Part of the reason I really wanted to go to Myanmar, is because I really wanted to see the temples in Bagan. It seemed such a special place from the pictures I’d seen and then there was the balloon ride of course, something I’d been dreaming about since I first saw pictures of it.
From Mandalay we took the boat ride to Bagan, which was a lot different from what we’d expected. We arrived ‘late’ and so we had the last two seats on the deck (outside); none of the great-looking seats though, just a bench on the higher deck in the back of the boat. Those seats turned out to be the best seats on the boat, mainly because the great-looking chairs turned out not to be that comfortable at all! And everyone (that tried to ignore us when we were looking for a seat) wanted to be on the higher deck in the end, making it a little crowded at times, but we did have the best views! Lunch was decent and the staff was very nice, but 10 hours of gliding on the river was plenty for us (even though we love being on boats, it did get a little boring after a while).
By the way if you are contemplating on doing the boat or not, it seems that the boat from Bagan to Mandalay is a lot less crowded… just sayin’.
When we arrived at the Bagan jetty we had to run the gauntlet through the sales people who tried to sell their books, souvenirs, Thanaka and maps. It reminded me of the “good old days” when touts would be waiting at bus and train stations to persuade tourists to come to their hotel. They have disappeared but the practice is still there, and after our Inwa experience I got a little worried that Bagan would be another tourist trap. I had a lot riding on it, I was even going to celebrate my birthday there and everything.
Thankfully our time in Bagan was magical once we got past these first impressions. We spent my birthday hanging out with Naw, our cleaning lady in Singapore. Her family lives about 40km from Bagan, and as luck would have it, she was visiting them while we traveled Myanmar. She came out with her mom and her sister and we had a lovely day at the archeological museum and the famous Ananda Temple. We had lunch at the market and it was amazing. Burmese food is yummie (we already knew that) and their salads are simply the best! Unfortunately Naw had to leave us in the afternoon, as she was scheduled to fly back the next day from Yangon, and she was going to take the night bus to the airport.
The next day was scheduled for the balloon ride. We weren’t quite sure whether it was going to work out, we found an agent in Yangon who booked the balloon ride for us and we then put money into his account; in good faith because he was going to send us the tickets once the money arrived into his account. Which he did! There really was no need to worry as it worked out brilliantly. We got picked up at 5.30 am and driven to the golf course which was our starting point. There was coffee and breakfast, and the dawn was breaking while they were filling up the balloons.
Then we finally were allowed to go to ‘our’ balloon and we got a safety instruction from Ravi, our guide. I cannot remember a word he said, I really was super excited and couldn’t wait to get up there. When the moment finally came, it was amazing! I loved every second of it! Gliding over the Bagan plains with the temples, the villages and monasteries was captivating. Around sunrise time there is not a lot of action of course, so it was really cool to see people waking up and getting ready for the new day. Burning their waste (which accounts for the romantic smoke on the pictures) and feeding their animals. And it was so peaceful; everyone had gone quiet even the two Italian ladies in the compartment next to us who had been chatting non-stop before we left. The only thing we heard was the sound of the gas when the flame had to pump the heat into the balloon and the ticking of the bottles when the flame was off.
We could have stayed up a lot longer, but Ravi landed the balloon exactly one hour after lift-off. Well according to him of course, to us lift-off seemed only 15 minutes ago!
After landing (which was so smooth, nothing to worry about whatsoever!) we got the obligatory champagne: apparently the French invented ballooning! In the 1780s they started with paper balloons and Louis XVI became a big fan. When the balloon drivers complained that many farmers treated them as aliens when they landed on their fields, the king told them to tell the farmers they were sent by the king and to give the farmer a bottle of bubbles with the king’s seal on it! So from that moment on balloons always carry two bottles of champagne: 1 to celebrate a safe landing and 1 to give to a farmer after landing in their field or to use as fire extinguisher after a mishap. In case there is no farmer or mishap, it is totally legit to drink the second bottle yourselves.
Day 3 in Bagan was another great day! We met Roman and Tina on our balloon ride and Ravi had given us the phone number of Thiri, a local girl who would love to show us around. She wants to be a guide one day, so she sees it as a great excercise to tell people about history and to practice her (pretty) good English. We texted her and she replied almost instantly. She came of the day before and we explained what we wanted, not the big temple stuff, but off the beaten track. We rented ebikes and the next day we were off around 9am. We had a blast! The ebikes are fantastic and Thiri was great. She took us to all sorts of places and we really loved it. We saw village life (with all sorts of options to buy souvenirs from the local makers), the most amazing (smaller) temples and we even got invited to tea at her own home. Her dad is the keyholder for one of the temples on the plain and their house is right next door.
We really had a great day, so if you are ever in Bagan and in need for an English speaking local who can show you exactly where to go, give Thiri a call at +95 9 44089 9474.
I have a million great pictures of that day of course, but unfortunately cannot show you all. So here is just the tiniest of impressions:
Day 4 we had to leave unfortunately and we ended up on the bus ride from hell back to Mandalay. It was with OK Express and as soon as we saw the bus we knew it wasn’t going to be ok. And as it turned out it wasn’t express either, although they did deliver us right at our hotel, so that was nice.
So even though Bagan is an absolute must-see and I could have spent many more days trying to get a grip of the size of it all, getting there and away are not our fondest memories.