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!