Absolute stillness. The moments before sunrise feel as though the world is holding its breath. We certainly are. To the eight of us huddled together in the basket of our hot-air balloon, it feels like we’re hovering in suspended animation, waiting for a glimpse of something man-made through the mist draped over the plains. And then – it happens. As the heavy air lifts, we’re treated to a splendid sight – first light glinting off the golden dome of the Dhammayazika Pagoda in the distance.
Stupa after stupa emerges from the mist until the plains are dotted with countless reddish-brown temples basking in the glow of the morning light. It’s a sight that’s both staggeringly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad.
At the height of its power (12th century B.C), the Kingdom of Bagan boasted more than 10,000 temples packed into this small space. Today, this once-mighty land has dwindled down to only around 2,000 stupas still remaining, their preservation efforts barely fueled by the burgeoning tourist trade.
The first ten minutes of the balloon ride continue in silence, punctuated only by the clicks of our cameras and the occasional roar of the burner unit. Our pilot Rick seems at home in the air, only breaking the silence every now and then to point out a particular temple or to shout, “Mingalarbar!” to the local kids who run out of their houses to wave at our balloon as we pass overhead.
We start chatting. It turns out that he’s been a balloon pilot for most of his career, with a UK license and medicals. He was so passionate about the profession that his son has even pursued the same path – “He got his balloon license before he applied for his drivers’ permit,” Rick says with a laugh.
If you’re the type of person who has a bucket list, then a balloon ride over Bagan needs to be on it. With the government cracking down on the efforts to conserve Bagan’s archaeological heritage, there are very few stupas left that visitors are still allowed to climb – and the best way to behold the beauty of Bagan is from above. It’s expensive, but not overpriced. The crew are knowledgeable and skilled; that kind of training doesn’t come cheap. Some of the cost of the balloon ride goes towards local farmers and landowners on the rare occasion that a pilot has to land in their field without prior permission. Rick tells us that the company pays a fine for when this happens, plus compensation provided for any damaged crop. In this way, the balloon companies are pumping money into Bagan’s economy.
It’s an integral part of the town’s tourist offering – even budget travelers are willing to fork out the $399USD per person for a hot air balloon ride. We met a French couple who had been backpacking across Myanmar for the past three weeks, staying at hostels and taking local buses to get from city to city. It was one big splurge on their holiday.
The skies aren’t the only way to see these stupa-strewn plains. The Bagan Archaelogical Zone is built well for independent travelers. The best way to explore the area is by e-bike, riding from temple to temple via an intricate web of interconnected dirt roads. A dirt track is the best case scenario. Robb, our ‘designated guide’, is armed with a temple tracking app that he glances at occasionally before directing us to our next destination. Several times we struggle through sandy tracks only to emerge in a clearings that are mostly bush with no discernible trail to follow (and occasionally some confused-looking cattle).
On the whole we’re just lucky to not have had any nasty accidents – in part because I wasn’t adventurous enough to ride an e-bike on the main roads by myself. My three fellow travelers were extremely encouraging and wildly enthusiastic when I did my first wobbly test run, but this rapidly turned into dismay when the full extent of my road skills were revealed. Disastrous attempts at riding e-bikes aside, anyone with a decent degree of coordination and street-savviness would be able to hop on and go.
Back at the hotel after our balloon flight, we chat excitedly about the long day of temple-scaling ahead of us. Aash and I are keen to test out our new camera, and what better way to capture the magic of this enchanted kingdom than from atop a pagoda? In November 2017 the authorities banned climbing the stupas, citing safety as the main reason. But we’re confident there are still a few climbable ones to be found by savvy visitors.
We set off on a mission to visit the lesser-known temples; the more obscure, the better. Our waiter at the hotel told us we’ve arrived just ahead of the tourist season, so we’re not surprised that the only other people around are a smattering of hippies in technicolor harem pants.
Our first stop is Lawkar Nandar Pagoda, its magnificent gilded hti making it a notable spot on the map. Next we visit one with its beautiful interior murals still intact. We’re intrigued by an unnamed temple on the app map labelled “Steps up – be careful” and are stoked to be the only ones there. After poking around, we finally identify the crumbling remains of steps (at least, we think they’re steps) behind one of the stupas – they look as though they will disintegrate into dust at any moment.
Almost instantly, a Myanmarese man pulls over on a bike to greet us. He glances at the ‘steps’, then gives us a knowing look. We explore the surrounding stupas for a little longer, then as we’re mounting our e-bikes again he asks if we want to climb. “This one?” Robb asks, pointing. “I will take you to a stupa you can climb, five minutes away. Not far,” the man says.
Since we aren’t desperate enough to climb a pagoda that we would follow a stranger to an unknown destination, we say no thanks and continue on our way.
When you spend hours exploring this vast, abandoned kingdom, the temples all start to blur together. An hour before sunset, we decide to finish the day of stupa-hopping at Dhammayazika, a pagoda very close to our hotel. To our delight, we see a stupa overlooking the plains packed with tourists and locals alike on the terrace. We thrust off our shoes and ascend as quickly as we can to make the most of our unexpected photo opportunity.
The following day, we stumble upon North Guni temple and feel like explorers who have discovered something secret, pushing aside overgrown trailing weeds to get to the entrance. Sprawling vines, rampant overgrowth and a gargantuan red temple…it’s a setting straight out of an Indiana Jones film. So far we’ve only made it to the top of one pagoda, so when we look up at the promising terrace on the North Guni Temple we feel our hope reignite. Until we walk around the other side and bump into the temple’s ‘caretakers’, who are just as surprised to see us as we are to see them. They ask us if we want to be taken to a temple nearby that we can climb. We politely decline. Undeterred, they offer us postcards instead – ironically capturing the up-high views of Bagan’s splendid vistas that we’re seeking.
To feel truly intrepid, we follow a trail almost completely obscured by tall grass to a deserted stupa. We’re alone for about ten seconds. A middle aged couple have spotted us turn into this track from the main road and followed us to see what the fuss was about. As they take off their shoes and enter they avoid eye contact almost guiltily, like they know they’ve shattered our illusion of solitude. It’s laughable really. We don’t own the pagoda.
By now, the realization is dawning that we will never have these forgotten stupas to ourselves. Bagan may have been an undiscovered gem once, but it’s home to some of the finest examples of Myanmar’s rich heritage still standing and the world has cottoned on. Even in the low season you’re never alone.
It’s a reminder that there is almost nowhere left on the planet where you can truly feel like an explorer. Climbing a secluded pagoda to watch the sunrise is one bucket list item we’re not going to be crossing off anytime soon. The sunrise and sunset photos of the stupas all over the internet were clearly taken back when visitors were still allowed to climb these magnificent structures, or from an illegal vantage point after the climbing ban. It actually makes a lot of sense – any effort to minimize the impact of tourism on these precious cultural relics will go a long way in this struggling country. Perhaps it’s enough to admire these glittering tributes to Buddha from our very human vantage points on the ground and our birds’ eye view from the sky.