25th Oct – BAGAN & BALLOON RIDE

An early start for our balloon ride over Bagan. In the hotel garden we started the day with a dawn breakfast before the bus arrived to take us to the launch. An old fashioned bus with wooden benches down each side where we sat overdressed in extra layers soon removed. Other buses were there before us and a bossy man in khaki hurried us out of ours to join the rest.  Standing in the early morning light, drinking tea out of china cups and eating biscuits, we watched the preparations being made for our flight and were briefed in readiness for it.  A score of men in matching polo shirts began inflating the enormous field of claret coloured silk and excitement grew along with the balloons.

All of us were in the same balloon which was divided into four compartments like an oversized wicker hamper for wine bottles. Nobby was our improbably named pilot and, once airborne, was friendlier and less officious than he had been on the ground.

The balloon lifted with a gust of flame and, untethered, we began to float upwards, leaving James to grow smaller down below.  It was so beautiful, seeing the temples glistening in the sun as the sun rose, getting smaller, like golden nuggets as we climbed up, higher than the two companion balloons which stayed together lower down. It was very peaceful, with hardly any talk as we literally watched the world go by.

Predictably, it was over too quickly and, too soon, we were skimming the tops of trees and clearing bushes as they looked for somewhere to land near a road.  We came to rest in a field, just a corner crushed as we landed smoothly and upright to wait there for the crew to come and pick us up. While we waited we wandered around and spoke with three small children from the neighbouring village who were the first to come out and marvel at the huge red air ship that had appeared out of their sky. Very soon they were joined by knots of small boys and the man whose field we had landed in who would be amply compensated for the minimal damage. Trailing children we then walked a short way through fields and through a farmstead where cows stood in shaded yards and hens fussed and we all felt this was an added bonus. As was the breakfast which awaited us at the entrance to a school, where a stall had been hastily set up and champagne and banana bread was being served to all – including James who turned up shortly afterwards having raced with the ground crew to meet up with us.  While villagers appeared out of nowhere, genially offering blouses and longhi and carvings, I wondered off to photograph a scattering of abandoned flip flops, left at the school gate by the children who had already started their day. And what a start to ours.  We wonder how all this richness of experience can possibly by kept up, but so far it just keeps on coming.

Next today was the Ananda temple where four golden Buddhas stood, upright and tall, and the Gubyaukgyi temple where ancient friezes were painted in earthy colours flashed with occasional cobalt and chalk white. Quite hard to see in the interior gloom which only torchlight is allowed to relieve, in order to preserve their condition.

And because we had got up so early there was still time to visit a small lacquer factory before lunch. In a workshop open to the street, a group of some six or seven worked on the different processes – preparing the bamboo, cut with deft strokes along its length and strengthened with horsehair, shaped by another, lacquered and layered by others and, further along the line, etched and dipped in golden leaf.

The morning ended with another lovely meal in another lovely location – this time at Sitthu where the riverside restaurant was cool and peaceful. Afterwards we had time for a longed for swim in the blue blue pool back at the hotel, cooling off and drying off in the clean heat of the mid afternoon.

Less peaceful later as we continued our tour of the temples – first to a rather lovely one made of brick and ending as the sun set at Schewsandau which was the most frenetic we have so far visited. At its base many women were selling their longhis and silk tops while their many children attached themselves to visitors with cries of “buy mine” as they waved their crudely hand-coloured flimsy paper postcards. Up and away from them tourists climbed the four levels to the top. Too high, too many people: Bobo and I made it as far as number three before dropping back down into the maelstrom below to buy the postcards, in my case, and the longhis in Bobo’s. And, entirely unexpected in all this frenzy, a gift of a black silk top from Momo, a gently smiling woman who pressed it into my hands, running after me when I refused and herself refusing anything for it. A country which surprises with it contrasts and its generosity.

And the final surprise of the day was to discover quite how remarkable Nanda puppets can be. While we ate our evening meal and drank rum sours – clown, page, horse, minister, acrobat, prince, magician, ogre and monkey told their story while musicians played and sang in what was a quite stunning show.

Extract from – SUNDAY 6th NOVEMBER – Click here to read previous day

Diary extract from Anna Quarendon’s Burmese Tour with Panoramic JourneysLost Cities, Hidden Trails, 2011. To find out more about this group journey , to Burma or Tailormade journeys to Burma with Panoramic Journeys, call +44 (0) 1608811183.

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