Bagan: Balloons, Buddhists, Blarney, Beginnings

“There is nothing permanent except change.” ~Heraclitus

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Sunrise in a hot air balloon at two thousand feet. The last time I was lucky enough to have that experience was fifteen years ago in Kenya’s Masai Mara. I’ll admit that then I was terrified, at least at first. No jitters this time. Since Peter’s cancer diagnosis and eventual passing, I’ve lost most of my silly fears. There’s so much more to be enjoyed in life without the weight of worry. I’m quite sure this was one of his parting gifts to me.

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For 45 minutes we floated over the ancient city of Bagan. According to our pilot, the three best places in the world for hot air ballooning are Kenya, Bagan and Cappadocia. One more to go. Experiencing the three thousand Buddhist pagodas from the air allowed us a real appreciation of the grandeur of this place not available on terra firma. For a time we were suspended over the Sulamani Temple giving us an extra long look, that is until the wind picked up depositing us gently next door.

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Later that morning, as we began our planned tour, Win, our guide, said he had a special surprise for us. He had received word of a Buddhist ordination ceremony and hurried us there for a front row seat; a glimpse into a very important event in the life of a Burmese Buddhist family.

In Myanmar, all Buddhist boys are expected to be ordained at some point. Families may save for years for the two days of festivities, the culmination of which is the shaving of their heads and entering into the monastery. Some stay a few days, others years, but it seemed to me that three weeks was most common. During that time the young monks must study scripture, can only eat two meals per day (always before noon) and must collect offerings.

The photos speak for themselves. Boys are those on horseback. The girls, who will become nuns, are pulled in ox carts. Their process is similar, but not nearly as many girls participate as boys.

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Although we saw few tourists in Bagan relative to other countries we’ve visited, it does appear to be a tourist hub in Myanmar. We had been forewarned that we would be given ample “shopping opportunities” on our various stops. As we made our way up the steps of the Shwegugyi Temple at sunset, little Kzen Kzen, a real mover and a shaker, told me how “beautiful you are” as he showed me the drawings he had for sale. “Only one dollar. I make them myself.” These are the spoils of tourism I hate to see come to so lovely a place. From what I understand, many of these kids attend only a year or two of school. While high up on the temple we passed a young woman to whom Kzen Kzen said a few words. I asked if she was his mom. He said no, his business partner.

One of our final stops for the day was the free clinic that Belmond has set up in Bagan, just steps away from the boat’s jetty. People drive for hundreds of miles to wait two to three days to see the medical staff, or perhaps one ship’s doctors. I was very moved, and the wheels inside my head have just BEGUN to turn. I have spoken with the ship’s doctor about their needs and you will be hearing more about this from me in the future. Stay tuned.

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