Beautiful Bagan (with balloons!)

After missable Mandalay, we luxuriously flew to Bagan rather than take a bus. It was very nice to do so. The airport even sold Italian gelato and we indulged in that while waiting for our flight. We arrived in Bagan in the evening, checked into our hotel and then promptly continued the Italian theme by going out for pizza at an actual wood-fired pizza restaurant. Callum does all of this begrudgingly as he is of the school of thought that we should be eating authentic local food and experiencing only local things. I do get a bit tired of fried rice and noodle dishes with questionable meats, though. And pizza is my number one favourite food. I am of the school of thought that bad pizza is better than no pizza. But this pizza was actually decent! Not too much cheese and a lovely crust.

People don’t go to Bagan for the pizza, however, the main draw is of course the thousands upon thousands of pagodas. In fact, Bagan used to have over 10,000 of the suckers, but only a mere 2,200 remain. I know, a bit stingy on the pagodas. We were keen to see the beautiful plains with stupas poking out through the sunny golden light in the afternoon and the dreamy mist of the dawn.

Our first day we took it easy and enjoyed the half-way decent WIFI. We foolishly wasted an entire golden morning just hanging out in our room. We did get an e-bike later in the afternoon. An e-bike is an electronic scooter which silently bumps along the uneven roads and glides across the dusty ones leading to pagoda entrances. I had my claws out the entire first two hours, hanging on for dear life and praying for angels to protect us because the darn things don’t come with helmets. I insisted we go slow–a cheerful 30 km/hour was quite fast enough for me, thank you very much.

The pagodas were neat to see, but after a few hours I realised that all of them are. exactly. the. same. You ride up, get off the bike, walk up to the entrance, remove your shoes, go in, see a Buddha, walk around and see another, and another and one more for good luck. Most pagodas have 4 Buddhas so that he can see in all directions. All of them have at least one Buddha. I was much more interested in the outside of the pagoda temples than I was of the inside. I stopped going in and let Callum explore to his heart’s content.

Our second day it rained the entire morning and early afternoon. We started to get a bit depressed and annoyed at ourselves for having wasted the morning before. Lo and behold, the rain stopped at 1pm and we went out for some air and more pagoda looking despite the chilliness after the rain.

Our third morning we awoke at 5am to get ready for our pick-up for a very exciting thing indeed: our hot air balloon ride!!! This has been a thing I always kind of wanted to since I saw “The Wizard of Oz” a billion times on VHS. Not just any VHS. Recorded from television VHS. With bunny ears. So the picture wasn’t always clear…but man, my sister and I wore out those tapes. The strange character of “Oz” at the end of the film when he’s in the balloon and confesses to not knowing how to work it always made me laugh. Also he was in a balloon! What? People can ride in those??! As I am a nervy flyer and also afraid of everything including heights, I did feel dubious about actually fulfilling my dream. But I braved the situation and also looked forward to it at the same time. We got up, got driven to pick up more tourists from their hotels, and then this French guy came on wearing a “Balloons Over Bagan” button-down and asked if we could all understand English. He apologized, but the flight was cancelled due to some bad weather and some strong winds which they didn’t like the look of. Since they take safety very seriously, all 24 balloons were not going to be flying that day. I was disappointed but absolutely put my faith in this guy because obviously, you also want safety to be number one for yourself.

Luckily, because of some savvy research and planning from my travel agent (read: Callum) who learned that this could happen, he had planned that we would stay in Bagan for one more morning and therefore had the option of re-booking for the following day as a contingency plan on the off-chance that the weather would cooperate. For some people on our bus, they were crushed because it was their last day and they were flying out of Myanmar that night or early the next morning. So we were lucky in that regard. We re-booked our flight for the next day and even had some other options since our next destination was only an hour away, at Mount Popa.

Since we were awake at 530am, we took the opportunity to see the pagodas at sunrise. We went to an area of the pagodas where Callum knew we could climb one of the pagodas in order to get the best view. Side note: people used to be able to climb all of the pagodas but it is now not allowed because they are not structurally sound since the earthquake Bagan suffered three years ago. All of the stairs going up the inside have an iron gate on them which is locked. Out of all 2,200 pagodas, people have found a way to climb two of them. Until the government finds out, these two pagodas have people climbing all over them like monkeys because it really is the best view of the whole area.
We got up to the roof of the pagoda and claimed a spot to stand. Everyone was really respectful and took off their shoes, even though we were all tourists. It was still and dark still, with a dim grey-blue light starting to waken the sky. I tried taking a few photographs but without a tripod, it truly was impossible to get a perfectly clear shot. And then, the mist started rolling in. It covered everything and Callum and I both had the same thought at the same time: good thing we weren’t in a balloon, unable to see anything and frustrated at having wasted so much money. Cal said “That guy was a genius telling everyone that it wasn’t safe to fly; he probably knew there was mist and fog forecast so decided to cancel. otherwise he’d have a bunch of people complaining they couldn’t see a thing.” We waited around until about 715am to see if the rising sun would burn off the fog, but it didn’t. We went home, had some breakfast and a rest, then went to the balloons office to re-book for the following morning. We looked at more pagodas after that until I got tired and needed a break. I was pagodad-out, to be honest. I think Callum was too.

The next day the weather cooperated and we got to do our balloon ride! It was soooo interesting. I felt vastly reassured because our pilot seemed to take safety extremely seriously and had very strict and specific rules and guidelines. We were given clear instructions about what to do and when and how. Watching the whole process of getting the balloons ready was fascinating. We had to wait behind a red line while the crew was doing that and watch closely for the signal to come and jump into the balloon. I was the first one in our little quadrant –four quadrants for four people plus a fifth little space called the cockpit which we weren’t allowed to touch. I liked being close to the pilot becuase it was the warmest spot, right under the flames and also I felt more insulated and safe. I had imagined the basket would only come up to my waist and I’d feel like I could easily fall out. But the edge came up to my armpits and when we sat for landing, we were really inside quite low, hanging onto the rope handles.

The take off was so gentle it didn’t even feel like we left the ground. The crew cheekily waved and cheered, shouting “See you tomorrow!” which made us all laugh (a bit nervously?) Our balloon was the first one in the air, so we got to see all the others come up after us and we got a clear view of everything. Wow, seeing the temples from that perspective was truly special. The sunrise was gorgeous and there was a small amount of wispy mist curling around the base of temples, to give it that mystical sort of look. We went up so high! Almost 3000 feet and then later in the flight we went down as low as 300 feet, then back up again. I wanted to ask our pilot 1000 questions but he was really busy keeping us alive so I only asked a couple. He was also on the radio a lot as there was constant communication with all of the other balloons. They had to watch where everyone was so there weren’t any collisions. I did find out that our pilot had been doing this since 1985 and that in the off season in Myanmar, he goes to Kenya and does balloon safaris. We also learned that you can’t really steer the balloon. It just sort of goes where the wind takes it, so the landing spot is different every day. The controls are up or down, and spinning in a circle. Milton was on the walkie-talkie to his specific crew several times to let them know where he thought the balloon would end up.

I was so busy taking pictures that I had no time to be nervous. Now I want to do a balloon ride in Turkey, in Kenya and anywhere else where it would be worth it! Once we landed, the crew were there to help us land, which was just a small bump that wasn’t alarming at all. The crew grabbed the ropes to help tether us to the ground. The rest of the guys set up chairs and a table and starting pouring champagne and laying out banana bread and croissants. It was so luxurious! I was just as fascinated with how they deflated the balloon and packed everything up as I was with the ride itself. Such a process!

I highly recommend going to Bagan to see the pagodas and more importantly, to do the balloon ride. It is not cheap and set us back about $1000 AUD, but is one of those things that can’t be missed. Going to Bagan and not doing a balloon ride is like going to Disneyland and not going on any rides, just looking at them. Just save your money and do it.

We both feel that we didn’t need as much time in Myanmar as we spent: we were there for 16 days and we could’ve done it in 10 with flights instead of buses. There are definitely countries we’ve been to where you would need months to see it properly like Canada, America, Italy, India, etc. But Myanmar is one of those places where just a highlights tour would be adequate, especially since a good portion of the country is not safe for tourism yet. We are glad and thankful we went and experienced what we did, and we very much enjoyed the highlights, but don’t feel like we need to go back.


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