Balloons, bikes and Bagan

‘Must remember to research where I’m going’.  This is my new mantra, as Bagan is not just Bagan, oh no, it is Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang-U (missus) where the train terminates and also where a lot of people tend to stay (and more importantly, where the good food is).  Old Bagan is exactly that, and where the poshest places are, so wasn’t going to be staying there, was I? Nope, I was in New Bagan, where the Old Baganians were relocated to, shenanigans Baganians weren’t happy with back in the day.

New Bagan is really just one main street with a couple of off-shoots.  Streets would imply a level of roadworthiness, these are mostly sand tracks, albeit in a grid structure. None of the 3 locations were within walking distance of one another, all were just far enough away to require transportation of some kind or another – hence the need to maybe do a bit more than hope to absorb information by merely looking at a name on a map.

No matter, for first up was a hot air balloon, for which in order to get my spot in a wicker basket a 1000ft up in the air I would have sold my mother if I could have (sorry mum!) but as it was, credit card sufficed.  Up at stupid o’clock into the cool morning air.  Locals are wrapped up in scarves, balaclavas, jackets and gloves, weirdo tourists have slung a cardie on and got socks on with their sandals just in case.  A number of us are collected, herded together and driven to a field where 20+tables are laid out complete with tablecloths and cutlery, where we are served fresh tea, coffee and croissants. Then it was rollcall – you could tell that whoever set this up had been at British boarding school, I was fully expecting us to have to shout ‘Sir’ when our names were called out by our balloon master / driver / pilot / man.

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Luckily I wasn’t to be in the group with the Kiwis, so no arse to view today, instead it was me, and a group of Danes, one of whom was blind and 6 French.  Total 12 to a balloon, 3 to a quarter of wicker basket.  Why these baskets don’t have a little door in the side that latches shut is beyond me? It can’t be that difficult – you can get pet carriers that are better thought through than this as a means of transportation.  As it was the blind lady and a French woman with a broken arm had to be put into the basket as it was on their side, so they were left there lying horizontal as the balloon inflated and tipped them upright.  How’s about that for decorum?

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Anyhooooow, safety briefing done, basically ignoring the bit about flames and material being a hazardous mix resulting in plummeting to earth and dying, a quick practice of how to sit when landing and we were off…sloooooowly…and gently upward.  It was the most surreal feeling – to be floating skyward with just the use of hot air.  All around us were these money making balloons in either green, red or yellow depending on the company – There was about $100,000 of spend up in the air viewing the temples.  That too was a surreal feeling. I’ll leave it to you to work out what that looks likes financially for 6months of flying per year.

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Money making machines are go!

You couldn’t deny that it was an amazing experience. For that, it was worth every penny.

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We couldn’t go too high, air traffic control were advising to stay to about 1000ft, so it was clear we weren’t going to be getting a long session out of the ride. All the balloons were communicating back and forth, so as not to crash into one another, and to get a sense of the direction we would be heading in and where we’d therefore be touching down.  We drifted our way across the temple site, circling around some temples, watching people below waving up at us.

After an hour we descending to the ground, landing in and amongst the other balloons.  Once the balloon was deflated we were out of the basket, not always in a dignified fashion and all brought together for a glass of champage and some fruit.  Certificates followed, handed out to us by our pilots and then we were back into the vans and back to the hotel, just in time to miss breakfast!

The day was just warming up and it was onto phase two of getting to see as much of Bagan as possible, as I was then meeting my guide for the next two days – Mr Kyaw Swe, native Baganian, tour guide and previous horse and cart man and farmer.  We were soon off and out for a full on day of temple-tasticness.

Bagan is pretty earthquake prone, the last being in August 2016, which damaged over 180 temples and resulting in a number of temples no longer being accessible to climb up.  Most of the remaining 2000+ temples, stupas, pagodas and monasteries date from the 10th to 12th centuries and it seems that much of the earthquake damage was caused by the additional weight of new domes and ‘fancy bits’of brickware being added in the 90s as part of a botched renovation attempt by the military. Hundreds of the buildings and stupa have had these often concrete poor constructions added, and so when the earthquake hit they quickly came loose and fell, causing damage to the ancient monuments they had been stuck on to.  The plan therefore seems to be, wisely, to not replace but rather restore appropriately.  The temples are covered in bamboo scaffolding that looks like a net protecting the domes. Some of those being worked on have intricate bamboo stairs running around them.

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Bamboo scaffolding to protect the dome

At the start of the day I’d stupidly thought I’d remember what the names were of the temples we were visiting, but quickly figured that that wasn’t a plan that was going to last as I was bombarded with dates, kings, buddha stories, information about buddha types, mudras, murals, umbrellas, glazed friezes, and history.  Overwhelming is an understatement, combined with the heat of the day my brain was frying with trying to remember everything. Trying to photograph signage wasn’t always possibly as it was often in Burmese so the task of trying to figure out what was where begins.

What makes it so different to Angkhor Wat is that the Burmese used murals to decorate the interiors of their temples rather than carving.  Over the years these have started to disappear, due to people either deliberately damaging them (e.g. stealing, as in the case of a German archaeologist in 1899 who hacked off some frescoes, leaving his name carved into the brickwork), or accidentally (from smoke damage), or in some cases, farm animals rubbing up against the walls (there was a brick wall set up outside one temple to stop the cows from wandering in, as they’d come in to get out of the sun).  Some temples also had original 11th century murals painted over in the 1800s by people who wanted to ‘improve’ the images.  As a lot of the temples are dark inside, with limited light (originally designed to protect the images) a lot of tourists were wandering in, clicking a phone at the buddha(s) then wandering back out, failing to see what else was there to see.  Without a guide it’s likely I’d have ended up doing the same, getting temple fatigued in the process. I’ll post more photos separately.

As well as spending time with Kway Swe, I also did a Grasshopper Tours bike ride one morning, so I got to be on the receiving end of the balloons rising as well. Cycling on sand wasn’t my finest hour(s) but getting out and exploring under my own steam was a great way to try and join the dots. We cycled past various temples, they are everywhere, in the middle of fields, the edge of villages, round the back of restaurants.  You’re going to have to be a total temple nut to try and get to see all 2200+.  We got to revisit a couple of the temples I’d been to in the past couple of days and I could be Nora Know-it-all and regurigate what I had remembered to the Irish couple who were on the bike ride and had just arrived in.

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Balloons rising – we watched from a destroyed monastery whilst out on a Grasshopper bike tour

As well as temples we also passed through some of the smaller villages, ‘Mingalabar-ing’ our way along to all the kids who came out to wave and jump up and down at us.  Must have been a positive reaction because they weren’t throwing things. We covered 20kms over 4hours and then ate our body weight in noodles and fried food at our teashop last stop. After that lard session we had to be hoisted back into the truck and dropped back to our hotels for a snooze, worn out by chewing rather than peddling. Not even an espresso could repair the damage done by all that food! I was on the home straight, one last push with an e-bike (e for evil – these are electric mopeds, like the worst farts – silent but deadly) to see some sites (I say ‘sites’ I decided to stick mostly to roads, as trying to drive on sand resulted in me failing to go in a straight line and heading more downward into the ground rather than remaining on it).  Sunset was spent at a restaurant where I got to enjoy the delights of a group of British Torygraph lovers, you could spot them a mile off when their leader turned up wearing his ‘look at my red fucking trousers’, Boden’s finest linen. There’ll ideally be a short interlude about sunsets soon.

That was it – all over bar the re-packing and a final dinner.  Next stop was Mandalay.

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