Our wake-up call was well before even a glimpse of the sun's light had crossed the horizon, when Balloons Over Bagan picked us up at our hotel. We were chauffeured in an old bus with wooden bench seats, and progressed towards the field of balloons collecting fellow passengers from other hotels. Eventually, we reached a large open field where about a dozen balloons were lying flat on the ground, waiting to be inflated.
If you've never flown in a hot air balloon, the process can seem a little intimidating, and rudimentary, at first. Workers prepare the balloons and begin to fill them with cold air using large fans while others hold open the canvas and do their best not to be swept inside. During this process, further pre-flight checks are performed by walking around inside the balloon and inspecting it. Once the checks are complete, the workers switch on the gas burners and aim them into the balloons. The burners are not much different from large flamethrowers, heating the air inside a balloon big enough to lift a basket laden with 18 people. The basket had four compartments, with four people in each, and the pilot with his trainee in the middle. We managed to get into a corner of the compartment, where we thought we would have the best view.
As our pilot expertly raised the balloon, opening and closing vents to give everyone a panoramic view, we were treated to a sight few are lucky enough to see with their own eyes: temples rising as far as the eye can see. Some rival the size of European cathedrals, while others could comfortably fit in a one car garage. You cannot help but feel like an early explorer, discovering a long-forgotten, powerful civilization.
At the height of its power in the mid-11th century, the people of the kingdom of Bagan began to build temples in honor of Buddha as an act of earning merit. Their king, Anawrahta, united this ancient kingdom, and allowed this temple building to persist for some 200 years until the Mongol invasion.
This is why there is no apparent pattern to the arrangement of the temples, people simply built them as they had the means. As we float gracefully above them, we notice a handful clustered together, then one or two alone, followed by more clusters with a larger structure among them. Nearly all of them are the red color of the earth from which their bricks were made, but some have been refurbished and sparkle with white stone and gold leaf.
The scale is made even more amazing once you recall that what is standing today represents only a fraction of the temples that once dotted this plain. Over 2,000 pagodas and monasteries are standing today, which is down significantly from the 10,000 that could once be seen here. Over the centuries, many have either been looted or fallen in one of the many earthquakes that regularly shake this region.
There are several types of temples in Bagan, and it is important to understand the difference. Stupas, or pagodas, are solid and act as monuments. Others, with large interior spaces, serve as temples or monasteries.
From our high perch, we are able to appreciate the size and power of this ancient kingdom in a more meaningful way, and imagine a rich city teaming with carpenters, artists, and leaders focused on creating lasting monuments. Yet today, far below, we see a present-day Bagan. People still farm the land among the temples, using simple means. Oxen plow the fields as well as pull the carts filled with the harvest. A family is cooking a meal, children are laughing and playing, and monks can be seen walking down the dirt roads. There is no better way to experience Bagan, or to appreciate and understand both what is was and what it is today, than to see it from the sky.
After a wonderful trip, we had an expert, though tricky, landing into a small field. Our pilot needed to land at the far end of the field to make room for another balloon behind us. That balloon scraped the tops of trees before landing so close that our balloons hit, pushing so much air out that we nearly tipped over. In order to soothe us, and to celebrate a beautiful morning, we were treated to some champagne and pastries by our guides.
A few quick notes on the logistics of our trip. We rode with Balloons Over Bagan, and have nothing but the highest praise for their professionalism, safety, and quality of service. We were even treated to champagne and pastries upon landing. One piece of advice, other than bringing your best camera (and a good neck or wrist strap so you don't drop it!): monitor the weather leading up to the morning of your flight. If the risk of cloudy weather increases, call and ask to reschedule. There are no gaurantees that you will be able to, but it is certainly worth trying. This is another good reason to stay a few days in Bagan, to give yourself the best chance of a clear morning.