Posts Tagged With: Myanmar

The sound of silence in mystic Bagan

Silence, solitude and sunset. A rare and elusive alchemy. In the wonderous and mystical setting of ancient Bagan, they form a soothing balm for the soul.
The world’s largest collection of stupas and pagodas sprinkle the skyline below and beyond me. Tiny honeycombs and vast temples stand side by side and take their silent and timeless place.
All around the light is being gently smothered by the slow, smooth sinking of the sun. Colours change from moment to moment and for as far as the eye can see and the ear can hear stillness and silence reign.
It is a time and a place to feel a deep calm and peace. A moment to glimpse deep within yourself.
And then I hear them.
Moments later I see them. From nowhere a coach has arrived, disgorged its tourists and they’re now rampaging towards me.
My perfect peace is shattered as they huff and puff into the temple. Their guide leads them through the darkness and up the narrow stone staircase. Within seconds a tidal wave of tourism smashes through my wall of solitude. They are a mass of loud, excited chatter, whirling cameras, coughs and splutters. “It’s amazing,” they scream to themselves and each other. “Stunning.” “Wonderful”.
Actually, for me, it’s close to heartbreaking. I cannot stop here knowing what a rare and elusive moment has been lost. I have just 25 minutes or so until the sun finally settles. But this is a place that offers choices.
Bagan in central Burma (now Myanmar) is one of the world’s great architectural sites. A treasure trove of around 2,200 monuments spread over 26 square miles. They stand, lean and in many cases decay, on a vast, dry plain framed by a bend in the fabled Irrawaddy River.
Serious building work began in the eleventh century. It continued for 250 years by when 11,000 stupas and temples had been constructed. All part of the Buddhist belief that such devotion on earth builds credit for what follows.
But the marauding hordes of Kubla Khan’s army wrought havoc in the area and thousands were obliterated. Earthquakes great and small have continued the destruction ever since.
Today Bagan is awe-inspiring, eight centuries ago it would have been beyond words.
A few days are needed to tour the sites. Many people go by horse and trap, plenty more cycle. Others, like me go on electro bikes. Stately but a little faster, so more ground can be covered.
I spent three days armed with a vague map of the “highlights”. There are some vast and hugely impressive structures that tower up to the sky.

But often it is the small, intimate temples that surprise. There is always a buddha inside but sometimes there are fabulous frescos and carvings. Tourists always visit the big pagodas but with so many monuments to choose from the smaller sites are mostly your very own to explore.
Now, I am in a race against time. I set off, desperate to rediscover peace and quiet, to watch the sun set in silence. I pass many small stupas but they are single storey. Height is crucial to really appreciate Bagan’s vast scope.
I’m getting a little desperate as the light deserts me……and then I spy it. A large pagoda several storeys high, surrounded by fields and with access marred by overgrown scrub. It’s enough to deter most people. The electro bike is buffeted by the hard, dried clay surface. It makes discouraging noises but gets me through.
The temple’s interior is a still, murky darkness. I search for steps and after one and a half full ciruits my torch illuminates the entrance of a stone staircase. It’s raised a few feet above the ground. I make the narrow climb under a low ceiling and two storeys later I emerge into the fading light.
A vast panorama of stupas and temples stretches for as far as I can see. And minutes later, when the sun’s rays leave the day behind, I sit alone. Just me, the beauty of planet earth and a warm, comforting blanket of silence.

The sight and sound of silence - sunset in Bagan

The sight and sound of silence – sunset in Bagan

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

Myanmar’s wild balloon festival

One hundred thousand people are cocooned in chaos. Their wide eyes raised in wonder. High above, a giant balloon decorated with a smiling Buddha is rising gently towards the heavens. It is a majestic sight. But Buddha has a wild side. He unleashes a battery of fireworks and the night sky is lost in a violent storm of light and sound.
Back on the ground dozens of young men from the launch team begin a frenzied celebration. They chant and jump and bang drums as if their very lives depended on it.
Taunggyi Balloon Festival is in full swing. It is unique. There is nothing else quite like it in Myanmar.
The festival is a week-long visual spectacular almost entirely liberated from rules and regulations. Foreign tourists are essentially absent. I counted two dozen at most. Just getting there can be an epic test of patience and stamina. For those who made it there is a massive outpouring of goodwill. Two friends and I were feted like rock stars. Dozens of handshakes and countless requests to pose for photographs.

Put it on your bucket list – but perhaps not too high. It can get a little dangerous. Things can go wrong. On the final night (I wasn’t there) a balloon climbed fifty metres into the air, caught fire, stalled and plunged to the ground. Its cargo of fireworks spitting out lethal spears of rockets into the fleeing crowd. There were injuries. I don’t know how many or how serious. These dramatic pictures were captured by tourist Rudy Caers (copyright as he was leaving the festival.

A few years ago 200 people were reportedly hurt when a balloon showered them with falling fire debris.

Despite the hazards the festival is extremely popular. People travel from all across Myanmar to Taunggyi, capital of the Shan state. The event takes place around full moon in October or November. It marks the Buddhist celebration of Tazaungdaing.
I travelled from Mandalay. I’d opted against the 40 minutes flight in favour of the scenic overland route. Three of us shared a taxi. Eight hours were the estimate, 13 the reality. In the final few kilometres our driver mutinied, we walked, flagged down a minibus and sat marooned in total traffic meltdown.
It was worth every ounce of hassle.
The daytime festival is a fun and comparatively sedate affair. Towns and villages compete for the best designed balloon. These mostly take the shape of cartoon animals.
However, at night the flavour changes. Bars get louder, young men rowdier, huge conga lines cut through the throng. Gambling gets serious. Guys with mobile tattooing do good, if unhygienic business.
Then there is the main event.
Villages and towns compete to build and launch the best balloon. They’re judged on design, fireworks and height achieved. Balloons are designed to soar extremely high.
Small candles in colourful lanterns are often painstakingly attached to the exterior skin or attached by ropes to swing under the balloons. As they rise some jettison scores of colourful little candles with tiny parachutes. It is mesmerizing to watch them fall gently to earth.


I’m the big fella – for once. The hat was to prevent hair burning!

Even more dramatic are the firework balloons. A team is divided into three groups. One brings in the folded canopy, another a huge basket laced with fireworks, the third, the firestarters, enter with flaming wooden torches. It is chaotic and in the confusion it’s easy to get past the ropes and right into the thick of it. I even helped launch one. It is wild and thrilling.

The canopy is made of cloth and paper and is supported by a bamboo frame. Flameproof it is not. The firestarters crawl under the canopy, their flames inches away from setting the balloon on fire. They reach the centre hole of the canopy and hot air from their torches inflates the balloon. Another team brings in the firework basket and attach it to the frame. A fuse is lit and the balloon is launched.

There are false starts but mostly they make slow and steady ascents. A few hundred feet off the ground the spectacle really begins. As the fuse burns through rockets start flaring upwards, sideways and downwards. The night skies explode with showers of bright and colourful light. There’s not a computer in sight yet it is fabulously choreographed. As the balloon climbs and climbs the pyrotechnics can continue for 15 or 20 minutes.
However, things do go wrong. Launch teams are mostly young men loaded with enthusiasm and testosterone. What they lack is fire safety.
Fortunately on my night it is chaotic but it goes well enough.
At 1.30 in the morning we leave. The show will continue for another hour or two. We have a weary walk of 25 minutes to get to our minibus. Traffic is yet again at a standstill but our driver takes us a different route and we are moving well.
All the more disappointing when we have a puncture 500 metres later. The spare, of course, is flat. It adds another tortuous 30 minutes to an impossibly long day. We arrive back at our Inle Lake guesthouses at 3.15 am.
Sometimes the world makes you work to see its wonders. But the balloon festival really did put a rocket up my enthusiasm.

Categories: Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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