The short afternoon hop to Bagan had no surprises. A pleasant, short – even for Myanmar standards – driver took us to the excellent Areindmar Hotel in new Bagan, a great difference from the rather indifferent hotels we slept in Yangon and Mandalay. The weather was hot and the mosquito population alarming, but at the time of writing, there was no malaria threat in this part of the country, so the generous application of anti-mosquito spray was only intended to avoid the annoying itching. We were already two days in Myanmar, but the jet-lag was still present. We chose to stay in and have dinner by the beautiful swimming pool. The food in Myanmar has been ok so far, not great, but good enough and this restaurant was no exception.
We woke up at 5am to drive to the take-off spot for our hot-air balloon flight over the old Bagan area. That was my very first hot-air balloon ride, so everything seemed exciting. We took off as soon as the sun emerged from the horizon. We were sixteen people plus the pilot in each balloon and more than 20 balloons flying on that particular morning. To describe this sensational experience is beyond my writing abilities, so I ll keep to the basics. We flew at about 100 meters above countless, orange painted temples and stupas, scattered among greenfields. The colorful balloons added some additional amazingness in the scenery. The whole time, I was in hyper alert trying to balance between clicking the shutter button like a mad man and taking some time off to enjoy the spectacle. It lasted about 45 awesome minutes.
We went back to the hotel for breakfast were our guide and car were waiting. The pagoda safari took us through the monumental Shwesandaw pagoda (a.k.a. the Golden Hair Stupa), the Htilominlo temple and the Khay Min Gha paya, with the interesting mural paintings.
After this religious tourism overdose we took a break to visit the Bagan market. In the local markets in Myanmar, everything is on sale: fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, cooked food, pottery, electric appliances, household items, clothing, you name it!
The market was just outside the Ananda temple, one of four surviving temples in Bagan. Built in 1105 AD, in a fusion of Mon and adopted Indian architectural style, it was damaged by the 1975 earthquake, but it is now fully restored. The temple layout is in a cruciform with several terraces leading to a small pagoda at the top. The Buddhist temple houses four standing 10m-high Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of East, North, West and South. One of the buddha images is changing his expression – from serious to smiling to laughing – depending on the distance of the observer!
The afternoon visit to a lacquer sweat-shop was rather unpleasant and brought up the issue of the working conditions in southeast Asian countries. The subsequent boat ride in the river against the sunset, was pleasant but nothing memorable to be honest.
I asked our guide where could I find a quiet place to see the sunrise the next morning and he pointed out a not-so-popular temple, some 20 minutes away from New Bagan. I arranged for an electric scooter and started at 5:30am. I had some directions, but I had to stop and ask a couple of times to get it right. After driving for about 20 min in complete darkness, a local guy overtook me with his scooter and waved hello. He said there was an interesting temple around the corner, which was luckily what I was looking for. I doubt that I could find it myself if this guy did not show up. He was on his way to the temple to sell his collection of sand-painted pictures and was also serving as the informal gatekeeper. He showed me the way to the top, a narrow, slippery stairway, not for the claustrophobic. The minute I set my foot on the top I felt like a king. There I was, all alone, waiting for the sun to rise in one of the most iconic places to photograph on earth. I enjoyed every minute of the next ninety minutes, watching the sun rising from the greenfields, the balloons passing by and the light changing continuously. Probably the highlight of the trip.