Trying to count the temples in Bagan, one of Burma’s (and the world’s) richest archaelogical sites, is as futile as counting the freckles on your loved one’s back- but also as irresisitble. Just when you think you’ve spotted them all, another crops up in the most unexpected place.
These unexpected places never cease to amaze. Crumbling and overgrown in the middle of a dry peanut field, oxen and cart convoy slowly creaking by, or smack bang in the middle of a town, dreadlocked tourists flying by on bicycles, standing tall and gold tops shining on the banks of a river, or solitary on an overgrown path with no-one for company apart from the endless blue sky and a leisurely pack of stray dogs.
Choosing how you will see the temples is a bit like a choose your own adventure book. Will you decide to be athletic and outdoorsy, and take the challenge of cycling under the hot sun and through the dusty roads, or opt for the more romantic choice of two astride an electric scooter, wind in your hair and the temples scrolling by?
You could take a tour in a horse and cart, or even in an air conditioned car, but how about via a river boat sunset cruise…or in a hot air balloon?
Call me spoilt, but I have to say the hot air balloon was my favourite of all the choices, and we did try just about all of them (the river boat sunset cruise came a close second).
There is just something so magical about the air and the unrivalled perspective you get from being hundreds of feet high; really appreciating the scale and thinking that maybe this time, you will actually be able to count the amount of temples that are in Bagan, because you can see them all from the luxury of height, their terracotta tops stretching out across the horizon as far as the eye can see.
The entire part of the balloon experience is like part of a spectacular ritual: being picked up in the dark by a reconditioned WW2 van that rattles along the dark, pre-sunrise road, dark enough so you are disoriented and feel that it is mysteriously taking you to a secret location. In the dawn darkness, this is revealed as a field lit solely by the gas fires of each balloon, the empty shell laid out on the ground, flat and lifeless, only to be inflated by the efforts of 10 men and one eternally pumping flame.
There are many things that are astonishing about the whole balloon preparation process – not least how quickly the darkness lifts and the dawn peers over the horizon. The balloons are astonishingly larger than you’d have imagined. Laid flat it’s plain to see the sheer power that goes in to lifting 10 adult passengers off the ground. Then of course, it’s the amount of people it takes to get the balloons to the stage that they can even lift 10 people. Finally, the amount of hot air – tall red flames that look like skinny devils against the navy dawn sky – that’s equired to see us take flight (5 tonnes precisely, in case you were wondering. That’s a lot of hot air. Enough to power a parliamentary debate, according to our pilot).
The balloons go from being flat, incongruous heart shaped things on the ground, then once injected with the requisite air, as vital as blood to a heart, they become a splendour to behold against the rising sun. They rise slowly, off the ground, like petals unfolding, until the fully flourished bloom is ready for us to amble aboard, like ungainly beetles scurrying across its stem.
We take off, and one by one, each balloon slowly follows the first to break the early morning mist. About a dozen identical, pear shaped balloons follows, like pearls falling off a necklace, grapes off a bunch, floating in a diagonal line, as if we were connected.
The temples of Bagan reveal themselves below, still shrouded in a grey, cobweb like, steaming morning mist. It is surreal to say the least. The mist lingers even despite the threatening heat of the sun that inches above the horizon. It is as though Sleeping Beauty has awoken after a hundred years of deep slumber, to find that her kingdom is still entranced underneath an evil spell. It is an unforgettable sight – worth not just every penny but the dawn awakening too. Our pilot, Barry, points out the most notable and the stories behind them.
Feet back on the ground, it’s time to see the temples up close. Which to choose? We start with a rough plan scribbled out on our map, but soon realise it’s more fun to follow the dusty pathways to those that look the most inviting – and the most crowd free. At first, it’s the grand, golden ones that take our fancy, but like the people you meet in life, we soon realise that the more unassuming and harder to reach are the more interesting and rewarding. These are the ones where you can take the time to pore over the faded frescos, ancient carvings and Buddha statues in peace.
The steps of the grand temples are also obvious (and crowded) sunset choices, but instead, a private boat ride down the Ayerwaddy River takes you past the temples of Old Bagan, and the villagers performing their afternoon chores, right into the middle of the river, where we pause as the sun fades from yellow to orange to pink over Bagan.