A sunrise balloon ride was at the top of my list of ‘musts’ for Burma. Long before I booked, I had read about the wonder of the experience and seen stunning photos.
Bree and I were so excited about the trip that the ten other people in our lovely little group decided it was a must for them too, so one morning at 5:30 a.m. we gathered in the courtyard of our guesthouse, sleepy-eyed but full of anticipation.
A wave of collective delight washed over us when the bus arrived – an antique charabanc that surely must have been the prototype for the Knight Bus.
Anxiety rippled through us as the sky seemed to be lightening by the second; a couple of American guys had held us up by stumbling on late.
All fears were allayed when we arrived at the departure field. Six enormous red balloons were lying on the ground, enormous baskets attached. We couldn’t work out how 16 people would fit in each one!
While the crews readied the balloons, we drank coffee, became childishly excited and took photos. At last, the balloons were inflated and it was time to climb in. We squeezed in, four people to each section and grinned madly at the crew, who grinned madly back. These guys clearly enjoyed their jobs.
Bart, our pilot, was the kind of guy you would trust with your life, which is what we were doing I guess! Serious, authoritative and wryly dry, he explained a few details and with a roar of gas we lifted off, gently and far more easily than I had expected.
It’s stating the obvious to say that the views were breathtaking but they were. We ascended above the other balloons and I felt a little catch in the back of my throat at the beauty of it all. I didn’t want to take too many photos, as I wanted to make sure I was in the moment but I did take some and here’s my best. No words can describe what a joyful experience this was, so I’ll let the pics do the talking.
When I went to Burma in December, my expectations of Bagan were high. It’s one of those places that you read about, dream about and hope that it won’t let you down. It doesn’t. It pulls you up into a world of magic that far surpasses any daydream and let’s you float along in a sunny meandering haze.
Bagan is a vast savannah of gorse, sandy tracks, stupas and pagodas. There are more than 3,000 temples dotted around its 42 square kilometres, although I’m not sure anyone has been and counted them recently. You can hop on a hired bicycle, ring your bell and cycle off-putting the ‘crowds’ (it’s not that overrun by tourists yet, even in high season) behind you.
There is a delicious sense of discovery; we headed off down tracks thinking we were heading for one of the ‘notable’ pagodas and would get a bit lost, skidding every now and again on the sandy tracks. It was a safe sort of getting lost, though. We always knew that we couldn’t be that far from the lovely collection of cafes and guesthouses that made up the village.
We frequently stumbled upon clusters of deserted ruins with no-one else in sight. The temples felt like little treasures and that they were ours. At many, a key keeper would appear and invite us inside. These are typical scenes as we cycled along and explored the tracks and pathways;
One unexpected treat was being able to climb up for the view – inside or out, depending on the style and build. At one, a beautiful young woman appeared waving a torch. She motioned towards a dark, narrow staircase with a very low beam. We decided to risk it and were so glad we did. What a vista greeted us on the roof! Right out to the horizon all we could see were stupas in every direction – brick, gold, white – every style and decoration peppered the view. It was glorious and there were just four of us to soak it up. Imagine, all around Bagan this special ‘just us’ feeling was taking place at hundreds of other temples.
Here’s a selection of views from that temple.
Sadly most of the temples have been spoilt inside with years of whitewashing. No, I’m not talking about government lies; I mean white wash, applied year after year for hundreds of years. Underneath and in some cases probably lost forever are intricate frescoes, whole walls of stories, buddhas, dancers, acrobats and elephants. The temples that still have these are a breathtaking treat, so beautiful that in some instances I was moved to tears. In one rarely visited temple we had only a few minutes before sunset and by torchlight gasped at the vibrancy and joy of the pictures. Here’s a picture from that particular temple.
One of the best for seeing these frescoes is the much visited Sulamani. It may be busier than many, with stalls and hawkers outside but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Inside it is a treat and if you take your time, walk quietly round in your own time, the trickle of other people dissolves. Here are some of my favourite fresco pictures from this glorious temple.
And here’s what it looks like from the approach.
After a few hours of cycling around, the main drag that tourists stay in is a haven. A little enclave of bamboo shacks welcomes you in from the heat, each one a little restaurant, café or shop. It is a real pleasure to support the local economy by lounging around drinking fresh lime soda. Up the road is the main road and further on still the market. I went to buy a longhi while I was there and had a wonderful time choosing one and chatting to the lovely women who owned the stall. I love that women are at the heart of commerce in Burma. I’ve travelled a lot in the middle east and it was a pleasant change to chat to women who owned their own businesses and were rightly proud of their success. Buying textiles is a great way to get to know Burmese people and many stallholders were keen to express their hopes for real change and urged us to come back in 2015, when elections are being held. The love for Aung San Suu Kyi is evident everywhere and the hope that she will lead the country come election time is fervent.
I hope these changes are real and will have a lasting impact, as the people I met were gentle and warm and so clearly ready for change.
Yangon’s official highlight is the Shwedegon Pagoda, a huge temple complex with a golden stupa visible for miles around. Towards sunset the entire site comes alive with the sound of chatter, prayers and the rich round sound of buddhist bells, being rung to create karma.
It is a wonderful experience to go there early on in a trip to Burma and I loved it. It is difficult to photograph but hopefully this shot of the golden stupa and the one below o the crowds walking past will give you a little taster.
The Shwedegon Pagoda wasn’t my highlight, though. The highlight was completing a circle of friendship. I went on holiday with Bree, an Australian friend I had first met in 2009 on a trip to Cuba. Her travel companion fell in love with our tour leader and a year later I went back out to Cuba to visit them. A year after that I went to Sergio and Rowan’s wedding in Australia. Bree was bridesmaid. We talked about Burma then and when I realised that Aung San Suu Kyi was asking tourists to return, I was on the case immediately.
A fantastic trip to Cuba came full circle when Bree greeted me as I stepped out of the lift at the hotel. From Cuba to Canberra to Yangon – I love it when a plan works out!
More Cuban friendship moments were in store. On a parallel trip to ours back in 2009 were two fantastic Californian women, Carol and Janet. They were on the last day of their Burma tour as we arrived. We had a fantastic lunch, reminiscing about Cuba and hearing about their experiences of Burmese people and places.
Here we all are in Yangon:
This picture says everything about one of travelling’s true delights – meeting fascinating people and making friends for life. I have that first Cuba trip to thank for meeting at least eight people who I hope would call me ‘friend’!
If you’re a solo traveller debating whether to go away with a group, do it. There may be one or two people you don’t click with but there will be many more who inspire you for many years to come.
And if you’re going to go, why not make it Burma and make it this year? It’s a beautiful country, as this pic from Yangon shows:
I’m going to start posting about my trip to Burma tonight. I went in December and it was everything and more that I hoped it would be. From the glorious bling of its temples to the warmth of people’s smiles, it stole my heart.
One particular gift it gave my photography was light. This was the second foreign trip I had been on since buying a ‘proper’ camera (i.e. a digital SLR) and the way light danced wherever we went has stayed with me.
So here is a teaser for my first photography post that will come tonight. On our first day in Yangon (Rangoon), we went to a public park to see the royal barge and for a view of the Shwedegon Pagoda. As the group walked back toward the bus, I caught a glimpse of workers on a jetty, screened behind a sprinkler. This quickly captured shot became my favourite of Yangon.