If you have never heard of the ancient Valley of Bagan, I'm sure that you have seen pictures because it is one of the most photographed archeological sights in the world. Spanning 16 square miles of a great open plain, with the Irrawaddy River in the background, more than 2000 ancient temples, pagodas and stupas (built in the 10th and 11th century) dot the beautiful arid countryside. Some compare it to Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but now having seen both, I would say that there are similarities in the building style, but the setting is totally different.
Most of our first day was spent visiting a few of these magnificent brick structures, with beautifully preserved wall paintings, carved motifs, and massive gold leaf statues of Buddha. The most impressive of the temples was Ananda Pahto, built by a king in the 11th century. Inside stood four huge Buddha statues made of teak and covered in shiny gold leaf, each with a different hand position or mudras. Outside children of all ages greeted us with big smiles, trying desperately to sell us postcards, sand paintings, and crude trinkets made of wood and bronze.
While I really enjoyed seeing the three or four unique temples and pagodas we visited, I was really looking forward to the hot air balloon ride that would give us a bird's eye view and a totally different perspective of this immense archeological sight.
At 5:45 am this morning Bruce and I and two others from our group were picked up at the hotel and driven to a giant open field where a large crew of Burmese workers were assembling the gear and setting up the 13 hot air balloons that would be flying at sunrise. What a relief to hear English accents coming from some of the people in charge, since the balloons are flown by a very experienced crew from the U.K, and not an inexperienced crew from Burma.
Richard, our balloon captain, spoke firmly when giving us the important safety instructions on when and how to climb into the balloon's basket, and what to do when landing. "Sit, don't stand, put cameras on the floor, grasp rope handles, and place your back and head firmly against the basket." Getting in and out of the huge basket was tricky for some, but for me it was like getting my leg over a bike seat, except the bike seat, i.e. the basket, was nearly five feet tall.
I thought I would be nervous when the massive propane gas burner heated up the inside of the balloon, but I wasn't. Other balloons were beginning to take off at the same time, and it was a thrill to see, knowing that within minutes I would be airborne too.
To be honest I really don't understand the science of hot air ballooning, but I really didn't care. I was there to experience the thrill of flying and to take photographs of the beautiful sights below. For 45 very fast minutes we cruised at an altitude between 500 to 1000 feet, although I saw a couple of balloons that looked much higher. The skies were not ideal for photos, but I did my best considering limited light, slight mist, and smoky haze. And a relatively new camera that I'm still struggling to understand.
The adventure continues..........
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