A balloon trip is a spectacular way to appreciate Myanmar’s most popular attraction.
Forget Auckland’s housing crisis, and last-minute paint jobs on The Block. During a construction extravaganza stretching from the 11th to the 13th century, more than 4000 Buddhist temples were built on the dusty plains of Bagan in central Myanmar. Ordered by Burmese kings, one of history’s most intensive building programmes saw two new stupas being erected every month in the shadow of Mt Popa and along the banks of the meandering Irrawaddy River. More than 3000 of the temples still stand after wars, invasions and earthquakes, and Bagan is emerging as the most popular attraction for travellers to the country formerly known as Burma.
Ordinarily, the temples of Bagan would effortlessly be accorded Unesco World Heritage status, but this is Myanmar and the usual rules don’t apply. In the 1980s, impulsive remedial work decreed by the country’s military junta blurred the line between restoration and renovation. Some structures were hastily “repaired” with a 20th-century amalgam of concrete and bricks, and in the late 1990s illegal construction within Bagan’s defined – and supposedly protected – archaeological zone included hotels, a golf course, and a 60m-high viewing tower complete with its own lift. Controversially, many local villagers were also forcibly moved to the new settlements of New Bagan and Nyaung-U to make way for these developments. An initial application to Unesco by the country’s military government was soundly rejected in 1996, and only two decades later is cautious progress towards World Heritage status again being made.
As we drift in a hot-air balloon, Bagan’s golf course and faux-ancient tower are both evident in the dawn half-light, but still totally subsumed by the spectacular views unfolding below.
The morning commences with a 5am pitch-black departure from the Road to Mandalay river cruiser moored on the slow-moving Irrawaddy. On the riverbank, soft lights pulse amid the indigo smudge of daybreak, but minimal ambient light and pollution allow the fading night sky and a heavy tropical moon to shimmer in the river’s shallow waters.
Trimmed with honey-coloured teak, a vintage bus continues the bumpy journey to the morning’s departure point for Balloons Over Bagan, and soon the diffuse pre-dawn light is illuminated with several massive globes inflating with a fiery glow. Deceptively strong coffee and warm croissants further enliven an international crew of passengers, and in a leisurely skyward procession, the balloons ascend silently in the coolest air of the day. Occasional staccato bursts of the balloons’ gas burners ambush the morning stillness as we rise above drifting banks of morning mist.
Our balloon’s giant canvas basket is filled with 12 passengers, and a scramble of whispered expletives in English, French, German and Portuguese provides a global soundtrack as we quickly gain height. All the while, the considered New-Zealand-meets-East-Africa accent of Whangarei pilot Milton Kirkland – before Bagan he was flying above herds of elephants and giraffes in Kenya’s Maasai Mara – underscores an authoritative commentary and ongoing communication with local support crews following in the company’s fleet of retro buses.
At our cruising altitude of about 400m, the sheer number of temples adorning Bagan’s 40sq km site is revealed. Human activity provides balance on a smaller scale as farmers gently coax reluctant water buffalos along narrow lanes, and steam rises from cooking pots as breakfast is prepared in the villages below.
The rising tropical sun soon casts the telltale shadow of our balloon as we drift past larger temples, and sites explored leisurely the previous day on Bagan’s nifty electric bicycles reveal familiar profiles. The steep platforms of the Shwesandaw Pagoda are dotted with a few early-bird sunrise fans. Return at sunset when saffron and gold wash over the emerging night sky, and the elegant stupa is busy with a throng of international visitors.
On the near horizon, the compact but elegant red brick profiles of Gubyaukgyi and Abeyadana Phaya conceal shimmering centuries-old frescoes, and despite the best efforts of Myanmar’s Government and cowboy developers in the late 20th century, it’s spectacularly obvious Bagan still encompasses significant archaeological gems worthy of Unesco protection.
The 21st century governments have cannily recognised the potential commercial benefits of World Heritage status, and almost 20 years after the initial pitch to Unesco, there is quiet optimism Bagan will achieve full recognition within three years. New hotel development has been suspended in the area, and meetings in late 2014 between Unesco, international archeological experts, and Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture mapped out a protection plan to fulfil World Heritage nomination guidelines. The plan includes establishing just how many historical monuments there are in Bagan; the current tally runs to 3312, up from 2230 in 1975 and 3122 in 1997. Every year, more detailed exploration sees more temples being discovered.
In 2014, the remains of three brick, walled and moated Pyu Kingdom cities leapfrogged Bagan to become the country’s first confirmed World Heritage site, but Bagan’s ascendance to Unesco glory is the bigger prize. An estimated 400,000 tourists visited the site in 2015 – compared to more than two million at Angkor Wat in Cambodia – but annual visits to Bagan are projected to soar across the next decade as Myanmar continues its impetuous and inevitable ascendance to become one of Asia’s most popular destinations.
Given Bagan’s recent history of unfettered development, clumsy repair jobs and poor decision-making, getting it right this time will be a true Burmese balancing act.
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