The last leg of our trip is Bagan. This is an ancient city in the Mandalay region of upper Myanmar. From the 9th to 13th centuries it was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan one of the original regions that constitute modern Myanmar. During the kingdom’s height in the 11th to 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built on the local plains. Today 2,200 of these temples and pagodas still exist and are the main attraction for the area.
Our young guide Jo and his driver picked us up in a minibus from our hotel in Mandalay, for the 250km drive.
We stopped at a few points of interest, like the temple at Paleik where the Buddha statue is surrounded by snakes including pythons. But by far the most impressive stop was at Mount Popa, which is a volcanic plug that rises over 737 meters and onto which has been built a Buddhist temple has been built with 777 steps up to its summit. To get a view of the temple we were first taken to Mount Popa resort which looks across to the temple and is itself a beautiful resort. What we agreed to do in the end was that Mike and Keith would walk the 777 steps to the temple to see the great sights at and from the temple and the 3 of us less adventuring would sit and enjoy the facilities of the resort.
Bagan is completely different to Mandalay and Yangon which are cities with high-rise buildings, but Bagan has a much more spread out green plains feel with large villages and the Irrawaddy River flows through the region. We spent our few days in a lovely low-rise hotel with its own swimming pool and it was a very nice base. We visited a lacquer workshop which was interesting, the famous temple of Schwezigon and its local market, we spent an afternoon on the a boat on the river Irrawaddy, but the main attraction was the plains and the thousands of temples that still exist today. There was no better way to get to see the plains and the temples than from the air in a hot air balloon with Oriental Ballooning.
The ballooning was another highlight of the trip, something I had never done before but was very keen to experience and it was exhilarating. We were up early waiting for the bus to arrive and found another party waiting their for another ballooning company. They got a call to say that their trip had been cancelled due to the winds, so we sat their waiting anxiously wondering what was the story with our company. The van arrived about 15 minutes late so we were delighted but somewhat worried, wondering why another company felt it was unsafe to fly. What we discovered was that the prevailing wind was in the opposite direction to usual and because our companies balloon were smaller they were able to move their balloons to a different location so we could take off. We had a quick breakfast and watched them prepare the balloons.
We gingerly climbed aboard our baskets which help 8 people and the pilot. In each corner of the basket 2 people had a sectioned off area with the pilot, Chris in our case in the centre with his gas cylinders and equipment. We gently took off and rose into the Bagan skies and what followed was an amazing trip over the green Bagan plains, the Irrawaddy river and the bright orange temples beautifully lit by the rising sun. After a while I stopped taking photographs and just enjoyed the views. Our landing was a little bumpy as we clipped a small tree, but it is an experience I loved and would love to do again someday, perhaps in Southern Spain around Granada, where I remember opening our hotel bedroom curtains one morning to see a hot-air balloon gliding through the blue skies over the Alhambra.
The only tacky part of the tour was a visit to a village which was obviously set up just for tourists. There was some workshops and shops set up in barns to sell jewellery locally made, but the locals carrying babies came out, others smoked their local pipes but they were all looking for money for photographs. But I suppose you have to blame tourism for this and the locals are only looking to make a living and capitalise on the tourists that arrive there.
Our final night in Bagan was a lovely touch by the tour operator Exotic Voyages. It started as a pony and trap tour through the Bagan countryside and interweaves through the rough pathways and by the smaller temples, where we stopped at one. We disembarked and looked around. Jo invited us inside and up the steps inside and we arrived on one of the outside tiers of the temple. Laid out in front of us was a high tea of food and drink prepared for us by 3 servers. It was a lovely location and we enjoyed watching the sunset while we ate and drank some lovely food in the company of our guide Jo who had looked after us so well on this part of the trip.
The final part of the journey was an internal flight to Yangon where we stayed one more day before flying home to Ireland.
It was another fascinating trip with great friends that will give us memories for years to come to be filed away with our previous trips to South Africa and Cuba. As a photographer there is nothing better than taking photographs at great destinations with other photographers. Travelling with friends and family is great but it can be very frustrating for the photographer and the family and friends when the photographer wants to take photographs. There is a tension there that just doesn’t exist when travelling with fellow photographers. Fellow photographers are working alone and together to get images they want and they completely understand the process and what takes the time to get the image they want. So now I look forward to our next opportunity to fly somewhere different for great images.