Bagan, City of Gods

The Bagan temples rise up like termite mounds from the surrounding green domes of the Kleinhovia and Shorea Siamensis trees. Some of the temples are still lighted by artificial light, their day earth tone colors of brown and tan are turning to gold during the night through the magic of the reflector lights. You feel like you are among the gods now. The water vapours from the nearby Irrawaddy river turn to mist in the cool air. The low mist gives you the impression that you are above the clouds as you enter the city of gods.

I arrived yesterday in Bagan, took a flight from Yangoon here. From the Nyaung U Airport I took a taxi to a hotel close to the Bagan Archaeological Zone. The plan was to go by elephants, like I already did before in other places in Myanmar, which is a great experience by the way – to get carried by a gentle giant, to have a different perspective on the surroundings, to be able to get closer to the canopy, to smell the leafs, the flowers, to be able to pick the apple of the woods which is another name for the Indian bael fruit. The change of plan occurred when I noticed a brochure for the services of a hot-air balloon company in the hotel lobby. A long, slow day through the city of gods didn’t seemed as exciting now. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the top of one of the highest temples in Bagan. It’s not enough to just float, to distance yourself in the aether and make the world intangible, the view is spectacular no doubt about it but there are other senses that need to be satisfied besides sight, I need to smell the fresh canopy air, to touch the earthenware temples and stupas, to hear the song of the early birds.

bagan hot-air balloon

It wasn’t easy to convince Duwa to change the usual schedule for his balloon flights and to let me bring a rope on board. “What for?” “To climb down on top of one of the temples”, he thought that I was joking, “You crazy!”. The owner of the balloon company didn’t had to know about this little early morning excursion, I told him. I also asked him if he likes gifts. A nice gift is always a good argument in favor of a cause. Duwa is a reasonable guy, smiles a lot and has an interesting family story, he comes from the Jingpo people who inhabit the hilly northern parts of Myanmar, started working here in Bagan in the 90’s when the Burmese authorities started an ample movement to renovate the decaying temples and to encourage tourism in the area. The Burmese names are fascinating, they have no surname at all and usually consist of only one or two syllables. Duwa said that in the older times people could change their names as they pleased, to reflect a change in their lives, nowadays though, the government is trying to curb this cultural habit.

Luckily, Duwa is a skilled balloonist with many years of experience, there are also favorable conditions in the lack of wind currents and the stillness of the air. The balloon is neutrality buoyant now, Duwa’s agile eyes and senses are always on the lookout for slight changes in altitude, wind, temperature and humidity. I don’t know how much time he is able to maintain this fragile equilibrium so I hurry, I check again if the rope is properly secured on one of the metal frames of the basket, grab the rope with both hands, put one feet over the margin of the basket and then the other, I fall a bit and start moving like a pendulum but I manage to stabilize myself and to catch the rope with my both feet. I slowly make my way down, going parallel to the tower pinnacle of the Mahabodhi Temple. The balloon starts moving a bit and I look upwards to see what’s going on. Duwa’s worried face is looking down. There is the risk that if the balloon gets lower it can crash into the tower. I manage to stabilize myself and reduce the swing of the pendulum by touching the stone of the tower with my extended leg. A few rope steps more and I’m down. I grab with my hand one of the cold circular edges that go around the tower and then put my foot on another, bigger circular edge, it’s important to always have three points of contact when doing these kind of things, pull myself towards the tower, put my other foot down and then let go of the rope. I shout to Duwa that he can now start the burner and pump hot air so he can gain altitude and leave. I have to climb down a little more to find a better place from which I can see the sunrise.
The view is glorious. The slowly rising sun brings golden sparks to the towers of the city of gods. Each day, the towers are silent witnesses to creation and rebirth. Khepri, the god of sunrises conquers the darkness of the night bringing life, warmth, energy and hope.

This is a work of fiction part of the Most Interesting Man in the World collection of short stories loosely inspired from my own life and other real life events.

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