Twenty-seven hours is a long way to fly for Buddha.
Three flights, endless red tape (including visas and the promise not to write about “the regime”), a mathematically-challenging 10-1/2-hour time change, and a limited availability of hotel rooms is all it takes to visit the 4,446 pagodas of Bagan in central Burma (also known as Myanmar ) — which quickly separates the wheat from the chaff.
Interest in the long-closed country is on the rise with the recent easing of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, and U.S.-based tour companies are starting to see trips fill up or sell out completely.
If you’ve been to Thailand or Cambodia, you know what to expect upon arrival in an ancient Asian capital rich with religious relics. But Bagan is nothing like you’d expect, especially when seen from above.
You can climb many stupas, ride bikes to shrines of reclining Buddhas, and walk within and around pagodas all the way to the horizon, but nothing compares to the wonderstruck magic of viewing these 11th-century expressions of Buddhist devotion and wealth from a wicker basket, floating silently above them as the magenta sun rises in the mist.
The only outfit in town, whose population rose to around 50,000 in its prime, is Balloons Over Bagan, run by a British expat who calls Colorado, Bagan, and Cappadocia, Turkey home, and whose nylon bubbles take intrepid tourists wherever the wind may blow, quite literally.
Rising before dawn, as the mist unfurls its tentacles across the stupa-studded clay landscape, guests pile into maroon buses that chug along the dusty roads to a landing site. Once each party has been sorted by weight, they stand behind enormous baskets the size of Volkswagen vans and watch the cool air blow by fan into the 5-story-high balloons. Slowly they become crescents, then half-moons, then full beach balls ready to soar aloft.
There is no attractive way to climb in, the staff will tell you, and it’s true: some stumble in, others hoist a leg over, still others are pushed by their rear ends into the basket. And then the strong-arm staff let go of the tethers, and off we soar rising to tree height, then pagoda height, drifting 15mph with the wind. Just inches below, the ruins of 11th-century stupas and temples crumble in decaying beauty; other more tourist-trodden shrines are spruced up enough so that one can almost touch the restored cartouches from Buddhist texts dating back 1,000 years.
Depending on the breeze, you can float beside the famous Ananda temple, where backpackers hike up to watch the sun set, or try to count the dollops of gold and brick puffed across the land like so many fluffy meringues.
It’s quiet up there, even with the gutteral whoosh of the hot air being forced from the helium tanks. In the distance, the handful of other balloons who took off the same time as ours are scattered across the dry flat landscape.
Somehow terrifying, magical, and mind-blowing all at once, the serene 45-minute sunrise flight rivals any South African bungee jump or Grand Canyon helicopter ride I’ve ever taken. Just floating there, weaving in and out of atmospheres and temples, one can’t help but think about one’s relevance on this planet and the plight of the people in the country in particular.
Like watching the stars move across the nighttime sky, soaring above Bagan in a balloon forces you to feel awesomely powerful—I can see the world!—and shamefully powerless to change anything around you. And isn’t that in some way the traveler’s existentialist crisis, only crystallized from high above in this nylon palace?
I know that’s how I felt—I could barely speak—but my Japanese and German and Texan compatriots perhaps didn’t feel quite the same. They chatted pleasantly about the weather and their other conquests in the country (Mandalay? Check. Inle Lake? Check. View of Aung San Suu Kyi at the airport? Check) and snapped happily at every photo op that came their way—and there were plenty.
Perhaps next time, I choose a different basket. Certainly next time I’ll stay for the Champagne breakfast and proper English scones set out on tables like morning sundowners (sunrisers?).
And there will be a next time.
Book though any local travel agent; about $250 per person. Runs October through late March.