Arriving in Bagan, Myanmar is like stepping back into a time capsule. Bagan was the capital of The Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th centuries and was the foundation of Burmese culture and ethnicity and it established Therawada Buddhism as its religion. When the kingdom fell to the Mongols, it never recovered its status as a powerful city, but the religious significance of what the Kings built during their reigns is magnificent to view. There are 2,200 temples and pagodas rising from the mystical desert–like landscape, most built from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The view across the plain of Bagan is striking, as it is one red-brick pagoda after another rising above the flatland on the eastern shore of the Irrawaddy River, the largest river in Myanmar. During the golden age of Bagan, there were some 13,000 temples, pagodas and other religious monuments in Bagan. Now, eight centuries later, given the impacts of war, weather, looting and earthquakes in the region, there are just 2,200 that remain standing. Of the 2,200 that remain, many have endured significant damage from a series of earthquakes that struck the area, the most recent in August 2016.
 
Unfortunately, despite it’s significant historic significance, Bagan’s archeological sites are not listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. This is largely because the former Military-led dictatorship in Myanmar was sanctioned from the rest of the world given it’s violent dictatorship. In addition, the military regime, in a misguided attempt to attract tourists, allowed new hotels and resorts to be built in the area with little regard for the overall landscape laden with archeological treasures. Finally, after damage from earlier earthquakes, the military regime’s idea of preservation was to rebuild the monuments with new bricks over the top of old, to build brand new pagodas or to create reproductions, with no thought given to the proper way to restore the site. Given the positive change in government, and it’s promise to not build any new hotels or temples/pagodas, UNESCO is considering listing Bagan. It would be so incredibly positive for this city given the experience and the funding that UNESCO would provide to help to preserve the site.
 
We spent our first full day in Bagan exploring the market and some of the more significant temples in the region. Bagan is a mecca for Buddhist pilgrims who travel from all over the country to worship at the religious sites. We spent some time at the impressive, white washed Ananda Temple, built in 1091, it was fully “restored” in 1975. Ananda has four Buddha statues inside representing Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment. They each face a different direction. We also visited the Salamanca Temple, a stunning red brick temple with a beautiful fenced entrance and path to the temple. At the end of the day, we climbed the steep steps of the Pyathatgyi Temple to watch the awe-inspiring sunset.
 
The next day, we were picked up from our hotel at 5:00 AM to go ballooning over the temples and to watch the sunrise. While the trip is expensive ($360 pp), it is a once in a lifetime experience and a “must-do” in Bagan if you swing it. We used a company called, Balloons Over Bagan. The balloon pilots are Australian and British and they are extremely professional. When you arrive, they have coffee, tea and pastries for guests. While the balloons are being prepared, the pilots are giving instructions to the guests. When the balloons are ready, you board. The larger baskets carry up to 12 people and the smaller, eight. There are different compartments in the basket, each with a maximum of four people. The flight pattern for the balloons vary each day, determined by the direction of the wind and the wind speed. As luck would have it, we were able to fly directly over the temple region, receiving an eye catching view of the temples from above. The sunrise and the morning light reflecting off of the temple scapes was nothing short of spectacular. We landed on the sand bank right next to the river and they had boats prepared to take us back to the mainland. We were up in the air approximately 45 minutes. The view from the heavens of this historical, mystical landscape was worth every penny. This was an adventure of a lifetime.
 
Tourists and locals alike use scooters and bicycles as forms of transportation. Renting a scooter or a bicycle is an efficient and fun way to tour the temples. We rented bikes, thinking after weeks of eating fabulous Asian food, we might need the exercise. We rode the bikes around the temple region and stopped at several temples before lunch. We also stopped at a village in the area to observe typical life in Bagan. We saw cotton weaving, cigar making and bamboo picture frames being made.
 
We also watched as the men in the village prepared a feast for an expected 1,000 guests for a ceremony inducting children in the village into the monastery. Parents can send their children to the monetary for a few weeks during their summer break as a kind of Buddhist summer camp. LOL. The ceremony is called a Novice Ceremony or Shinbyu . It is compulsory for boys between the ages of 10 to 20 to join the monastery for at least one week. The Shinbyu Ceremony is a very important event for families and often whole villages get together to celebrate the children that are entering the monastery with a large party, with food, music, and a parade.
 
Our guide Ko Ko then took us to a local-style Burmese restaurant, where we sampled a smorgasbord of homemade food typical for the region. The Burmese food is not particularly spicy, but it is filled with flavor. They are known for their curries and the restaurants goat and pork curries did not disappoint.
Later in the afternoon, after a rest at our hotel, Ko Ko picked us up and took us to the boat dock, where we picked up a private boat taking us to a special temple about 30 minutes up river. The Kyat Khayon Temple was built in the 11th century into the side of a hill. In the back of the temple, as you walk into the hill, there are several caves which the monks used to meditate. While the temple is no longer used by the monks for the purpose of meditating, there is an active monastery next door. On the way back, we caught another stunning sunset.
 
There are very few days in my life where I have been able to sit and watch both a sunrise and a sunset on the same day. What a special day in a breathtaking place. We were very sad to leave Bagan, but we are looking forward to visiting Mandalay next. More on that later.