The multitude of pagodas at Bagan are quite a sight from the ground, but the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the ancient city is from up high, where you can see not 5-10, but 50-100 pagodas at once. And when better to do it than at sunrise and sunset, to add some brilliant colors to the mix?
On our first evening in Bagan, we went to Shwesandaw Temple, the most popular sunset spot. With 5 levels and a view that extends to the Irrawaddy river, it’s the most accessible location for the spectacular view. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s the most accessed, so when we got to the temple half an hour before sunset, it was already crawling with tourists and locals trying to sell various goods.
The terrace was already filled to the point where people were sitting on the steep, 2-ft-tall steps that came up to my knees (thank goodness for railings). But looping around from the Southern side, I managed to squeeze my way onto some prime real estate looking out to the West.
About fifteen minutes later, a sly Chinese woman wedged herself behind me and tried to cajole me into trading places (“Come, do you want to rest against the wall? Let’s switch”), but I shook my head with wide eyes and pretended not to understand. If I let go of that spot, there was no way I was going to find my way back. This was the level below us when we first arrived, to give you an idea:
And the temple from afar during the sunset, courtesy of my Dad, who made the smart decision to walk among the other temples instead of trying to squeeze on to this one:
It was a long and literally crushing wait, but we were awarded with a gorgeous view. And a special treat–there were invisible, low-hanging clouds over the mountains, so the sun “set” twice:
Having seen sunset, we woke early the next morning for sunrise from an even better vantage point: a hot air balloon.
A rickety but charming old bus with wooden windows pulled up to the hotel to pick us up at 5:50am, and it brought us to an open launch area where the crew was waiting for us with folding chairs, coffee, and tea.
Limp balloons lay nearby, and after our pilot had explained the necessary safety procedures and corralled us in a secure area, the crew started to blow them up. First a fan for cool air to inflate them, and then burners for the hot air to lift them.
The pilot walked into the balloon at various times to check that the strings inside weren’t tangling as the balloon inflated, which I imagine is like being in the biggest game of parachute EVER.
One by one the balloons stood upright and took off, until finally we were the last ones left on the ground. Great. Not only did we select the slowest company (yellow and green balloons drifted by while our red ones were still slumped on their sides), but we had the slowest balloon. The slowest of the slow. By the time we actually got some air, the sun was already well above the horizon.
As it turns out, though, there are benefits to being last. We could take pictures of temples framed by all of the other floating balloons as we approached, and again with clear skies as we passed.
But I have to admit that the pictures are more exciting with balloons in them:
And we more than made up for the late start by cruising by the river, over fields of peanuts, dunes of sand, and ox carts in motion (of course we have no pictures of them though, because we had to put our cameras away in preparation for landing). However, the wind wasn’t behaving quite like the pilot anticipated, so we ended up pretty far in the sand…and tipped over.
We were all in landing position (sitting on the bench, gripping onto straps in front of us with our arms outstretched and locked) and the balloon tipped slowly, so it was more comical than alarming. Two passing locals took one look at us and burst out laughing, without the slightest intention of concealing their merriment. I can’t say I blame them, who wouldn’t laugh at 16 foreigners laying sideways in a basket?
While the landing was fun, finding our way out of the sand wasn’t. It was a 30-minute trek to the nearest village with a road big enough for a bus to drive on to pick us up, but we did pass some scenes of unspoiled village life along the way.
I felt sorry for the crew, who were going to have follow the same path with all of the equipment loaded on ox carts because vehicles couldn’t drive on the sand. Pilot Barry definitely wasn’t gaining much love from the company for his unplanned landing, but he sure scored major points with us for the one-of-a-kind experience! We were all served a glass of champagne and delicious banana bread once we completed our trek as well, so it was quite a delightful ending – technically beginning (to the day), since at that point it was only 9:30am.
Of all the sun-chasing that we did in Myanmar, Bagan was the most difficult. The views are quite stunning and unique, though, so that makes the long waits, suffocating crowds, and sandy shoes all worthwhile.