Have you ever seen the iconic image of hot air balloons rising over hundreds of temples in what seems like a very far away and distant place?
Well I had, and after some research, it turned out to be the now famous sunrise over Bagan, Burma (Myanmar).
Where is Burma and is it Burma or Myanmar?
Burma is in Southeast Asia and shares borders with Thailand, China, Bangladesh, Laos and India.
It’s probably a bit unknown to most and not usually on peoples travel radar and for good reason. Until recently, the borders of Burma have been closed, allowing very few foreigners in.
Burma has a complicated history and has been embroiled in a civil war since gaining independence from British Rule back in the 40’s.
Burma or Myanmar?
It depends on which side you support I guess.
Myanmar is the name given to the country by the ruling (non elected) military regime. Burma is the original name of the country. The fact that the ruling regime is not democratically elected and has been accused of many war crimes leads me to be on the pro Burma side. But you’re free to call it what you like.
Former President Obama once called the country Myanmar and caused quite a media stir as Burma is the official country recognized by the USA.
The Bus Ride from Hell
Prior to 2013, tourist travel in and out of Burma was nearly completely banned. But restrictions are easing and it’s becoming easier to enter the country.
I arrived in Mandalay via Bangkok and immediately made my way via bus to Bagan. The plan was to spend a couple days in Bagan and then a couple days in Mandalay before departing back to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The bus ride to Bagan was a truly memorable ride, both good and bad. I’ve been on some crazy bus rides before (Italy and Laos come to mind) but this one takes the cake. The roads are bumpy and pothole filled and it prevents you from going fast or moderately fast. Or so I thought…
My bus driver was either on drugs, late for something or a mad man. In all likelihood, he was probably a combination of all three.
Being the only foreigner on the bus made for a strange dynamic. I received quite a few ‘what the hell you doing here’ looks and even received a military salute from one gentleman. I saluted him back giving him my best Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men) impersonation.
The bus ride from Mandalay to Bagan is only about 120 miles but the ride takes 6 hours or more (see bad road comments above).
It started out alright as the roads around the airport aren’t terrible. That quickly changes as you hit rural Burma and the road becomes two lanes and a maze of bumps and turns.
There were multiple instances where I was flung out of my seat and the poor lady next to me went even higher. The drivers use their horns, not as warnings, but as a ‘hey, I’m passing you, get out the way’ or simply because they’re bored.
The crazy bus driver had us continually on the wrong side of the road making passes that required oncoming traffic to get off the road entirely to avoid being hit. This dude was a nutter.
Another instance had us in a very tense situation with a group of scooter bikers. I’m guessing the bus driver didn’t like how the scooters entered traffic and felt he was cut off. Well, in true nutter form, the bus driver caught up with the bikes and forced them off the road where a shouting match started. That was an interesting 10 minutes.
Through all the craziness I was able to capture this pretty cool shot of a farmer trudging through the river.
But we made it and I settled into my hotel and got ready for the 5am wake up call for sunrise.
Sunrise Over Bagan
There’s a good chance that the main reason you are heading to Burma is to witness the sunrise in Bagan. This was my motivating factor.
I can confirm that it’s well worth the trip.
Burma’s landscape was not what I was expecting. In the Mandalay/Bagan region it was dry and dusty with very few trees. I’m no expert but dry, dusty and shrubs usually mean a fairly arid climate.
The region is also very flat. You can see some mountains way off in the distance but it’s mostly level with small shrubs and rivers that desperately needed some rainfall.
But this landscape set the scene for a spectacular sunrise.
I woke up at 5 AM and rented an electric scooter from the hotel. They gave me a recommendation for a lesser known temple to go to for the sunrise. I arrived at the temple and climbed up to the top. At this point it was about 5:45 AM and I was 1 of 4 people there. As daybreak approached, we would be joined by about 10 others.
Sunrise was at about 6:30 AM. The flat landscape allows you to see for miles and allows you to see the sun break the horizon.
It was an awesome experience as the sun lifted above the 2000+ temples that dot the countryside.
Shortly after sunrise, the balloons start to launch, which is also a pretty cool site. Here’s a time lapse of them taking off.
Back To Mandalay
After spending a couple days taking in all Bagan had to offer, I boarded a bus back to Mandalay.
The good news was that I didn’t have the same bus driver.
After the calmness of Bagan, Mandalay offered up a different experience. One of the larger cities in Burma, it gave you glimpse of everyday life for the Burmese.
Burma is a poor country, very poor. It was evident in Bagan and even more so in Mandalay. The buildings are dilapidated and streets are dirty and busy.
Unlike most other places, globalization has not touched Burma. You will not find Starbucks or McDonald’s or even decent WiFi (I had to use the Hotel’s desktop to process customer’s orders one night). But this is part of the adventure; to experience different cultures; and it was refreshing.
The Grand Palace
There are a couple of places to check out while you’re in Mandalay. The Grand Palace is worth a visit. It’s a giant walled city in the heart of Mandalay where old Royalty used to call home.
The outer wall is actually quite big. I walked there but I recommend hiring a taxi.
The Grand Palace complex is actually like a city within a city and foreigners are not allowed to head down side streets or take pictures. You’re only allowed to visit the Grand Palace itself.
Mandalay Hill and Sandamuni Pagoda
Another cool thing to see is Mandalay Hill and Sandamuni Pagoda. The hill is a bitch to climb as there’s a lot of steps and you can’t wear shoes. Your feet will be killing you afterwords. But the pagodas on the way up are cool to see and the view from the top is worth it.
At the base of the hill lies Sandamuni Pagoda. This is actually the largest book in the world. Each white pagoda has a slab with writing on it that constitutes a page. I read somewhere that if you were to spend 8 hours a day reading each slab it would take you over a year to read.
An Adventure in Burma
I had an amazing time in Burma and what an adventure it was. It was awesome to see another culture untouched by the long arm of globalization.
When people ask me, I describe it as a ‘raw’ travel experience. There was nothing luxurious about it and I loved it for that. It was authentic and real.
Oh, and the sunrise over Bagan is extraordinary.