My Trip to Burma: Bagan Part 2 – Balloons over Bagan, Pagodas and Monasteries, and Sunset on the Ayeyarwaddy River.

No rest for the weary.  Woke up super early this morning and went to the hotel reception area to meet the bus that was taking us to the balloon ground for our hot air balloon ride over Bagan.  Every morning and evening, from October to March (the winter season), Balloons Over Bagan takes people on a magical flight over the Bagan Archeological Zone.  The sight of these hot-air balloons drifting serenely over Bagan’s otherworldly skyline is almost as iconic as the temples themselves.
Our bus was a bit rickety and the road to the balloon area was unpaved, and the ride was absolutely whiplash-inducing.  Our balloon pilot later told us that these buses are Canadian, left here in Burma after World War II.  They were supply trucks, but were converted into transport vehicles.  They’ve been running faithfully for about 70 years!
Here’s Mark getting the selfie stick ready before the flight.
We arrived at the balloon field. It’s a sunrise flight, so it was pretty dark.  The company, Balloons Over Bagan, is a real class act.  They start by serving you a beverage (tea, coffee, or water) and cookies, while we wait for all of our passengers to arrive.
There’s our deflated balloon on the ground.  As the balloon started to inflate, our British pilot, David Head, gave us the safety talk.  He lives in Burma for six months, during the ballooning season, and then goes back home to England for the off season.

First the balloon is filled with air.  Then the air is heated.  Hot air rises, so this causes the balloon to start to go vertical.

Time to climb in the basket.  The basket of the balloon can hold 9 passengers:  two people in each of the four corner compartments, and the pilot in the center. No compartment has a “better” view than any of the others.  The balloon rotates 360 degrees while in flight, so everyone gets a spectacular view no matter what.
As we lifted off, the crew on the ground waved goodbye.

The green and yellow balloons were other companies.   I much preferred the saffron color of the Balloons Over Bagan.

Anyway… we were aloft and well-positioned to watch the sunrise.

Below, you could see hundreds of temples and pagodas across the plain.

It was fantastic.  Perfect weather, beautiful sunrise.

The pilot was pointing out some of the pagodas below.   He pointed to one in particular (I can’t remember the name) that he said had been damaged by an earthquake.  It caused part of a wall to collapse, exposing the large Buddha statue inside.
As we got closer, we could see the exposed Buddha from our balloon.
We passed over a village toward the end of the flight.  We could see people farming below.  All of the farming is done manually.  No machines at all.  Burma has a lot of catching up to do.

As we landed, we were immediately met by two little boys who were trying to sell us souvenirs.  I wouldn’t call them souvenirs, actually.  They were drawings that they had made of the balloons.  The kids were adorable.  I didn’t buy their drawings, but I did give them some money.

Upon landing, the Balloons Over Bagan crew were waiting with cake and champagne.  Nice!

They also give you a hat with the Balloons Over Bagan logo on it, and they deliver, to your hotel, a flash drive with photos on it.  The photos are from the GoPro camera that is mounted on the balloon. There we are, on the right!

The bus delivered us back to our hotel, and a few minutes later, Myint and his driver picked us up and took us to the market in the heart of the busy little town of Nyaung U.  I liked this billboard outside the market, for an Indian restaurant named Aroma.  “No Good, No Pay”, it says.  I wish restaurants in New York had that guarantee.

The market was pretty lively, selling all kinds of interesting produce, spices, and sundries.

A very friendly (but aggressive) saleswoman tried very hard to get Mark to buy a longyi, going as far as to throw it over his head and wrap it around his waist, but he declined.

We saw a variety of caneballs.  Caneball, also called chinlone, is a Burmese game where a team of six players pass the ball back and forth with their feet, knees, head, or any part of their body (other than their hands) around in a circle. If the ball drops to the ground, it is “dead”, and the play starts again.  The ball is woven from rattan and makes a distinctive clicking sound when kicked. We saw some kids playing at various points during our trip, and some of their skills were impressive.  It’s like hackysack here in the U.S.
We also saw the bark that is used to make Thanaka.  Thanaka is a pale yellow paste that is made from the bark of the thanaka tree.  A special flat stone mortar called a kyauk pyin is used to grind the bark.  Once it is ground up, you add water, and presto! Every morning, in households across Burma, women grind thanaka and apply the paste to their bodies, primarily their face.  The paste is said to protect the skin from the sun and help make it softer and paler (pale skin is prized in Burma, similar to India.)  Women and children put it on, as well as young men on occasion.  It is applied with care and worn with pride. Check out the photos above of the kids who greeted us when our balloon landed.  They’re wearing it.

In the center of the market, on a little cluster of blankets, there were a couple of cute little puppies!  That’s all I needed to see.  Forget it, I was smitten.

I was hoping to see some cats, too, but they were scarce.  I did see one on the roof of the market as we were leaving.

After the market, we headed to more pagodas.  This time, we were exploring some later ones, like 12th and 13th century.  Our first stop was Nandamannya.

Nandamannya Pagoda was built in the mid-13th century. It is a single-chambered temple has very fine frescoes and a ruined, seated Buddha image. The murals’ similarity with those at Payathonzu has led some art historians to suggest they were painted by the same hand. We passed by Payathonzu, but didn’t go inside, so I wasn’t able to compare. 
Nandamannya earns its reputation from the mural “The Temptation of Mara”, in which nubile young females vainly attempt to distract the Buddha from the meditation session that led to his enlightenment.  The undressed females shocked French epigraphist Charles Duroiselle, who wrote in 1916 that they were “so vulgarly erotic and revolting that they can neither be reproduced or described.”  Sadly, as the large red sign on the door indicates, no photos allowed.
Normally when I see a sign like that, I sneak a few photos regardless, but this place was too small, and I couldn’t pull it off.  Sorry.   You’ll have to be content with viewing this cute little dog that was sleeping outside the temple.
Next stop was the Kyat Kan Cave Grotto Monastery, a famous meditation center.  This is an active monastery, with a few monks in training (although I didn’t see any today).

The cave part was pretty interesting.  Very serene.  You can see how austerely they live.

There were little alcoves along the cave walls.  They were outfitted with a small platform for meditation, as Mark is demonstrating.
Later on, we saw the head monk, who was enjoying a cup of tea.
On the grounds of the monastery was a really cute little pregnant cat.  Once I patted her, she followed me around during the entire tour.
Such a cutie.  She’s one of many that I would have liked to take her home to the U.S.


After the monastery, we drove a little bit to Thambula Paya.

Like the Nandamannya, this is a 13th century temple, and it is similar in appearance.

The coolest thing about this place is that it was locked.  Our guide had the key, though.  He let us in, and again, we had the entire place to ourselves.

This temple is home to a superb collection of murals. The ceilings were high and there was enough light to be able to see them without the aid of a flashlight.

 Some dark corners did need a little extra light.

Densely detailed paintings covered nearly every surface.

 The most impressive were several intricately painted inscriptions.  These were very well preserved and looked like they were painted recently, and not hundreds of years ago.

And of course, there were Buddha images everywhere.

I’ve mentioned Payathonzu a few times in this post.  We never did go into Payathonzu, but we did drive past it.  I thought I’d elaborate on it a bit, because it’s a really unique temple in that it comprises three identical small tower-topped shrines joined together in a line and connected by a single corridor. The murals inside are supposed to be quite interesting, and I kinda wish we had stopped here.  In any event, note the three identical towers. (Sorry… a tree is blocking the third one.)

Our last temple before lunch is called Tayok Pye.  It was built by King Narathihapate, who reigned from 1256 to 1287.  It was in 1287 that the Mongols invaded.  Fearing for his life, he fled down the Ayeyarwaddy River with his court, earning him the name ‘He Who Fled from the Chinese’.  That’s what Tayok Pye means.  On his flight out of Bagan, he was killed by his own son, Thiha Thu.  Thih Thu was, in turn, killed by his half-brother Kyaw Swar who then took the throne of Bagan with the support of Kublai Khan.  He was removed within a year and was replaced by his son, Saw Hnit.  Oy, such family drama!

Anyway…. you drive up, go through this little gate, and the temple awaits you a few hundred yards away.

The temple is known for its ornate stucco work.  Check it out!


There was also some nicely preserved green glazed tiles on the exterior.

And, as usual, the place was replete with Buddha images.

Time for lunch.  We told our guide we wanted authentic Burmese food.  He suggested a nearby place.

I think “authentic” or “genuine” would have been a better word than “typical”.  Funny.

You get soup, a salad, a main dish with your choice of meat, rice, and fruit for dessert, all for the hefty price of 4000 kyat.  That’s about $3.50.  Amazing.

Sadly, the food was gross, in my opinion.  The soup was nasty.  Very fishy and salty.  The bitter melon was bad.   The side dishes were also weird tasting.  The chicken wasn’t boneless, as I prefer.  It was a scrawny little chicken leg with the skin.  Oh well.  The pumpkin curry was really good.

There was, however, a nice cat roaming the restaurant looking for food.  Of course, I obliged.

After lunch, we went to Bagan’s largest temple, the colossal Dhammayangyi Pahto.  It’s not just the sheer size of the place that makes it recognizable, but also the distinctive outline in that it lacks an upper storey, instead having a series of no fewer than six steep terraces rather than the usual three placed on top of the shrine, giving it that ziggurat type appearance (like a terraced pyramid)

The Dhammayangyi  has a somber legend behind it.  It was built by King Narathu, a homicidal psychopath, as an act of royal merit-making for which he hoped would be enough to negate the bad karma he accumulated following the murder of his father (King Alaungsithu), his elder brother Min Shin Saw (by poisoning him on his coronation day) and his Bengali wife, allegedly because he objected to her Hindu rituals.  (He murdered his dad in the Shwegugyi Paya, the temple that father actually built. Not cool.)
As it turns out, Narathu himself was assassinated just two years after taking the throne by an eight-man hit squad dispatched form India by the unhappy father of his murdered bride.  The hit-squad was a suicide squad. The assassins gained access to the palace by disguising themselves as Brahmin astrologers, hiding their swords beneath their robes. After killing the evil king, they slit their own throats.

The exterior is known for its superb masonry.  Narathu ordered that the bricks be fitted together so tightly that not even a needle could be inserted between them. Any workman who failed to achieve this necessary close fit got his hands lopped off, again showing what a nice guy this Narathu dude was.  
The interior, however, is pretty stark.  A pair of Buddhas sit opposite the western entrance, with the historical Gautama and the future Maitreya placed next to each other, Bagan’s only example of two major Buddha images places  side by side.  
The stark interior has only a few murals of any interest.  Otherwise, the interior is pretty bare and melancholy, with high corridors.
And once again, Buddha images abound.
Here’s something cool:  they say that the high ceilings are home to lots of bats.  Well, when you photograph without flash, you don’t see what’s way up in the ceiling.

A little manipulation with iPhoto, and sure enough, dozens of bats up there!
Outside the temple, a woman was chilling out on the grass with her cows, while a really cute puppy wandered in the sand nearby.

After the Dhammayangyi, we headed to the jetty for our sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. On the way, we passed by the Tharabar Gate. It’s the only one of the Old Bagan’s twelve former gateways to survive.  It is flanked by a pair of brick-walled shrines dedicated to the two Mahagiri nat spirits, popularly known as Maung Tinde (“Mr. Handsome”) whose images stands in a niche on the left-hand side of the gate, and his sister Shwemyethna (“Golden Face”) opposite.   You’ll hear more about Mr. Handsome and Golden Face tomorrow on our trip to Mount Popa.

We headed back to the hotel for an hour or two to rest, before embarking on a little boat ride.  When we got back to the hotel, our luggage was waiting for us!  Myint had made some calls, at my request, to track down the luggage, and it was put on a flight from Rangoon to Bagan.  Our driver went to the Bagan airport to pick it up and bring it back to our hotel.  That’s what I call service.  Another reason to use if you’re thinking of going to Burma.

Our tour package included our own private little boat for a ride on the Ayeyarwaddy to watch the sunset.  When we got to the jetty, three girls immediately swarmed the car with items to sell.  It was like the way fans and papparazzi swarm a celebrity’s car.  And it wasn’t because Mark strongly resembles a popular Burmese actor (which apparently he does). “You like t-shirt?” asked one girl.  Two other girls shoved bracelets and lacquerware bowls at him, asking if he wanted to buy.  I wish I had pictures of the girls. They were a riot.  

 I have no problem saying no repeatedly, but Mark gets worn down, and the moment he shows any signs of wavering, they pounce.  We said no, but rather than accept this, they all said, “maybe later?”  This seemed safe enough, so we said sure, maybe later.  Mark ascertained their names:  Dudu, Mumu, and Bobo.

Once again, the weather was perfect, and the boat ride was peaceful and relaxing.  That’s me on deck with our guide, Myint.

The sun began to set.  Boats on the water, silhouetted against the hill as the sun dipped below the horizon made for a perfect afternoon.

As we headed back to shore, we passed by Bupaya, the “Gourd Stupa”, high atop a bluff overlooking the water.  It’s Old Bagan’s most popular place of local worship.   The major feature is the unusual gilded stupa, raised above the water on a crenellated white terrace, with steps leading down to the river below. The stupa’s distinctive bulbous, gourd-shaped outline is typical of early Pyu architecture.   It’s a favorite sunset viewing spot, and you could see people still lingering up there post-sunset.

As we pulled into the jetty, we could see DuDu, Mumu and BoBo waiting for us!  “You said maybe later!”, they said.  Amazing.  I ignored them, but little Mumu shoved a lacquerware bowl in Mark’s hand. “7000 kyat”, she said (about $6).  Mark countered with 2000.  She said 4000.  Mark said 3000.  She said okay.  We now are the owners of one lacquerware bowl for about $2.50 USD.

 We ended our night at Gawdawpalin, one of Bagan’s largest and most ethereal temples.  It is of the gu or “hollow” type, with porticoes on four sides and a vaulted inner corridor.  This is the skinny supermodel of all the monuments in Old Bagan.

It was started under King Narapatisithu, completed by his son Htilominlo, and then badly damaged in the 1975 earthquake, although it’s been fixed up.  The slender spire reaches a height of 55m, which is one of the tallest in Bagan.  The exterior has fine stuccowork, but the interior is kinda plain.

You’ve got your standard big Buddha in here, but otherwise, not much to see.   (I guess after seeing so many striking temples and phenomenal Buddhas, a huge gold Buddha like this is now just a dime a dozen.  How jaded!)

Tomorrow, the amazing Mount Popa!

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