Myanmar: Bagan

From Mandalay, I moved onto Inle Lake with the girls from Ostello Bello, only to be struck down again by what I feared was the parasite. I had to leave my travel buddies and fly down to Yangon for the only decent medical attention in the country – if you’re sick in Myanmar and need medical attention, get down to Yangon to either International SOS or the Thai venture Bumrungrad Hospital. There are local clinics across the country but these are fairly dismal, so if you can, get yourself to Yangon. Luckily, it didn’t appear to be the dysentery back again, but I then had to spend 5 days holed up in a dark little private room recovering – not quite how I planned on making the most out of my time in Myanmar!

After 5 days in the sick den, I felt well enough to move on again, and decided to head to Bagan as this was the place in Myanmar I was most excited to visit. New Bagan is a sleepy little town, but Old Bagan is a marvellous historical site; an ancient city on the banks of the Irrawaddy, with over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas covering an area of plains around 26 square miles. I had a very early 3:30am wake-up call to get the first flight of the day, which was smooth and had some beautiful views. I paid my archaeological zone entrance fee (payable by all tourists on arrival, at 25,000K) and got at my hostel at breakfast time. I stayed at Ostello Bello again – there are two in Bagan; stay at the original one rather than the pool one for more sociable vibes. However, they’re just round the corner from one another so it’s easy to move between them.) I got chatting to an Aussie guy and a Swedish guy in the ‘chillout zone’ on the sunny rooftop, whilst we waited to check in.

A viewpoint over the plains of pagodas

After we’d put our bags in our rooms and had some lunch, we went out to hire the popular mode of transport around Bagan, an e-bike. Foreigners aren’t allowed to drive motorbikes in Myanmar, but to get around the temple zone, they rent out electric scooters. I’d never driven one before, but had driven a normal moped a few times, so luckily it didn’t take too long to get to grips with it. From experience I urge you to test your brakes and ask for a helmet before you pay – as you’d expect they’re pretty lax with renting (they don’t ask for a passport or driving license or take your name etc.) but this attitude can also transfer to the bikes themselves, so make sure it’s all in working order before you set off!

After a bit of a practice run, we were ready to join the sunset scooter tour the hostel offers – a guide leads a chain of guests with e-bikes down to a good temple spot to watch the sunset. There were about 15 of us, which I think was probably quite amusing for the locals – a bit like a ski-school caterpillar but on wheels! We drove for about 20 minutes, through the sandy roads, weaving past pagodas, to our sunset spot. Sadly, it wasn’t quite as much of a ‘secret’ spot as the hostel had suggested, as a tour bus arrived at the same time we did, but it was still a pretty remarkable sunset view and was a good way to meet other people from the hostel. We wandered around the area and took umpteen more photographs before heading back to the hostel and grabbing some dinner. I’d recommend Shwe Ou Food Garden (get the Myanmar butter chicken curry) and The Black Rose for really good local grub – they’re both within spitting distance of Ostello Bello.

A glorious sunset from the ‘secret’ Ostello Bello tour spot

The next morning was another very early one, but it was absolutely worth it: I was going on a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the Bagan temples. This was something of a bucket list activity for me, one I’d earmarked as wanting to do since the early stages of planning my trip. It did absolutely break my budget at $310, but I think it was one of the best things I’ve ever done, so for me, it was absolutely worth it. This was the cheaper end of the packages available – smaller balloons or more premium experiences are nearer the $400 mark. I went with Balloons Over Bagan in the 16-person balloon, but there are two other companies (Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle) also operating in the area with excellent reputations.

Sunrise, hot air balloon style!

I’d managed to persuade my new Swedish and Australian friends to part with a good amount of their cash too, so we all met up at 5:30am ready for our pick up. We drove about 20 minutes on a minibus with the rest of our group (there were 16 of us on the balloon) to the launch site, a big field South of the archaeological zone. We were greeted with some tea and biscuits, a ‘Balloons Over Bagan’ cap we all hastily stashed anywhere but on our heads, and a safety briefing from our pilot – a Bristolian bloke called Chris.

Landing positions learned, we were ushered back into the roped-off ‘safety zone’ whilst they inflated the balloons. It was quite a sight to behold, around 12 balloons from the same company all laid out on the field with the crews blasting in the air to blow them up. It took about 15 minutes before the baskets were pulled up onto their bases and ready for us to clamber in – 4 of us in each corner compartment (we had a friendly Dutch girl join the 3 of us). The balloons began to take off one-by-one, the front row first – I think we were number 8 off the ground. I’m not sure what I was expecting but take-off was very smooth, and we began to climb and glide over to the temples.

Beginning the climb over the temple zone

It was an amazing feeling and a great view of all the other balloons moving noiselessly across the dawn sky. As the red sun began to show on the horizon, some of the more decorated of the temples shone in reflection which was also very striking. Chris span the balloon on its axis a few times to make sure we all had a panoramic view of the rising sun in one direction, and the temples on the banks of the river in the other. As you can imagine, there was a lot of excited photo-taking and video-recording – another instance where I’ve found it difficult to capture the amazing scenes on camera, but I think some of my shots start to do it justice!

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We were flying for around 45 minutes over the thousands of pagodas of different shapes and sizes – most of them are brick structures. It was very tranquil, the only sound the intermittent air blasts to keep the balloon going! As well as the company we were with, there were a few balloons from the two there companies there, so it was a lovely sight of red, yellow and green balloons speckled above the temples.

The chain of balloons over the ancient city

Sadly, what goes up must come down, and our flight was over far too soon. The landing was pretty smooth – and was in the field the pilot had been aiming for, which is more than can be said for some of the other balloons which overshot! When we’d been given the order to disembark, we were served champagne, fruit, croissants and banana bread for breakfast – naturally, we maxed out on this, wanting our $$$’s worth – and not feeling like backpackers for the morning! We were also presented with a certificate of flight – not sure I really did much, but still, one for the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ at my parents’ house! When the last of the bubbles and croissants had been polished off, we sadly boarded the bus for the bumpy drive back to the hostel. It really was an incredible morning; what a place for my first hot air balloon ride! It was the clear the highlight of my trip so far, and, I think, of all my travels including Borneo and Central America.

Enjoying a very un-backpacker breakfast after our flight!

I spent the rest of the day reading in the sun – and gloating to friends about the hot air balloon. Naturally.

Admiring the sunrise from up high

On my last day in Bagan, I embraced my inner e-biker again and myself, Mr Sweden and Mr Australia headed out on the tour of Bagan offered by the hostel. It’s free, you just have to sort your own e-bike, but tips are very much appreciated by the guide (who in our case, was very deserving of one). A local guy called Chris with excellent English was our guide, and had the challenge of leading a group of 31 of us around the temples for the day. It was really good in that he didn’t take us to the biggest, most touristy places, but to some a little more off the beaten path, or with interesting and little known back stories. We also learned a little lingo; a ‘stupa’ is a Buddhist structure that you can’t go inside (there are many brick structures like this, some with alcoves, but none with any more of an interior than that), and a ‘temple’ is a structure with arches and corridors – I.e an accessible interior. ‘Pagoda’ is something of a catch-all term for all of the structures at Bagan, as this loosely translates as Buddha statue/devotion. Who knew!

The biker gang in front of Dhammayangyi Pahto
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We whizzed around the plains, up sandy little roads that were quite a challenge on the bikes… We visited four different particular sites and some great viewpoints, as well as a local village for some Myanmar tea and a palm plantation where they make palm sugar and palm wine (which tastes like coconut vinegar, for the record). We also stopped off for lunch at the original The Moon (Be Kind to the Animals) veggie restaurant – I’m not a vegetarian but the food was fantastic. It’s a bit out of the way in Taungbi rather than New Bagan, but easily accessible if you have an e-bike. It was a really good day; the tour guide was great and the group were friendly and good fun.

Exploring Dhammayangyi Temple

Bagan is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I’m frustrated that I couldn’t spend a little more time there thanks to the quarantine, but I think I squeezed in most of what I wanted to do and see, and had a brilliant time. I didn’t go to the most popular of temples, but having had my fill of the bustle at places like Angkor Wat and the White Temple, I enjoyed seeing those that were a little less busy. The balloon was obviously a huge splurge, but the rest of the place can be done quite cheaply – so if you can eek the money out of your budget to go flying, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 6, including a friendly taxi driver who tried to give me a historical introduction to Bagan.
Interaction was: as it turns out, completely false (he told me, for example, that the temples were 3,200 years old when the oldest are actually around 1,000 years old), but still got my inner history nerd revved up and excited to explore.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

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