I've known about the mystery, beauty and ancient history of Bagan for a few years now. I'd only ever known someone who'd been there in the past couple, and when Andrea informed me that seeing the sunrise hot air balloons there was on the top of her bucket list, it became a real goal of mine to see them as well. The city boasts thousands of pagodas, some tiny crumbling brick pagodas, others gold meccas calling to tourists and monks alike. Expectationless, we planned to spend almost three days in Bagan, including two sunrises and two sunsets. four chances to find the beauty so many sought in traveling to the archaeological zone.
We left Chiang Mai in the afternoon and took a tiny tiny plane to Mandalay, where we were barely able to get fresh air before we were ushered to a taxi (with all the nerves you can possibly imagine) by a local with incredibly clear english, driven by a local with incredibly minimal english. Our three hour drive to Bagan was quiet, dusty and dark. Watching our GPS clearly to make sure we were going in the correct direction, my "Asia-guide" disguise was quickly crumbling down around me. Around midnight, after a little dozing and a ton of jolting and plenty of prayers, we pulled into our hotel in Old Bagan, Bagan Thande Hotel. We paid our driver probably way more than he was expecting (but really we could never repay him for driving us through pretty much half of the country), and we followed the kind staff to our room. We couldn't tell then, but the view from our room rivaled any I'd seen in Southeast Asia so far.
We started later the next morning, preferring to get some sleep after our bumpy taxi adventure. Our hotel was right next to Gawdawpalin Temple, so we started close by, loving the white-washed stone and the morning light flooding into the building and across the floors. It was quiet–eerie at times, but more so peaceful, you could hear a lot of the sounds from the world still waking up, the rustle of leaves across the tiles and the call of tropical birds you could never actually see.
We saw several pagodas that day, the most impressive of which were Dhammayangyi, Shwesendaw, and Ananda Temple. We ran across a few crumbling pagodas, and a lot of the temples we were told had great views were under construction due to some earthquakes that had hit in the last couple of years. We rented e-bikes from the hotel, and I quickly volunteered to be the navigator, switching between Heather and Andrea's bike as each of them grew tired of toting me around. The sandy paths (and herds of cattle) made traveling around town difficult at times, but I can say with 100% confidence that these ladies are now pros at mopeds in Asia. No one got injured, but Andrea had a few hand cramps from gripping the handlebars with all the force of the Hulk.
Because of the long list of temples closed for repairs, we ended up finding a rather large group of tourists waiting on a tall hill for sunset. Because the sun would be just as beautiful whether we were with a huge group or not, we decided to join, and we were rewarded with a hazy, picturesque view of all the layers of Bagan. The temples and plains stretched for miles, and the feeling of being so small came quickly, as awe-inspiring and (un)comfortable as ever.
With all the construction going on, we asked a new friend who worked at Bagan Thande where we should go for the sunrise. He mentioned Shwe Leik Too, a tiny little brick pagoda that hadn't had any damage from the earthquakes. We left the hotel before any light was in the sky the next morning, the bike ride there was absolutely freezing compared with the hot afternoons we'd been sweating in the days before. We arrived at the pagoda, and per the instruction of a hastily translated sign out front, left our Chacos at the front arch and proceeded to wander the grounds, searching for a way up to the top levels. In and out, we didn't find any stairs and we were worried we'd need to find an alternate watch spot (which we had not even thought about). Less than a minute later, we saw a flashlight burst from the second level of the pagoda and checked the inside of the building again only to find the tiniest little crawl space staircase to climb up. We made it up three levels and perched on the sides of the stupa, waiting for the pink of the day to arrive (and also the forty other tourists who joined us, including an entire business meeting, suits and ties and all).
Our Thande friend had neglected to mention that Shwe Leik Too was directly in front of the hot air balloon launch site. After a while I had to set my camera down and just enjoy the moment, seeing the dawn creep over the horizon and the balloons launch off to mingle in the sky like they'd stay there all day. The entire event was about two hours, our feet chapped and numb from the cold and the wind, our butts sore from the edges of the brick. Breathless from the beauty of the morning, we reluctantly made our way back down to the ground, shimmying through the little staircase to the solid and welcoming dirt. We made a few friends who asked us for some photos and took a few in turn for us, reminded of how travel connects all cultures and the kindness we all long for.
Being around all of the temples and religious symbols was sure to bring up a lot of memories and questions. We chatted together about the meaning and confusion behind a lot of Buddhist traditions and rituals. In the past, exploring and visiting temples hasn't really brought up much emotion for me, they represent more history and culture for me than anything else. I do remember a time before Bagan when a friend and I visited a temple city in Thailand, which left me feeling sad and empty. The darkness that place had cast over our time there was jolting, the sense that thousands of people were casting their lives and their hopes before a person and a lifestyle that led them to nothing but a grace-less striving. Bagan had a similar feeling in a few moments, but the throngs of tourists and the spirit of the people we encountered during our time there mixed that feeling with something a little lighter. A heavy place to be, but a reminder that the Lord is at work creating love and grace in the places that seem to be completely lost to his touch.
After we cleaned up from our dust and grime of the morning, we set off to explore New Bagan the city-esque part of the area. We found lunch at the Moon 2, where our server blew us away with his perfect English, and we were equally blown away by the ginger-honey-lime smoothie. We headed to Lawkanada Pagoda, where we relaxed around a little market on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and also where I got pooped on by a bird. They say it's good luck? Whoever "they" is. We made a few animals friends outside a laquerware workshop and were grateful for a few hours to laze around the hotel and enjoy a sunset glass of wine by the riverside before our 10-hour, very bumpy bus ride to the capital. Thanks for the bucket-list memories, Bagan.