Myanmar Day 3: Bagan

Today was a 5am wake up. We’re expecting 5:30 pickup, but after waking I go to look at my paperwork and it says we’re supposed to go to their sales office in town the day or two before the flight to check in! Fuck! That’s not something I’d noticed, it’s buried down in the Terms and Conditions! So now I’m worried, am I going to be able to still do this? I went to the front desk of the hotel and they say they cannot call because everyone is already out picking everyone up, but it should be fine. So now we have to wait and see. This is the sort of thing that seriously stresses me out, and me stressing out over things I cannot control drives Jenn nuts. So I try to contain myself, but of course my worry seeps out, it’s who I am. She doesn’t tell Pam and Chuck though, and we let it just be our little secret until 5:50 when our bus arrives, our names are ticked off the list and we’re on the bus as the last pickup.

At the launch site they have chairs setup and a table with tea. We meet our pilot Gavin, he’s from southern England. It seems like all of the balloonatic are from England with names like Nigel, Graham, etc. One of the others in our group is a man in his 80s who talks up Gavin about things you’d find in a Balloon Enthusiast Magazine. Our pilot spends half of his year here, and then during the off season he heads back to England and works there. He says the people who go ballooning in England don’t really do it for the amazing scenery so much as the experience of doing it. The whole lifestyle is the same as what the scuba instructors do, moving from place to place as they get bored and want something new. Gavin says this might be his last year going back to England, and he’s now going to look for work in Africa for the opposite season to do something new. It sounds like quite an interesting life.

Our company have I think 14 balloons going, most being the 16 seat variety and 1 each of the 8 and 4 seats. There are 2 other companies with 3 balloons each. We get our briefing and our compartment assignment and the balloons begin to fill.

The balloons are filled first with cold air using giant fans, and then once they’re fairly full the burners are used to fill the balloons on a temporary tank. Once they’re almost lifting off we’re held down by helpers and everyone gets in, a few last bursts and the temporary tank is removed from the basket and the burners switched to the tank for the flight. I’m especially interested this time in the whole process of readying and piloting a balloon.

As we go up the view is stunning with smoke coming from houses wafting between trees and thousand year old ruins. It’s really hard to appreciate what is meant by 3000 ruins until you see most of them spread out before you in such a small area. The other balloons around give an ethereal feel, very dreamlike.

We climb high while the others stay low as Gavin maps out the wind directions. His father is the director of hot air balloon safety in the UK or some such title, so I think he’s basically the top dog when it comes to safety. We had quite the wide view, but it also meant we weren’t down close to all the sights, many of the smaller pagodas are just specs. But then we drop back down to the deck in order to get more “right” with some great views skipping over the tree line.

This is our second time in a hot air balloon so it’s not a new experience exactly, but it’s still exotic to us, and beyond that a very pleasant experience. There is something about it, the floating by calm and quiet, working with nature instead of against it that is special to me. It reminds me more than a little of sailing, or maybe even just the best parts of it, like champagne sailing in reaching conditions at sunrise without any fetch.

I became a bit fixated with a particular gold pagoda that catches the light so well with the sun right over the horizon. As we finish our flight we’re leaving the pagodas behind and start passing over farms with cows and oxen, our balloon’s shadow now going over workers in the fields.

We couldn’t make our first two landing options because of wind direction, so we ended up with a longer than normal ride eventually making the third option. Our pilot told his crew to meet him at a particular road, and landed it softly on that road before drifting a bit further into a soft, newly turned field. Lots of others from the same company ended up in the same field. We’d all filled and floated off together in a line, and more or less ended up together in a line along the same road. Very impressive.

Its tradition when hot air ballooning to celebrate the landing with champagne, and Balloons over Bagan followed the script with champagne and banana bread with chairs arranged in a circle. They did something different than the place we used in Turkey, with photos taken during the flight via GoPro for sale as well. I pitched in the $20 for the group for the set. The banana bread was excellent. While we enjoyed our drinks a number of locals formed around the outside of our circle looking at who made eye contact and trying to sell them paintings, lacquer ware, and other knickknacks.

Back at the hotel we knew we had some sleep to catch up and decided we’d make plans when everyone was rested and split up for naps. But we had to first have breakfast which was a nice buffet. Three hours later we woke from our stupor. I can’t believe we napped as long as we did.

Everyone a bit groggy and lethargic, but I wanted to go out and do something, and my plan had been to do a tour of the ruins. We had options: a car, horse cart, e-bike or bike. The horses looked well cared for, and the weather in Bagan is a lot dryer than down south, and not quite as hot, so we arranged for a tour until after sunset which gives us roughly three hours.

We needed two drivers, and we broke off into pears. Our driver’s name was something like Ow Ow, though I’m sure that’s not how it’s spelt, my guess is maybe Au Au? Our horse was a little pony named Honey. The carts are 2 wheeled with little shades that can be flipped up or down. There isn’t a ton of room, but that allows them to go down narrow dirt lanes. I’m mostly sitting backwards while Jenn is seated next to the driver. She’s really loving our little guy, though she does notice he favors one of his feet just a little when we hit the pavement.

Our first stop is a temple with 4 different Buddha statues in different poses surrounded by embossed forms with the same pose on the walls. Chuck was over the whole shoes off thing, and hung outside with the drivers. In one corner is a tiny stair case I barely fit up that leads us up onto the roof giving us a nice view. There is an official sort of looking man who leads us around explaining things. The difference between a Pagoda, Stoopa, and Temple pointing out each one; a Pagoda has no entrance, a Stoopa has a single entrance usually with a statues of Buddha in it, and a Temple has one or more entrance, and an interior that you walk around. Usually the larger temples and pagodas were built by the kings, while like an image of their social arrangement people in their orbit would build smaller structure around the large; a small stoopa build by a grandson might sit near the larger temple.

I’m confused how this happened, was he with us following behind on a moped? Is there one stationed at most of these ruins? But there are so many. He does a good job. Except when we leave he shows us a bunch of paintings like we see around saying he’s the original artist paying for his art school loans, and puts forward a price of $45 which is super inflated. Pam and Jenn finally leave after he push them to, but he runs after Pam and gets her to buy one for $20.

From there we’re taken to a large one. We’re not particularly keen on going in yet another one, especially with Chuck not going in with us, so we all take a walk around looking at some of the smaller ones in its orbit. The ride between them more the highlight as we pass unnamed and unvisited stoopas and pagodas.

The last one for the day was already very busy, a favorite for sunset. It has several layers lake a cake, with each layer able to walk a circuit. The top layer facing the sun is too packed for us to be happy, so we end up mostly down one and sometimes two from the top. We can see lines of horse carriages finding shade and letting their horses graze. The sun now gives everything a nice warm color, and in the distance it’s reflecting off that same gold pagoda I ended up taking so many photos of this morning, though that feels like a day ago. At some point I think Pam and Jenn go down a layer, and I find a position perched on the wall looking towards the sun. The smoke and dust in the air being lit and not lit as the pagodas block its light. I don’t think I really need to be here when the sun goes behind the distant mountains, so I head down and catch Jenn and Pam also on the stairs descending.

I think coming down when we did helped us beat the mad rush out. Jenn gets me to go buy a carrot from a juice vendor and we try to feed the horses. Honey loved the carrots, but Pam and Chuck’s horse couldn’t be bothered.

Back at the hotel we make plans to be picked up tomorrow morning bright and early at 5:45 again until around 11am with a breakfast break so we can get back to the hotel in time to check out. We’re hoping to organize a day more like a cruise around than hitting a bunch of particular spots.

Then we headed to the restaurant for dinner. Tonight we’re not on a make good coupon, so it’s the a la carte menu. And then it’s to bed with a bit of journaling.

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