(Continued from last week- Part 2 Mandalay and Beyond)
Republished - Feb 2012
Super early wake-up calls result in most of the morning resembling an out-of-focus film, and this one was no different. By the time I was able to concentrate I realized that it was dark and cold, and we were sitting on a boat staring at a TV screen playing back-to-back music videos by Boney M. I never remembered them as being such activists, and exactly how ‘far out’ their wardrobes were.
By the time the sun came up and the sounds of “RA RA Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine” had subsided the peaceful drift towards Bagan began. We sat up on the deck and watched the landscape stream past as tourists quietly toasted in the sun.
It was 4pm when we arrived and the drive to our hotel revealed a very different landscape to what we had experienced in other parts of the country, the soil had a reddish tint and it was almost desert-like. The complete change in landscape and climate from region to region was growing to be one of my favourite things about Myanmar. And seeing men in skirts everywhere. Granted, the sarong-like longyi and are not really ‘skirts’, but close enough.
The dirt road to our hotel ran right through numerous red-brick little temples, Bagan is home to more than 4000 dating back centuries. In the distance I could see a speck in the sky. More than a fleck, it was a hot air balloon and it was very, very high. As the corners of my mouth turned up to smile at the beauty of it, the bottom of my stomach dropped simultaneously- for I am notoriously afraid of heights. And in a few days we would be in that little basket hanging off a balloon high, high up in the sky.
The Kumadara Hotel was our home-away-from-home in Bagan. Set in the middle if a number of temples in a massive dusty plain, the feel was motel-like. Our spacious room had its own balcony overlooking a pool and a hop over the wooden railing would allow for free roaming between the religious structures. At night neon lights were lit in the scantly trees surrounding the pool and I felt like I was in the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas.
Bicycles were the order for the day on our first venture around town. Pagodas and markets sprinkled our path as we made our way around on bicycles that could rival the pagodas in age. Back at our hotel we decided to explore the surrounding vicinity and, unsurprisingly ended up getting lost. But unearthing our way back was a joyful experience, we walked through little roads full of houses and families waving at us as we made our way along. One very friendly resident decided to join us on our walk. His speed, or lack of it (he was about 90) and the fact that we could not communicate did not deter him. Together we walked, smiling, as the sun set.
Mount Popa (derived from the Sanskrit word for flower) is an extinct volcano with numerous temples and relic sites atop a mountain 1300 metres high. Upon first sight it looks like a tower overlooking an enchanted kingdom- it is a gorgeous picture. This is the spiritual HQ to the country’s infamous nat (spirit). The nat are spirits worshipped in Myanmar and they are divided between the 37 Great Nats and all the rest (i.e., spirits of trees, water, etc).
We travelled there by taxi and the drive is a worthwhile one. Petrified forest and volcanic ash create a most unusual landscape. We were warned not to wear red or black on the mountain, have bad thoughts, curse or bring any meat along, as the nats are not keen on any of the aforementioned. The thought of perpetual ill fortune due to a black bra or a chicken sandwich ensured that the checklist was adhered to.
As soon as you arrive at the foot of the mountain the tone is set by a sign that reads: Footwearing is Strictly Prohibited, and gangs of monkeys sitting around sizing you up.
The climb up along the covered walkways passes by a host of temples devoted to the nat. It’s a steep 25 minute climb but the physical exertion is nothing compared to the ill-behaviour of the monkeys. The worst mannered simians I have encountered in a long time, they resolved any question of how to feed them by snatching the food out of your hand before you had even paid for it. When I turned around one tried to jump on my shoulder- they were cute and scary in equal measure, demonic stuffed toys. But the views from the top make up for any potential brushes with rabies.
The 5am wake up call the following day was different to all the other hazy-dazy early wake up calls. This time everything was in focus, right from the start. For this was the day we would climb into a basket and get blown up into the sky under a balloon. Vertigo sufferers do not take this stuff lightly.
As we sat in the hotel reception in the chilly dark I did everything not to think about what lay ahead. It’s amazing what one comes up with: laundry lists, visas….but when the Balloons Over Bagan bus drove up to the hotel, it was difficult not to get excited- it was the most lovely old-fashioned bus ever . It bumbled along the dusty dark roads ferrying us to the massive balloons waiting to float away with us.
Only, when we arrived at our destination there was not a balloon in sight. Instead there were 4 or 5 other company buses and a number of people standing around as though around a campfire, but without the fire.
“Hello and welcome!” the very well spoken Englishman bellowed as we jumped out of the bus, “go help yourselves to a cup of tea while we wait for everyone to arrive.”
Standing around and drinking tea, people looked nervously bemused. I’m rather rubbish at small talk at the best of times, when faced with the very near and real realization of a deep fear- well, I’m not surprised I found myself alone with a cup of tea in the corner of a circle of people.
5 strong ‘GI Joe’ looking men then stood in line holding clipboards, these were our pilots and after introductions were made the passenger role call began. I deeply hoped my name would be read from the list in the hands of the tallest most courageous looking man in the line and smiled weakly when the short sturdy one read my name out.
Our Jean-Claude Van Damme look-alike pilot took our group of 8 aside and kindly barked out a list of do’s and don’ts if we were interested in survival. I was very attentive and when kayti and I were assigned our corner of the basket it was time to stand back and watch as the balloons came to life.
The baskets were on their sides with gigantic flat balloons sprawled out on the grass in front of them. A mixture of fire and fans slowly but surely rose these deep red giants from their sleep and at that moment the adrenaline kicked in and fear was replaced by enthusiasm.
Slowly, slowly one by one the balloons lifted off the ground and the baskets started positioning themselves for their passengers. The cold dusk of the morning mixed with flames, fans and enthusiasm created a beautiful atmosphere and much to my delight our balloon was the first one ready to go.
Once in, we were indeed the first to set off and as the ropes and hooks were undone we gently said goodbye to the ground in a seamless lift, floating up to become a speck in the sky.
There was absolutely no point at which I felt fear, which rather astounded me. Instead we drifted bird-like over treetops and in the distance the other balloons were making their way up into the sky. It was breathtaking.
All eight passengers in our basket were silent for the first 10 minutes. Then it turned into a game of pass-the-camera-around with everyone offering to photograph each other in the small space in the sky we were all sharing. Jean-Claude told us about his life and how he came to be a hot air balloon pilot in Myanmar. Fittingly he was Belgian so my initial impression was not that wide off the mark.
The rising sun brought with it a spellbinding light and we all got our cameras ready as our balloon passed by a temple and our shadow projected onto it perfectly. We floated for around 40 minutes, it was blissful and dreamlike. When I looked behind me and saw the other balloons following us I felt overwhelmed by the magnificence of it all and slightly tearful.
But emotions had to be put on hold when it was time to focus on the landing. Our pilot picked a spot and we could see the company buses and ground staff scramble to pinpoint exactly where that would be, and on board we assumed our positions. It was a smooth landing with the ground staff holding onto us for dear life as soon as we touched the ground.
All that was left to do after a morning like that was to enjoy the champagne and croissants waiting for us on a table nearby. And this time there were no nervous smiles. Just 8 people standing around grinning like mad from ear to ear, high on existence.
Kumudura Hotel www.kumudara-bagan.com
The boat trip from Mandalay to Bagan was arranged through Diethelm Travel. For more information please visit their website: www.diethelmtravel.com/myanmar
Balloons Over Bagan http://www.easternsafaris.com/balloonsoverbagan_home.html
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