As I rise from the ground in the basket of a hot-air balloon, dawn is breaking and the first of hundreds of ancient temples comes into view. Through the early morning fog, I make out a red-brick temple nestled in a grove of palm trees. Soon I am passing over a traditional Buddhist structure with fine details and elaborate entrances. Over there is a five-sided monument topped by a white dome and surrounded by a wall.
This is the Bagan Archaeological Zone in central Myanmar. Here, in an area of about 16 square miles, more than 4,450 temples, mostly Buddhist, were constructed during a religious frenzy that lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries. About 2,200 have survived, although many have been damaged by earthquakes, floods and invasion.
And the best way to see them is by hot-air balloon. As our pilot maneuvers us through the air, my 15 fellow passengers and I are treated to an impressive but bewildering display on the ground below. Some temples are no larger than toolsheds while others rise several stories tall with spires that remind me of church steeples back home. I am struck by the absence of any pattern in the layout of the temples, which are scattered here and there like toys flung across a living room floor. Some are clustered together. Some stand alone. Most are red, the color of their earthen bricks, but I see some gold temples and some white ones. What is obvious is the effort made by powerful rulers and wealthy families to erect as many temples, pagodas and other religious structures as possible during Bagan’s best years.
The pilot is too busy to explain much to us. He’s causing the balloon to ascend and descend by turning on propane gas burners to heat the air in it or opening a valve at the top to let hot air out. In this way, he takes advantage of different air currents at different altitudes to maneuver us over the site.
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But I know from tour guides and literature that building a temple or other structure in honor of Buddha was a way to earn merit. A deeply religious and powerful king named Anawrahta united the ancient Kingdom of Bagan in the mid-11th century and launched the temple-building period that continued until a Mongol invasion 200 years later.
There are several types of temples in Bagan: the solid ones known as stupas or pagodas, which are like monuments; buildings with interior spaces for meditation; and some large enough to serve as monasteries.
Some scholars say the Bagan temples in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, are as important as the Angkor Wat complex in nearby Cambodia. The temple region has been nominated for World Heritage Site status, although there is opposition on the grounds that renovation of the structures has been shoddy and failed to follow historic designs.
From the balloon basket, I have a window into the distant past and a chance to imagine a flourishing royal city that employed artisans, master builders and religious leaders intent on creating the very best monuments. I take a photograph of what I identify as the gold-covered, bell-shaped dome of the famous Shwezigon Pagoda, which is believed to contain a bone and a tooth of the Buddha.
Meanwhile, amid the temples, I’m seeing people going about their day in modern rural Myanmar. Here is a man leading a large herd of black-and-white goats. Over there is a tourist van. A cart passes, drawn by two white oxen. There are monks in saffron robes and tourists in casual dress.
As the sun rises higher, the early morning fog lifts. The towers and the spires of the temples emerge more clearly. From high above the flat plains, I have a panoramic view.
Emerging from isolation
Myanmar endured 50 years of military-imposed isolation before opening to the outside world in 2011. Since then, tourists — and their foreign currency —have been more than welcome. In fact, there was no need to change money because U.S. dollars were accepted everywhere I went. This welcome is likely to expand now that the opposition political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi won control of Myanmar in the 2015 national election.
We started our eight-day Myanmar journey in the traffic-choked southern city of Yangon, where cars drive American-style on the right side of the road, even though many of them were designed for British-style driving on the left. This oddity is the result of a decision by the ruling generals who wanted to eliminate colonial symbols by banning British-style driving. British-style vehicles, however, are still legal. In our tour bus, which had a steering wheel on the right, a helper stood on the left side to warn the driver of things he couldn’t see and to help with hand signals.
That was one of many surprises. Throughout Myanmar, we saw a lot of women and children — and even babies — wearing milky-white or yellow makeup, sometimes in a pattern on their cheeks, sometimes covering their entire face. Women say it makes them feel pretty, serves as a sunblock and smells good. The makeup is sold in stores and by street vendors, and we watched one demonstrate how she makes her own at home by grinding bark from a thanaka tree and mixing with water.
We visited a Buddhist nunnery, where dozens of young nuns were living; we were told this is one way for a girl from a poor family to get an education. The nuns, too shy to say much through our interpreter, had shaved heads and wore pink robes — and some carried cellphones.
And we saw string puppets on sale everywhere — at temple sites, in markets and on the street. Traditional puppet shows, which date to the 15th century, feature the king and his court, a white horse, a mythical snake and even a magician. According to our tour guide, in past centuries such puppets were used to communicate official information, ideas and even gossip that the ruling powers didn’t necessarily want people to know.
But it was the balloon ride that I will always remember. And it was worth the $350 fee I paid in advance — in addition to signing a form requesting my height and weight and declaring that a traveler in excess of 280 pounds would have to pay a surcharge of up to 100 percent. (I did not have to pay extra.)
Into the basket
The adventure began before dawn, when a balloon-company van picked me up at my hotel. We drove for nearly an hour collecting fellow passengers from other hotels. Eventually we reached a field where about a dozen balloons were lying flat on the ground, waiting to be inflated.
It was pretty scary when the workers switched on the gas burners and aimed them into the balloons, one by one. Imagine standing near a flamethrower big enough to heat the air inside a balloon big enough to lift a basket laden with 17 people. The basket had four compartments, with four people in each, and the pilot — a tall, husky Australian named Peter — stood in the middle.
Getting into the basket was a challenge. I had taken a balloon ride once before, on a 2005 trip to Egypt. On that occasion, a crew of strong Egyptian men simply picked me up and set me down inside the basket in a very smooth maneuver. This time, I had to climb into the basket using footholds in the side to get up and over and into position. I managed to get into the corner end of the compartment, where I thought I would have the best view.
Peter assured us that he had plenty of experience. Now and then he would turn on the gas heaters to maneuver the balloon through the air, and most of us cringed at the noise. But this was primarily a silent magical ride through the sky.
As we descended for landing on a soft sandbank by the Ayeyarwady River, we got a closer look at the exotic religious structures that dominate the land. But the day was young, and it was time for a ground tour.
For this, I was seated on the flat bed of a horse-drawn wooden cart decorated with artificial yellow roses. We traveled slowly over a dusty red-dirt path among the temples and passed other carts, some drawn by white oxen, each big enough for a driver and two passengers. The temples range in size from a few feet high to hundreds of feet high. Each one is said to have a name and a story.
I was taken to visit the Shwesandaw Pagoda, which features a statue of a reclining Buddha about 60 feet long. At another temple stop, I climbed to the first ledge of a brick structure, grabbing the railing as I made my way carefully and slowly up the very narrow, very steep steps. From there I got a wonderful view of other temples in the area, including some small ones that had collapsed into a small heap of bricks.
This particular temple is popular with young vendors, who wait near the stairs for customers and offer postcards, shawls and other souvenirs. When I got back to the ground, I couldn’t resist — I loaded up on memorabilia that would help me remember this amazing land of temples.
McCartney is a former Washington Post staff writer and the co-author with James McCartney of “America’s War Machine: Vested Interests, Endless Conflicts.”
If You Go
Balloons Over Bagan, 011-95-616-0713, easternsafaris.com/home
Rides are $320-330 per person in a 16-passenger red balloon and $380-390 in an eight-passenger balloon. They are generally available from late October through mid-March, when winds and weather are better for ballooning. The sunrise take-off site changes with the wind and is determined by the pilot in command on the day of the flight; a company bus provides transportation to and from balloon take-off and landing sites.