New on the UNESCO World Heritage list this year (2019) is Bagan. And that made me think back to our own wonderful trip to Mayanmar in February 2015, and the days spend in Bagan.
All the photos in the collage below are clickable, so you can view the larger photo.
Ballooning over Bagan
Sunrise over Bagan from our hot air balloon
It is early, very very EARLY; not even 5 o'clock when my alarm clock starts ringing impatiently. "Time to wake up!", it seems to be screaming in my ear. And it is not the only alarm clock that I have set today, no no, each and every clock available is set. And even the hotel lobby will phone in 15 minutes to wake me up, just to make sure ;-)
I am not what you call a real 'morning person', so I decided to take every precaution possible to prevent the risk for oversleeping today. Not that I ever do, but well, why take the risk?? :-)
I open my sleepy eyes and rush out of bed to turn all the other alarm clocks off, before their noise will wake up the entire hotel.
I am feeling so excited, as today we will go ballooning across the Bagan plains! Something I have been looking so much forward to ever since we booked our trip all those months ago.
We quickly get ready before we will be picked up from our hotel at 5:15, of course checking that all the essentials are with us:
Extra chips for the camera... yes
Voucher for the balloon flight... yes! :-)
We are ready to go! I put on a light sweater as there is a chill in the air this early in the morning, and a sweater is really needed. Underneath it I wear a thin t-shirt, because when the sun comes out, it does get warm very quickly.
It is still dark as we leave our hotel. But the short drive to the launch site, a field located just outside of Old Bagan, was smooth. On arrival we are greeted with some hot coffee and tea and some croissants and pastries, while big spotlights help us see in the darkness of the early morning.
There are quite a few people gathered here, and quite a few balloons as well! The organisation is very good however; and we are swiftly assigned to 'our' balloon. At the balloon we receive a thorough safety briefing from our pilot, which is a very experienced lady ballooner from Bristol in England. She has been ballooning all over the world, and I feel safe in her hands right away.
preparing our hot air balloon
After the safety briefing we wait while our hot air balloon is being prepared for the flight, and it is quite an interesting process to watch! We freely walk around the field of balloons, looking at the preparations and seeing all these balloons in their different stages of readiness. And I am feeling nervous and excited all at the same time, as soon we will be off in 'our' balloon! This is not my first hot air balloon flight, but still....
We are not the only balloon here, around 20 balloons are here today, which happens each morning in Bagan, weather permitting of course (from mid October to early April). There are three balloon companies operating when we were here: 'Balloons over Bagan' (the red balloons), 'Golden Eagle Ballooning' (yellow balloons) and 'Oriental Ballooning', which we fly with, having the green balloons.
Below you can see some photos of these preparations. Huge tarps are spread out over the ground to protect the balloons when they are spread out on the ground. The wicker baskets are being put into place by tractors and fans are positioned to inflate the balloons with air. The pilot makes a final check before the crew is allowed to fill the balloon with air, and ignite the burners to heat up the air flowing into the balloon. I feel the heat from the burners in this early morning chill, and hear the roaring sound of the burners cutting through the quiet of the morning. And slowly the balloon starts to expand as the heated air inside the balloon makes it buoyant, this due to hot air having a lower density than the colder air outside the balloon. And slowly but surely the balloon is moving upright.
The crew request us over and it is time to climb into the wicker basket using the footholds in the basket. And a graceful process it is not, lol, but with some help I got myself inside the basket. Waiting in the balloon we observe the pilot talking to the crew, and also communicating by radio with the other balloons; all waiting for our turn for lift-off. One of the crew is so kind to take our photo, while we eagerly and full of anticipation wait inside the basket with big smiles on our faces.
And then it is time! Our balloon starts to rise, ever so gently and quietly. We slowly gain height, floating up into the air. We look down onto the field, now almost emtied of the balloons, but a few are still there, in their final stages of preparation. Within short, they will also start to rise up in the air like us. Such a fantastic feeling to float in the air!
We took some short videos of the preparations of the hot-air balloons that you can see below:
And we are up in the air....
And off we go
And we are up into the air.... our journey had begun :-)
It is still so early in the morning; the sun is not even showing up over the horizon. And in this twilight it is neither dark nor light outside, giving a mystical mood to our surroundings. The landscape is still embrased with a veil of fog. And below us a mystical land of temples and pagodas appears in a tropical, misty landscape, making it all look magical. I feel so privileged to get the chance to have this bird's eyes view over this beautiful place, with over 2000 Buddhist and Hindu temples and pagodas, winding dusty roads, and hundreds of palm trees.
Shwezigon pagoda in the distance
As soon as we get above the treeline we see the Shwezigon pagoda in the distance (photo above).
And even with this tiny bit of morning light creeping over the horizon, the light is reflecting from the gold plated pagoda, making it stand out from all the other pagodas and temples surrounding us. The Shwezigon Pagoda is one of the oldest and most impressive monuments of Bagan and it was built by the founder of the Bagan empire, king Anawrahta.
The pagoda is bell-shaped, in the tradition of the Mon people, and one of the oldest and also most impressive monuments of Bagan. Most people visiting Bagan will visit this pagoda, dating back to the year 1090. As will we, but later today :-) So I'll show you a bit more of this temple in my next page about Bagan. This pagoda enshrines a number of sacred Budhist relics, which makes it an important pilgrimage site.
We float on, and slowly but magnificently Bagan reveals its secrets. The breathtaking site of stupa after stupa, in their hundreds, appearing through the delicate mist is just unforgettable.
The many temples and pagodas on the plains of Bagan
It is an amazing sight flying over all these temples and pagodas. And the number of these stupas still to be found here is quite mind blowing: it is estimated that aound 2200 temples and pagodas remain in Bagan today!!
The history dates back to King Pyinbya and the year 874 AD when this king moved the capital to Bagan.
Much later, in the 11th century, under the reign of King Anawathra, Bagan started its haydays. This was also the first kingdom to unify the regions that would later become Myanmar as we now know it. And in the period from the 11th to the 13th century the kingdom flourished, and over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built here. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 temples and pagodas once stood on this 42 square kilometer area.
Many of the temples and pagodas were constructed of wood, and unfortunately these haven't survived over time. And the temples made of clay and brick suffered from earthquakes, or simply didn't withstand the decay over time. But having 2200 still here, although in various states of disrepair, is quite amazing.
In some of the temples you can still feel the times gone by, how these temples once were lovingly decorated with painting, carvings and engravings, all evolving around the life of Buddha.
If you look closely at the photo above, you can see some people sitting on top of the pagoda, waiting eagerly for the spectacle of sunrise to start. It is very popular to climb the pagodas to get a good spot to view the sunset and sunrise. All these people climbing the pagodas and temples is unfortunately damaging them, and they are being closed to the public one by one to prevent people climbing on them.
And than the sun comes up, turning the sky in a palette of orange and red tones: so gorgeous! We are so lucky with the weather today....
Thankfully, the wind was blowing perfectly for the optimal flight path and the skies were clear. And we greet the sunrise with a big happy smile. During early season the flight path might be more challenging, and not always able to go over the plains of Bagan. But today the weather was more than perfect!
Some the temples are in urgent need of repair. And strangely enough, this was more noticable when flying over them, than being on the ground and visiting some of these temples. I am not a fan of overly restored buildings, as for me, they loose their soul and charm. But seeing them crumble away totally is also saddening. I do hope a balance will be found in the restauration of Bagan.
It was so sad to learn, that a year after our visit, Bagan was hit by 6.8 magnitude earthquake. Some 400 of these beautiful pagodas and temples across the Bagan plain were damaged due to this earthquake.
One of the temples damaged by the quake, is the beautiful Sulamani Temple (photo above), which was built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu. The Sulamani was one of the most-frequently visited in Bagan. King Narapatisithu reigned during a very prosperous time in Bagan and during his long reign the impressive temples of Dhammayazika and the Gawdawpalin were also build.
The Sulamani is a large, square, two storey temple from the late Bagan period. On top of the temple is the 'hti', a spire ornament shaped like an umbrella. A type of ornament that tops almost all Burmese pagodas. 'Hti' is a Burmese language word, and maybe not surprising, means umbrella.
Is it a temple or a pagoda or a stupa?
Personally I always mix up these terms; as I mostly likely do on this page as well.... oops....
But what is theory the difference between these terms? First of all the term pagoda is used to describe both temples and stupas. The word "pagoda" is derived from dagada, a Sri Lankan word for chamber of Buddha relics.
There are essentially three kinds of Buddhist structures: Stupas: these are bell-shaped structures that contain a holy relic or scripture. Stupas are generally not for visiting inside, but are solid structures, constructed to contain Buddhist relics that are hidden from view (and vandals) in containers buried at their core or in the walls. Temples: this is a place of worship, often with an open interior that may be entered. Monasteries: which contain living quarters and meditation cells for monks.
The distinction between a temple and a stupa is not always that easy as it sounds however (hence my obvious confusion between these terms). There are stupas that have the external form of a stupa but are like a temple with an inner corridor and multiple shrines.
We continue our travel through the sky and slowly float towards the Pyathadar temple.
The Pyathadar temple is absolutely gorgeous to view from the balloon, with its huge statue becoming visible as we slowly float by. It is one of the last of the large temples built in Bagan.
I just loved flying over this temple, as out of nowhere these huge statues became visible, giving it this extra dimension of surprise. And the warm light from the sunrise made the bricks glow in a warm reddish colours. Our pilot took a lot of effort in showing this temple in all its glory, lowering the balloon, and getting as close as possible, to get the best angle for us to view the entire temple. And she was even rotating the balloon so each and everyone of us had the best view ever of the temple.
The Pyathadar temple, also known as Pyathatgyi, dates back to the first half of the 13th century and is a massive brick temple. It is build as a “double cave” temple, one of the few remaining temples in this style. Unfortunately most of these temples were built of wood, and have long gone.
As the temple was build in the late period, the architectural skills had improved of the Bagan builders. And they were by now able to create large vaulted rooms and broad corridors. The Pyathadar enshrines several large sitting and standing images of the Buddha in various postures. A project to restore the Pyathadar temple was completed in 1998.
Above you can see our friendly pilot at work :-)
The balloon was really comfortable, much more so actually than I had expected. The basket was really large, and devided into separate compartments, giving a lot of personal space.
We flew over a similar balloon that landed quite a bit earlier than us, giving a perfect birds-eye view of the balloon basket (photo left).
There are so many temples here, ranging from large to small, and all in between, and scattered around as far as the eyes can see. It is really mind-boggling! But with so many temples and stupas however it gets difficult to correctly identify all of them.
My eyes were unavoidably drawn to the Dhammayazika Pagoda, with its large gilded bell shaped dome glistering in the early mornings sunlight. The pagoda was build by King Narapatisithu towards the end of the 12th century to enshrine a number of sacred Buddhist relics given to him by the King of Sri Lanka.
By now a lot of balloons had landed; and that was the original plan for our balloon as well. But we were so in luck! The burners were turned on one extra time, and we lifted up again higher in the sky. And instead of landing, we flew over the little village of Minnanthu. We had already seen some glimpses of daily life around the temples, but now we got an even better birds-eye view of daily life in this little village.
Everyday life goes on around the ancient temple ruins. We see cows, some curiously looking up, some lazy laying in the sand. An ox pulling a cart. A shepard leading his flock of animals throught the dusty sandy street of Minnanthu. Bhuddhist monks walking in their deep red robes. A woman doing the washing. And a yard filled with, what I am guessing, drying coffee beans, turning it into a carpet of red.
Time for landing....
But all good things come to an end, and it is finally time for us to land. While we watched the other balloons land we slowly loose our height as well.
I look up into the balloon, where the burners were heating up the air inside the balloon only a few minutes ago. But now the vents slowly are starting to open, showing more and more of the sky through the top of the balloon (photos above)
The top of the balloon usually has a vent of some sort, enabling the pilot to release hot air to slow an ascent, start a descent, or increase the rate of descent, usually for landing.
And just before the actually landing We were asked to put our cameras away and adopt the landing position (seated, head back against the basket and holding the two hand grips tight). A few small bumps on the actual landing and we were safely back onto the ground.
The ground crew was waiting for us and helped with the landing. And with that our most amazing flight, which took little over an hour (70 min) has come to an end. Big smiles all around, a final happy pose at the balloon, and taking home these wonderful memories for life!
And what better to end a wonderful balloon flight than with a nice glas of champagne :-)
I hope you enjoyed joining me on this virtual balloon flight over the plains of Bagan. For me it was such a pleasure to write! While I was selecting the photos, memories of this day returned more and more vivid. And while writing and remeniscing, it was almost like I was up there in that hot air balloon one more time, enjoying these amazing views over the plains of Bagan, dotted with temples and pagodas of a 1000 year old, surrounding us, as far as the eyes could see. Hearing the sounds of daily life below slowly echoing to us above, breathing in the early morning air, the sound of the burners of the balloon and feeling the warmth coming from the first sunbeams after sunrise..... they are truely memories for life.