice monks begin their morning alms runs, and one even sees long queues of nuns, in their pale pink robes, making their way to pray and study. Myanmar is incredibly rural, slow, and enchanting, and Bagan offers an excellent introduction to the aptly named Golden Land.
In Bagan, tourists can choose to stay right next to the Ayeyarwady on the riverbanks in Old Bagan, right in the heart of the Archaeological Zone, where a few older and quite expensive hotels are located. Budget travelers make for the bustling village of Nyaung U, where the airport, market, and largest array of shops and restaurants can be found, and there is also a third alternative, New Bagan, where a newer village was built after the temple zone was closed to building, where there are fantastic resorts like the new Bagan Lodge (http://bagan-lodge.com), offering ultra-comfortable spacious boutique rooms, along with a couple of fabulous swimming pools.
As the sun set on another bright and toasty Bagan winter day, I climbed the stairs of North Guni, a small temple hiding in the shadow of the massive Dhammayangyi temple next door. Replicating my journey a decade earlier back when Burma was a no-go, there still weren’t any tourists around. I found a western facing perch and watched the sun sink slowly over the barren mountain range overlooking the river and plains. Farmers returned home with their cattle, the herds kicking up clouds of dust that only served to enhance the atmosphere, bathing the ground and temples in a particle filled golden light.
While the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia may be just as captivating, their ambience is usually marred by busloads numbering in the thousands. Here in Bagan, the future may be on the way, but it is still arriving slowly.
How to get there:
Nyaung U Airport is the main gateway. Several domestic airlines fly regularly to Yangon (about 80 minutes), Mandalay (30 minutes), and to Heho (about 40 minutes). The airport is about 20 minutes by taxi from Bagan.
Where to stay:
The 5-star Aureum Palace is well recommended, as are Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary and The Hotel at Thrabar Gate (4-star). There are also several 3-star hotels in the area.
Where to eat and drink:
Many places in Old Bagan serve traditional Burmese dishes. Bagan-Nyaung Oo Rd. have alfresco restaurants serving budget meals. There are also many tourist restaurants.