Pagan (Bagan),

Myanmar (Burma)

Jan 16, 2010 - Second day in Bagan

Copyright 2011, all rights reserved, by Bob Frazee


[Hot Air Balloon Ride]
[Bus Ride Through the Countryside]
[Small Village]
[Mount Popa]
[Ayeyarwaddy River Cruise ]


Balloons Over Bagan
Hot Air Balloon Ride

Taking a hot air balloon ride is exciting within itself and you should try it some time. My first one was in 1975 when I rode over the Saint Croix Valley in Wisconsin. Silently drifting over the countryside on a still morning in the spring was quite a treat. On our previous trips we have used almost every opportunity to see the country from the air in a hot air balloon. Egypt was the exception. The balloon ride was in the desert floating over the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor and we concluded it would not have had enough to see to make it worth while. We were correct. Everyone who went on the trip was disappointed. If it had gone over Luxor, or the pyramids, we would have had a different attitude.

Balloon ride over Cappadocia, Turkey
Without question our second best ride.
The canyon formations were impressive.
Picking a ride where you know there is
something below - like these geological formations -
will always be a good bet.

Balloon ride over Serengeti, Tanzania
How good this ride will be depends on the presence
of wild animals. We saw a few, but if the wilderbeast
and zebras had been in migration below it would have
been great. We only saw a few hippos in pools of
water. The time of year you are in the Serengeti
makes all the difference in the world.

But now we are heading for a ride over the million Stupas in Bagan. This was, without question our best balloon ride.

Balloon rides always start at dawn when the air is still so you don't get bounced around. We were picked up in the dark and driven to the launching site. Like polo, ballooning is the sport of kings, and we are treated like royalty.

201 Hot coffee, tea and rolls are awaiting us.

203 The balloons are carefully laid out on the ground
and prepared for the launch.

204 We will fly in a pack of three balloons with each wicker
basket gondola holding 6 to 12 people plus the pilot

205 While the balloons are being inflated with hot air we are
given instructions on how to board the gondola while it sits
on the ground. There are foot holes on the side of the basket
that are used for getting in - getting out later is another matter.

We are given careful instruction on the "crash" position. This is the position in the gondola that you have to take as it comes down for a "not necessarily so soft" landing Everyone kneels down as low as they can into a squat position so no part of their body is hanging over the sides - you don't want to squish an arm or finger. Also, as the gondola lands the balloon overhead is still quite large and a sudden gust of wind can cause you to go bouncing along the field like a giant rubber ball.

206 Are you ready?

207 The first group is airborne

208 Our pilot, Ian, pulls the trigger

209 The gas burners ignite and there is a deafening
roar as the flames push hot air into the balloon.
Our ride is anything but silent.

210 And Echo, our balloon, is up, up, and away as
it starts it ascent to the heavens

211 Just in time to watch the sunrise - the same one
we saw setting last night as we watched from
the roof of the Pyathatgyi pagoda

212 Balloon rides are best in the early morning
at sunrise because there is no wind.

213 Smoke from the early morning cooking fires
hang low in the valley below.

When the balloon left the ground the wind gods were with us and we flew directly toward the Shwe Zi Gone (Golden Pagoda). Finally I was able to get some pictures of what the whole complex looked like. We almost ran into the dome. Ion, our pilot, said he has never come so close to the dome before. The complex sits on the bank of the Irrawaddy river which is seen in the background.





218 The air was silent as we drifted toward the river.
The smoke from early morning cooking fires
hovered in the valleys and between the trees.


220 As we passed over the dome our balloon floated toward the river.

221 People looked up and waved "Good Morning"

Pilots like to play games, and test their skills, with their balloons. It is a "touch and go" exercise. Let your balloon lose air and let the basket, filled with terrified passengers, descends until it "touches" the water. Then quickly inflate the balloon by turning on all the fire dragons and you shoot up into the air. Of course the passengers don't have the slightest idea of what is happening - I did because of my first ballooning experience in Minnesota. This exercise takes a lot of skill on the part of the pilot because he doesn't have total control over his balloon and rate of decent. As the balloon goes down he has to turn on the fire before it hits the water. Turn on the flame too early and you don't even come close to touching the water (no cigar). Wait too long and your gondola sinks into the river and the passengers are standing in water (no tips). In my first experience with the touch and go the water went up to our knees and we were scared to death. When the hot air fills the balloon the power is unbelievable and the lift pulled us out of the water with ease. Of course the pilot knows the power of the balloon so he is comfortable engaging in this game.

222 Early morning fishermen.


As we headed over the river toward the opposite bank, where I knew there were no Stupas, I had a sinking feeling that this was going to be "another ride gone bad" and we wouldn't be see anything of the land of a million pagodas.

Little did I suspect that the pilots are fully aware of the air currents at different levels and as soon as we got to a higher level our balloon changed course 180 degrees and we were heading back to were we had come from.







There were so temples and Stupas it was hard to distinguish one from another although some of them stood out in my memory. The most distinguished one was Dhammayangyi known as the "Haunted Temple".

230 The Haunted Temple


This is the largest of the Temples in Bagan was built during the reign of King Narathu (1167-1170). Narathu, who came to the throne by assassinating his father Alaungsithu and his elder brother, presumably built this largest temple to atone for his sins. It is said that Narathu oversaw the construction himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between bricks they had laid. It was said that the king was displeased by the Hindu rituals taking place in the Temple and one of people taking part in those rituals was an Indian princess so Narathu executed her. The princess's father, Pateikkaya, wanted revenge for his innocent daughter and sent 8 officers in the disguise of Brahmans and assassinated Narathu in this very temple. Thus the construction was never completed. [King Narathu couldn't have earned much merit for building the temple. He probably was reborn as a spider as well.]

Go to
Dhammayangyi Temple for more information.





236 Twin Temples built by father and son.
Son built his temple smaller than his father's
in honor of his father's stature. Like the pyramids!



239 Our pilot sets a camera up on a swing so he
can take a group shot of us in our gondola.





244 The Thatbyinyu Temple is the tallest structure in
Bagan and still an active monastery.

245 The Temple was built by King Alaungsithu (1113-1167) in 1144.

Go to The Thatbyinyu Temple for more information.

After floating over Bagan for about a hour and a half all good things have to come to a close. Now you know why Bagan is called the "City of a Million Pagodas." As we approached our landing site the chase trucks are waiting for our landing in an open field.

246 The landing zone is spotted

247 Air is let out of the top of the balloon so it
will "slowly" descend to the ground for a "soft,
we hope, landing." Notice everyone is looking
over the top of the basket....

The captain calls out, "Assume the landing position" and we all drop to our knees and hang on for dear life. The balloon is deflated and laying on the ground, the gondola is stabilized and the passengers are free to get out of the gondola as gracefully as possible (after checking the overhead compartment to make sure our carry-on luggage has not shifted).

248 What happened to all those people we
saw a moment ago? Only the captain
is standing up.

249 When you don't bend like a wet spaghetti
noodle anymore getting out is not as easy as
it used to be. But we are all smiles.

Seven years of practicing yoga just went down the drain but we are having fun, look at the smile on this passenger. As is the tradition with balloonists, a safe landing (one you can walk away from) is celebrated with a Champaign toast.

250 Champaign all around!


252 Cheese and crackers

253 And of course, souvenir items for sale.

If in doubt, here's proof, we are certified balloonists.

If you are interested, you can catch a glimpse of what we saw in our Balloon over Bagan


Ride Through the Countryside

With the balloon experience over our Tour Director, Lennie, tells us we can spend the day on our own in Bagan or he has arranged a special trip for us to Mt. Popa, home of the Nats. This is an optional trip but the additional cost is worth twice the price. Here is our chance to get out and see the Burmese countryside. This side trip is the reason I loved Burma.

254 Mt. Popa is located to the south east
of Bagan and obviously and important site
gauging from the fact it is located on this map.

255 After breakfast we board our private mini-bus and
didn't have to use this local transportation where
not an inch of sitting or standing space is unoccupied.

256 At least we were not traveling in a rickety wooden
wheeled cart being pulled by this large bull, which was
not an uncommon sight.

257 Men hand carry bundles of straw to their farms.
Much of the work done in the country is by hand.

258 Barefoot boys were off to school carrying their books
and tin buckets which held their lunch.

259 Almost everything is carried to market by hand.
Having an ox and cart or motorized vehicle is a real luxury.
Notice the ingenious way in which she used palm branches to
raise the sides of her baskets so she could carry more produce.

We often talk about doing something "the old fashioned way" as a symbol of getting "back to the basics" which means paying attention to "doing it right"; to make a quality product rather then relying on gimmicks or fancy machinery. While driving through the countryside we came across this factory which was making peanut oil "the old fashioned way".

260 One Brahma bull, a circular path, and a boy
with a stick to encourage the bull, are the source of energy.

261 A mortar and pestle, made from a tree trunk and log,
and a cup to catch the oil are the machinery. It doesn't get
more basic. Just add peanuts from the adjacent field and
you are in production.

Drop the shelled peanuts into the top of the mortar, crack your whip so the bull will start to walk and let the log crush the peanuts so the oil flows into the receptacle below. For the purists, this is real "organic" peanut oil.

262 Once the "machinery" is set into operation it doesn't
need much tending so the operator can sit back and read a
book while riding along.

263 Like Tom Sawyer, the operator every once in a while
manages to snooker some unsuspecting tourist into
thinking this is great fun and he gets some help.

264 You might say it is so easy a
caveman can do it.

265 Not every job looks so easy.

No one stepped forward to help these women or men.



There was also a liquor distillery located at this roadside stop and, as you can imagine, the production methods were not very sophisticated. Without giving away any trade secrets I can disclose the following information

268 To make palm nut liquor you first
have to climb to the top of a palm tree.
Hanging from your waist are clay pots
to collect the sap.

269 Previously you have tapped the cut
flower of the palm tree. The sap from the
cut flower has been slowly collected and is
now poured into the pots you brought up.

270 Down you come with the harvest in hand.

271 The sap is boiled to get rid of the excess water.
The natural yeast in the sap causes fermentation
needed to get alcohol. The rest of the distilling
process takes time but it give you a powerful adult beverage.

272 We are offered tea and palm sugar candy.

273 A mother rocks her baby in this cradle.

274 Taking cloth to market.

275 Not everyone walks. Look at the load of fodder
on the back of this guy's bicycle.

We get back on our bus and a few miles down the road we came upon this most ancient of agricultural processes: Wind winnowing grain. This method of using the wind to separate grain from the chaff goes back to before the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt. You have read about it in the Bible. First the grain must be cut and then thrashed to remove the seed from the hull. But thrashing leaves you with a mixture of the two. The grain and hull are then separated by throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall on the cloth or tarp to be gathered up and taken home. It is simple and effective.



278 Here a second woman deflects the grain
to assist in the separation process.

279 A herd of cattle are driven down the road
to pasture as we watched the women work.


Walking Tour Through a Small Village

280 We arrived in a village, so small it didn't have a
name. When we arrived a local bus pulled into town.

281The market had a selection of fresh fruit
but this is a small village so the selection and quantity
is limited: lots of fresh bananas, tomatoes, apple jack
fruit and papaya.

282 Young girl shows us her produce; fresh bananas and a bottle
holding the yellow flower from the Champac tree. This flower is
sacred to the nats (see below) and placed in the
home for the family spirits which guard their homes.

283 We are taken on a walking tour of the village.
It is very primitive; the streets can be distinguished
from walking paths only because they are wider, and have
visible ruts from ox carts.

As we walk through the village, which is probably representative
of a thousand others in the countryside, we find small fenced in
garden plots and laundry hanging out to dry.

The people take pride in what they have and
are very friendly.

284 The cattle stall is next to the home as is not uncommon
in many farming communities.

285 As was the case everywhere, the people were
very friendly and eager to show us their homes.

286 The homes were built on stilts more to provide
a shaded area to relax, allow cool air circulation under
the home and for dry storage.

287 We are invited into the home
to view the living quarters. We leave our shoes at the
bottom of the stairs as we went up to the living area.

289 The house was very clean and orderly. Straw mats were
the floor covering. There was no need to put glass on the
windows. Palm shutters keep out the rain when necessary.
This is the porch, note the floor boards are wide apart and
the floor is covered with mats which allow circulation from below.

288 One large room serves as living room. It turns into a bed room
when the sleeping mattresses are unrolled.

Cooking is done outdoors in the yard below. This helps keep
the house cooler and the danger of fire is reduced.

290 Whenever we go to a small town we are always
greeted by local officials to show us around.
I thought the guy in the red shirt was the mayor.
It turned out he was just a friendly villager and
the brother of the other man, who turned out to be
the school principal. That's as high
as the government gets here.

291 It is customary for us to visit a local school.
These woman gathered around as we were told about
the facilities. The one on the left is a 9th grade
social studies teacher, the middle one is a friend
and farmer's wife, and the third woman is a nurse
and midwife from the local rural clinic.

OAT encourages us to learn something about the local social structure and educational system in each country we visit. Accordingly we visit a lot of schools. We are encouraged to bring some small gift to the school. Fran and I have found a great book about Minnesota which we take with us for this purpose. This way the whole school, or family we are visiting, can share the information and learn about where we live. The book has lots of pictures - which is important in a country where English is not spoken - and in this part of the world they marvel at the pictures of Lake Superior frozen over. Lennie, our guide, asked us to save up the free tooth brushes, toothpaste, and shampoo we get in the hotels which we don't use and give them to him. During our visit to this school he gave them to the nurse to be distributed to the children as needed. She was very appreciative.

We are told the principle is in charge of 60 teachers and 1200 students who come here from 20 different villages in the surrounding area. Teachers and administrators are assigned by the government to schools in the villages they originally come from. This way they are familiar with the families, the local traditions and naturally have more credibility with the families - The teacher is one of their own and a very respected person.

292 This is the local village's elementary school.

293 A woman living in the neighborhood sees us
and comes over with her baby. She is naturally
curious to know why these "strangers" are here.

302 The local bus is loaded and leaves town.

303 We are not far behind as we board our
mini-bus and headed to Mount Popa.

We leave the village and head for Popa


Mount Popa - Home of the Nats


The crest of the volcano, Mount Popa, is 4981 feet above sea level and located in central Burma. It can be seen as far away as the Ayeyarwady River 40 miles away. The area is best known for the picturesque Popa Taung Kalat Monastery. The Popa Taung Kalat Shrine is home to 37 Nats, or spirits. To the left of the volcano you can see Taung Kalat (pedestal hill) which is a 2,417 sheer-sided volcanic plug. The names of the various geologic features becomes somewhat confusing as you will read below. It is enough to know that Mount Papa is home of the Nats and a lovely Buddhist Monastery sits on top of a sheer-sided volcanic plug. A shrine to the Nats lies in the small village at the base of the plug.

295 Before heading to the mountain we go to the
Popa Mountain Resort for lunch. We leave the farm
lands below and wind up a narrow road leading us into
the hill country which is home to the teak forests.

296 Teak carvings of elephants are everywhere.
Up to this time we had not seen anything about
elephants. They are used to haul teak logs through
the forest in the high country which we had now entered.

297 Notice the three dimensional character of this carving with
the elephants in the background. Very nicely done.


299 As we eat lunch on the patio we have a view
of Taung Kalat Monastery,
built on Popa Crest. Notice the stairway leading
to the top of the mountain, there are over 777 steps
to the top. I wonder to myself, "Will we get
a chance to climb to the top?"


A Buddhist monastery is located at the summit of Taung Kalat. At one time, the Buddhist hermit, U Khandi, maintained the stairway of 777 steps to the summit. There is often some confusion because Taung Kalat (pedestal hill) is sometimes itself mistakenly called Mount Popa, which is the name of the volcano which caused the creation of this volcanic plug. In an attempt to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). Of course no one explained this when I was there. Everyone just called the pedestal "Mount Popa."

Whatever it is called, it is lovely.

Mount Popa (Taung Ma-gyi) is considered the home of Burma's most powerful Nats and thus is the most important Nat worship center. It has been called Burma's Mount Olympus. I have discussed the two major religious practices in southeast Asia,
Hinduism and Buddhism but you also have to be aware of a third spiritual belief which is very much a part of the spiritual life of people living in Myanmar (Burma) - the Nats.

The legends of the Nats are just as fascinating to study as was my trying to understand Buddhism and Hinduism. Everyone in Burma knows the stories as well as I know the stories about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. One of the legends tells us that Min Mahagiri and his sister, Saw Me Ya Mahagiri were from the kingdom of Tagaung. The King of Tagaung was afraid of Min Mahagiri and by deceit and deception captured him and had him burned alive on a Champac tree (thus the sacred nature of the flower). His sister jumped into the fire in an attempt to save him. The only thing she could save was his head and she died of her burns. The King of Tagaung cut down the tree and threw it into the Irrawaddy river where it floated down to Bagan. Their spirits asked King Thinligyaung (344-387) for refuge and their wish was granted and they were enshrined on Mount Popa.

304 When we arrived at the base of Mount Popa
we found the village over-run with monkeys.

305 Lennie, our guide, explains the Nat beliefs
and we try hard to understand this unique culture.

306 We are taken to a shrine for the Nats
and we are just overwhelmed.

307 I listen carefully but I can't remember who
is who. I am on information overload.

308 Me Wunna with her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay.

309 Maung Po Tu was killed by a tiger.

310 Although this is a shrine to the nats
A shrine showing Buddha teaching his
students under a tree is not inconsistent.

311 We start up the 777 steps to the
Monastery and of course there are many
gifts to the gods that we can buy.

312 To get to the monastery is so important
that the sick and lame will hire someone to carry
them up. We are neither but, a decision is made that
we don't have time, so we head for our bus. This bus
of pilgrims is just leaving.

313 Merchants are everywhere.

You are urged to learn more about the exciting
lives and tragic deaths of the Nats.
I am already sorry I had not taken more pictures.
If you have some you want to share just send them to me.
I have worked really hard on this so humor me and take a look.


Sunset Cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River


The Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River flows from the north of Burma through Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon into the Gulf of Martaban which is part of the Indian Ocean. All of these cities where, at some time or another in Burma's history, the Capital of an important Burmese kingdom. It is not strange therefore that the Ayeyarwaddy is called "The Road to Mandalay". We didn't see Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, or Dorothy Lamour nor did we hear Frank Sinatra singing in the background, but we took a sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy.

But, this was not our ship.

We are traveling "like the locals". When we arrived at the
river's edge and boarded our boat we were surrounded by teenage
girls and small boys selling all sorts of memories to take home.
We used the usual defensive maneuver "Wait until we get back".

And, they all waited.

The river is the lifeblood of any city and it is especially true in Burma. Commerce travels cheaper by water and small rivers are virtually floating market places. Fishing provides a food supply and the river may be the main source of water for many people.

The family uses the river to wash clothes and themselves.

A load of laundry

Note the unique construction of these boats. They are powered by a large automobile engine which is placed on a yoke which balances at the center of gravity. Attached to the engine is a long shaft with its propeller. The skipper stands in front of the engine with a long rod and is able to tilt it up or down, thus rising and lowering the propeller in the water depending upon the water depth. We found this design prevalent in Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Many people live on sand banks on the other
side of the river where land is cheap but also
subject to flooding during high water.

Unique drive shafts on the boats.
People living in boat houses is also common.

After a long day we were treated to some appetizers.
Lennie had purchased some fruit in the small village:
Guava, apple jack fruit and papaya.

Our "cruise ship" was quite plain.

Fisherman waiting for a catch.

As the sun set we headed for shore and were greeted
the young kids selling trinkets. The items were cheap
and we wondered how they could sell these items at prices
far below the rates in the roadside shops. couldn't
resist the prices but in the dark we didn't get a chance
to really inspect the quality of what we were buying.

We were up before dawn to take our balloon ride over Bagan, we had visited the countryside with its small villages and Nat shrines, and now had watched our second sunset over a river. It has been a long and unforgettable day. We go to bed tired but knowing we have an early wake-up call to fly to Mandalay tomorrow. Sugar plums dance in our heads as we sleep.


Return to Yangon, Jan 13th and 14th.

Return to Bagan, first day, 15 Jan 2010

Lets go to Mandalay (yet to be constructed )

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