Our week of cruising on the Irrawaddy River ended in the chill of a dark Saturday morning. By morning, I mean before the break of dawn. It was just going on 4:45, but there we were, creeping off the riverboat, our backpacks weighing us down as we gingerly made our way up the pebbly, sandy bank.
We used a flashlight to guide us by the make-shift huts of the families who lived and worked along the river. They would get another hour or so of sleep before they lit their fires, cooked their breakfasts, and left for work. The women would eventually begin hauling stones from delivery boats waiting at the water’s edge to growing piles of them already established farther up the bank. The men would head to their motorized longboats and wait for the first passengers of the day. Some would be tourists who wanted a quick boat ride on the Irrawaddy; others would be locals looking for a ride from one side of the river to the other. The kids had to get to work, too, selling trinkets to the tourists on the luxury riverboats.
But that would all happen later. Iggy and I, along with a handful of stray dogs, were the only ones out and about. We were bleary-eyed, but hyper, excited to spend our second week in Myanmar on our own, without a tour group. We had decided to start it off with a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Bagan (hence the early morning wake-up). A restored WWII-era Chevrolet bus picked us up in front of a hotel that was situated just uphill from the river. Whatever sleepiness that remained in our minds and bodies was blown away on the breezy ride to the balloon embarkation point, which turned out to be an open field busy with dozens of crew members preparing 14 balloons for flight.
The tour operator we went with, Balloons Over Bagan, ran a classy program. We sipped French press coffee and nibbled on shortbread cookies as we waited for our safety briefing from our pilot, Robert. The jovial, self-assured Brit easily switched roles from balloon safety expert to in-flight entertainer to Myanmar history teacher in the few hours we spent with him. After we landed, and over champagne and homemade banana bread, we enjoyed hearing his thoughts on working in Myanmar during each year’s balloon season (October-March). He loved it for its friendly, welcoming locals and easy-going vibe, which he attributed to the majority Buddhist culture. “Even the stray dogs are laid-back here,” he joked. But it was true; we had observed the same oddity.
The flight itself was a dreamy 45 minute relaxing float over the Buddhist temples and stupas that make Bagan one of Myanmar’s most popular destinations. Smoke rose up from the villages below us and oozed out across the arid plains. Meanwhile, the sun cast a warm, bronze glow over the earth-toned temples whose original painted, ornate facades had faded and crumbled long ago. From our snug vantage point in the basket, we looked down on the structures that were built between the 11th and 13th centuries during the Kingdom of Bagan. The impressively imposing and well-known temples — Sulamani, Ananda, Shwezigon, Dhammayazika, Thatbyinyu, and the list could go on — towered over thousands of smaller ones, but they shared a common trait: they were all built by the wealthy, merit-seeking Theravada Buddhists of ancient times.
We had seen some of the temples mentioned above during our excursion with the cruise group the day before. So, after we said goodbye to our balloon pilot and crew, we explored a half-dozen others on our own. We hired e-bikes for the affordable price of $5.00 and spent the day riding along the narrow paved roads and narrower still dirt paths that connect the temples.
Our favorite stop was our first, the Ashe and Anauk Petleik Payas, which are pagodas that sit side by side just outside New Bagan, where our hotel was. Restoration work was underway on the Ashe Paya on the day of our visit, the work being completed by what appeared to be day laborers dressed in longyis, flip-flops, and straw hats. There were no archaeologists or professional-looking engineers in sight, let alone quality tools or equipment, illustrating the government’s shoddy restoration efforts that historic preservationists around the world have been criticizing for years.
In so many words and mimes (none of the workers spoke English and we, of course, spoke no Burmese), we were told we couldn’t go inside due to the ongoing work. My severe disappointment was replaced with sheer joy when a man dressed in an outfit of mismatched stripes appeared out of nowhere with a set of keys. He unlocked the Anauk Paya and ushered us inside where we shuffled along the cramped interior base of the four-sided temple. We admired scenes from the Jataka, a Buddhist text that depicts the earlier incarnations of Buddha, which were laid out in rows along the temple’s inner brick walls. Each scene was intricately carved on square or rectangular terracotta tiles, some still in excellent condition, while others were damaged or missing altogether.
Iggy and I felt a little like Indiana Jones (if
Harrison Ford Indy traded in his fedora, leather jacket, and khakis for baseball caps, t-shirts, workout pants, and flip-flops) inside the Anauk Paya. It felt rustic and untouched, and there were no other tourists to be found. In direct contrast, we felt like the sore thumbs that stuck out during our late afternoon visit to the bustling Alotawpyi, which we visited thanks to the balloon pilot’s recommendation.
Alotawpyi is one of the few golden-topped temples found in Bagan. It’s unique from a Western tourist’s standpoint for being the religious temple that locals flock to at all hours of the day. Inside its well-lit but claustrophobic quarters was a hodgepodge of old and new. Long-since eroded brick walls revealed a wallpaper-like pattern of hand painted Chinese stylized Buddhas. Gilded Buddha statues were found nestled in niches, resting safely behind the protection of Plexiglas. Upon entering, we witnessed men taking turns putting small squares of gold leaf on an exposed Buddha. In the back, a woman sat on the floor and prayed beneath a seated Buddha. All of this was captured by CCTV and displayed on a huge flat-screen monitor at the temple’s entrance.
If the rest of Bagan’s temples retained their ancient charm, Alotawpyi served as a reminder of Buddhism’s enduring importance within present day Myanmar, which is certainly not taken lightly by its current leaders and devoted followers as recent news headlines suggest.