Dreamy and surreal, we drift in a hot air balloon over the fabled Plains of Bagan where, as far as the eye can see, golden temples and stupas jut skyward, and, in the dawn light, we see the molten sun creep above the distant violet-hued mountains. Floating over a cluster of brick pagodas bordering a field, I turn around in the wicker gondola and below us appears the impressive Dhammayangyi Temple where dozens of early risers enthusiastically wave and point cameras at us as we languidly drift past.
Nearing the ruined walls of Old Bagan, a flock of birds flies below, a shifting breeze nudges us onward. To the West, the broad curve of the Irrawaddy River wends down from the mountains of Kachin State on the China border to the Andaman Sea. Before we gently land near a schoolyard between the trees at the river’s edge, I briefly glimpse the white-and-red-trimmed Orcaella, the five-star riverboat that will soon become home base after having traveled in Burma for ten days on our own.