BAGAN ARCHAEOLOGICAL ZONE, MYANMAR

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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YANGON, MYANMAR

A couple of months ago I had the enormous privilege to visit one of my best friends in Myanmar. I had been wanting to visit for a while and wasn't sure when I would have the time to go. When Preston suggested that I come visit the weekend that his roommate got married, I discovered affordable tickets and a free weekend that I didn't see coming. Thus, God blessed me with one of the greatest trips I've been on yet: time to learn a new culture, meet and spend time with friends, and to see a country I'd heard so many fantastic things about (mainly from Preston, who turned out to be the most wonderful tour guide I could possibly have had).

First things first: markets. Immediately when I got off the plane we headed to the biggest market in the city, Bogyoke Market. This place reminded me a lot of Vietnam, the set up of the building and the way the vendors just spilled out into the "hallways" seems typical of Asia from my experiences. It seemed that everyone we saw had never seen a foreigner, but once they heard Preston speaking their language, it was as if they were old friends. We stopped by a tailor to pick up a suit and look at some shoes, heading up to the tallest tower in the city (Sakura Tower) for the view and a drink after. We spent an hour or so in traffic that day, glad to visit a family in town and rest a little from travel and crazy. I will never again complain about Thailand traffic.

Saturday was the big day. The day David and Rita married. Think a 6:30am start to the morning, and not quite finishing until about 4pm. Even with the early start, we were able to visit a Myanmar tea shop after a breakfast of Chinese pork buns split with our cab driver. We sat in the hot sun in the hot tea shop surrounded by old Burmese men smoking cigars and watching live football. Sweet Myanmar tea (also hot) just sealed the deal on the warmest situation I'd found myself in as of late. Let's just say that the time I'd spent curling my hair that morning was utterly wasted.

After tea, we picked up the bride, Preston acting as chauffeur for the day. We arrived, and waited outside the church for more guests to arrive. The ceremony was full of laughter and languages: Danish, Burmese, Shan, some English, etc. It was also long. Catching the eye of the bride and groom wasn't difficult though, and the smile on their faces was more than enough to translate.

Following a small dinner of Chicken Biriyani where the guest count practically doubled, the families (and me and Preston) were invited to The House of Memories, an old colonial style house that was once the location of General Aung San's office (read up about Myanmar history to figure out who he was). Another dinner was served, a mixture of Burmese and Southeast Asian fare. We left the house to drop the bride and groom off at their new home, celebrating with them as we helped unload the inordinate amount of gifts they had piled into the car. 

Another early start on Sunday meant breakfast at another tea shop, this one being Preston's stomping ground. I had a quick breakfast of an omelette and rice, while two bowls of Shwe Taung Kaukswe, or Golden Mountain Noodles, was the norm for him. For most of the morning we explored and wandered around the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most enormous set of Buddhist temples I have ever seen. It glows at night and blinds during the day. We were dressed in Burmese garb because of the place, so I donned a htamein. Preston was used to wearing a longyi, so for him it wasn't a problem. This place is the most well-known landmark in the city, and I could never recount all the facts about it, but the entire area is a golden pointy landscape with mirrored and intricately painted, carved, and decorated walls, bannisters and bells.

After taking probably at least 200 photos with Burmese teenagers gawking at the white people, we headed back to Preston's place to pack up and get me back to the airport. It was a quick trip, but it did the trick in whetting my appetite to explore more of this country. What I'd heard and seen from friends was the lush green, mountainous country-side outside of the former capital, which I wasn't able to see this first time around. Inle Lake and Mandalay on the list, I'm looking forward to seeing you again, Myanmar!