The buddha with mood swings

I stand in the beautiful long corridor in Ananda temple and look at the huge happy smile on the face of the golden 10 metre high buddha. As I walk closer to him, I notice his expression has changed. The big happy smile is now a mindful expression, as though he is gently teaching me. As I walk right up to his base and look up, his expression is now sad. This buddha really has mood swings – or maybe I’ve just upset him?

It’s quite a freaky experience watching the expression change the first time. I see lots of people doing a double-take and then going back to the start and trying it again (and I do too). It’s a deliberate design feature on this buddha statue from the 12th century, and it’s pretty cool. I’m in Ananda temple in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s an unusual temple in a number of ways. It is built in the shape of a symmetrical cross, with four buddha statues in the middle, one at the end of each arm of the cross. In fact the North and South corridors both have identical buddhas with changing expressions, the buddhas in the east and west wings are many centuries newer and their expression does not change. There are also hundreds of other buddhas in little alcoves all over it’s walls. The only difference between the two original buddhas is that one is artificially lit, to make the statue shine a vivid gold, while the other is naturally lit through the temple design, and looks a much subtler colour. I definitely prefer the natural look.

A happy expression, lit naturally.

 

A mindful expression, lit naturally.

 

A sad expression, lit naturally.

 

A happy expression, lit artificially.

 

A mindful expression, lit artificially.

 

A sad expression, lit artificially.

Blissful Ballooning Over Beautiful Bagan

It is hard to imagine too many places that are better suited to a sunrise hot air balloon trip. In Bagan the 2200 temples and pagodas are spread across a small plain in the elbow of the Irrawaddy river. In the dry months it is flat, warm and calm.

The flight path starts to the north and had us float through old Bagan to land in the south. The balloon pilot keeps circling the basket around,without disturbing the balloon’s overall direction, so we all get to see in all directions in turn. We go up to 1.7 kms, and down to barely brushing the tops of palms.

 In the east, the sun is rising in a blaze of colour, and anything in front of it is silhouetted, but most of the temples are on, or to the west of, the flight path, so there wasn’t much to see directly into the sunrise.

 Look towards the west and the east facing sides of temples and pagodas are ablaze in the warmth of the new sun.

 Look to the North and all the home fires combine into dreamy hazy snakes of smoke across the landscape, and North East gave lovely pink and brown tones to the haze.

 Look south and it looks like a clear and sunny day, basking in a golden glow.

 

And to round it out, I have added a few shots of Bagan at sunset from a temple top.

Hot air balloon dreams come true in Bagan, Myanmar

It’s been a dream of mine for a very long time, to go up in a hot air balloon. It’s been a much thwarted dream as well. When I lived in the UK I was twice booked for a sunrise balloon ride, and both times got cancelled for bad weather.

I have travelled in many locations around the world that have hot air balloon rides available. But somehow they are always booked out when I get there – my local guide once said, “the flash hotels book them out well in advance for their guests, no one else can get them”. This may or may not be correct, but I am still always too late.

I did once get to go 50 metres in a hot air ballon – at a ball in London at some military barracks, where amongst the many attractions (I was also very taken by trying to ride dodgem cars in a ball gown) there was a hot air balloon. It was tethered to the ground and only allowed to go up 50 metres but I was still enraptured, and even keener to go for a real flight one day.

So heading towards Bagan, a plain of 2200 pagodas and temples, I can’t think of many locations more suited to a balloon ride. Our guide doesn’t want to get our hopes up, but as we are watching sunset across the plains from Shwe San Daw pagoda, he is working the phone – and then we get the good news – because of cancellations, 3 of us have gotten onto the sunrise flights the next morning. Queue an over-excited Vicki for the rest of the evening.

We are picked up early the next morning in the distinctive Balloons Over Bagan buses (world war 2 relics I believe) – very chilly in December, I need a fleece for warmth at this time of the day. We arrive at a sports ground where 6 flat balloons are laid out on the field, their baskets on their sides but attached, and the basket also now tethered to the bus we got picked up in. While we drink a nice warm coffee, the crew hold up the opening to the balloon and use large fans to start filling it with air.

Once the ballon is filled, but still lying on it’s side, the burners are turned on (and carefully directed through the relatively narrow neck of the balloon). The heated air starts to do its work, and slowly the balloons rise majestically into an upright position.

At this point we get our safety talk – I can’t remember much of it but it was along the lines of “get in when we tell you, try not to fall out when we are in the air, don’t stand on the seat when we are in the air or you are likely to fall out, and sit down and hold on when we land.” And “here’s a cap for each of you, wear it so you don’t burn your head”. Pretty straight forward then.

Our balloon and basket are upright, and we follow the signal to get in it – we’ve been split into 4 groups of 4, one for each corner of the balloon (they are sectioned off), with the centre space reserved for the pilot, his gas bottles, and his controls for the burners overhead. For some reason I expect there to be a lot of pfaffing around at this stage before we take off, like when you get on a plane, but no such problem here. Less than a minute after we are all in, with a couple of blasts of heat, we are suddenly floating a couple of feet of the ground, without feeling any movement at all. The crew drop the tether to the bus and we are off, rising swiftly and smoothly to 1700 metres.

This is it, the realisation of my dream, and it is truly amazing. I am floating, there is no other way to describe it. There is no sense of movement, it is more serene than I thought possible, and I have a very silly grin on my face. So what is the view like up here? – well you’ll just have to check out the next post to get an answer to that one! 

The golden monastery perching on a pillar of rock

On any approach, Taung Kalat in Myanmar looks stunning. A monastery glowing with white and gold stupas, perched hundreds of metres above the ground on an astonishing column of sheer rock, is hard to miss.

The rock is an ancient volcanic plug, originally created by the huge volcano it sits next to, Mt Popa. There are reputedly 777 steps from the base of Taung Kalat to the monastery (which is still a working monastery) – the steps are mainly restored and in good condition, with a roof to protect from the sun, although at one point we go from steps to rusty vertical ladders bolted to the cliff face. The climb did not seem as strenuous as it sounds, probably due to the number of view stops on the switchback stairs on the way up, as well as shrines to the 37 Nats to visit, and stalls to buy offerings (and tourist tat). Nats are spirits or demi-gods dating from before the introduction of buddhism, but in Myanmar the two appear to happily co-exist, with shrines to Nats housed within buddhist temples and monasteries. The Nats all seem to have intriguing back stories – most became Nats after a gruesome and bloody death, and there’s usually a royal connection to the story as well, with the royals frequently being the dispenser of the gruesome and bloody death. The Nats, and worshipping on the top of Taung Kalat, have been part of Burmese life from before 1100AD.

I liked the description of one of the Nats, U Min Kyawzwa, who had died a bloody death, and was known for drinking, cock fighting and being a good horse rider – I could always spot him at the shrines because his image always carried a rooster (and usually alcohol as well) This lady sold flowers to leave on the shrine while asking for the protection of a Nat.

The steps to the top are also infested with Macaque monkeys, who are well skilled in grabbing things from tourists. The stalls at the bottom sell food to feed them with, but I am firmly in the club that sees them as potential rabies carriers, not cute little animals, so I’m definitely not going to invite them in for a feed. At certain points on the stairs, there are locals armed with slingshots, shooting stones at any that look like they are about to pounce on tourists.  I wanted to feel sorry for them but I was actually quite grateful to the slingshot men.

Staying overnight at the Mt Popa resort was a perfect way to see Taung Kalat silhouetted against the sunset at night, and turning slowly from gold to bright white in the sunrise the next morning. I’ve seen some bad reviews for this place but I liked my little teak bungalow with it’s big balcony, part way up the side of Mt Popa, and with views for miles over the valleys. The pool is not much use in December though as the water is ice cold, and although the days are sunny and warm, the nights are pleasantly chilly at this higher altitude – no need for aircon at this time of the year.

My third favourite drink in Myanmar

Avocado juice – a popular drink in Myanmar.

Cool, smooth and creamy on a hot day – it’s no wonder that we all quickly adopted Avocado juice as our juice of choice in Myanmar. It was available pretty much everywhere. It’s true that it was a close race between Avocado juice and fresh Coconut juice (through a straw straight out of the coconut), but avocado wins for me based on ease of holding and carrying.

We all come back from trips wanting to recreate the food we enjoyed on our travels, and sometimes we even carry through on it. This time, I purchased Tin Cho Chaw’s burmese cookbook, which not only gave me the recipe for Avocado juice, but also for Avocado ice cream, so I had to try them both.

The avocado juice is simple, although not quite as healthy as we tried to persuade ourselves while in Myanmar (I’d better not get too attached to this). Make this like a smoothie (which is what it really is) -Take the flesh of one large ripe avocado, a little condensed milk, 25g caster sugar, and a glass of milk, and whizz/beat till smooth. Sit back in the shade and drink.

I hadn’t tasted the ice cream before, but I needed to give it a go. The ice cream was simple – no fancy ice cream maker needed. Take another large avocado (flesh), 25g castor sugar, 1 tbsp milk, and whizz/beat all together. In another bowl whip 120ml cream into soft peaks. Fold the avocado mixture lightly into the whipped cream, and pour into a shallow plastic container. Freeze for 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally. Remove from the freezer 10 minutes before serving.

I prefer the “juice”to the ice cream – the rich smooth taste in a glass was a bit bland in an ice cream, but I made a second batch with less sugar and added fresh lime juice, which was more to my taste.

And if you are wondering what my first and second favourite drinks in Myanmar were? Myanmar beer and Myanmar rum of course, both went down nicely on a hot day!

Without doubt the healthiest drink was the fresh coconut juice. We never had the right tools to break them open properly after drinking the juice, but there were always kids around we could give them too, who, with their much smaller hands,  loved scraping out the fresh flesh as well. Great recycling effort!

Rapt in the rock art of Nourlangie, Kakadu National Park

Nourlangie Rock is one of the most accessible rock art sites in Kakadu, even in the wet season. It’s an easy 1.5km walk alongside the base of Nourlangie. The Anbangbang gallery of aboriginal rock art is the main attraction, and it holds some very eye-catching drawings. Keep an eye out for the drawing of Namarrgon, the lightening man, so named because a rocky outcrop on Nourlangi was used as a lookout to see the escarpment on the other side of Kakadu, and see when the wet season weather was about to arrive.

In Nourlangie its easy to see some of the steps taken to preserve the unique art from the ever increasing number of interested visitors. Key parts of the path are walkways, so our feet don’t stir up dust to coat the art work, the walkways and hand rails are set back to ensure we can’t touch the artwork or environs, and the rangers can add silicon drip lines around paintings at risk to redirect the water flow away for those parts of the rocks.

Ancient rock art, Nourlangie National Park, Kakadu
Ancient rock art, Nourlangie National Park, Kakadu

Aboriginal people have been coming to Nourlangie to shelter from the wet season for over 6,000 years.

The surrounding flora and landscape is vividly green in the wet season. the Gunwarddehwarde Lookout, an outcrop on the each of Nourlangie, makes a greatpoint for viewing the surrounding landscape. In the dry season there is a great view of Nourlangie from the other side of the Anbangbang billabong, but it’s not possible in the wet season.