Spending Christmas Day in Bagan

December 25, 2015 - Welcoming Christmas Day with a sunrise at Bagan, Myanmar.

Christmas perhaps is the most anticipated time of the year. The season most people look forward to - to be with family and friends. But for this year, I decided to go against the tradition, be a little selfish and gave myself the best Christmas present I've ever had - the gift of Travel.

"Burma?! Why are you going there? They don't even celebrate Christmas there!" I have been bombarded by these reactions from friends when I told them my plan. "Exactly why I am still going, it will be fun!", I replied happily, convincing myself that it will be an exciting trip after all.

Balloons Over Bagan

I have always wanted to experience a hot air balloon ride. So I figured out what more better way of doing it than on Christmas Day! Bagan is an ancient city with over two thousand pagodas immensely scattered across the field. Seeing these from up above will definitely give anyone an excellent bird's  eye view of this timeless landscape.

There are only three hot air balloon companies who operate in Bagan. I chose to go with Balloons Over Bagan given the credibility the company has, operating for 14 years. They are the biggest as well with 16 balloons flying every day.

Thankfully with the technology we have nowadays, almost everything can be booked online. Their website is very straight forward and booking went smooth and easy. There are two types of flight - the Premium (which is more private for 8 people with free champagne and souvenir gifts) and the Classic (for 16 people). I booked for the Classic with only two slots left! Phew!

Our vintage pick up bus. 

While everyone else was waking up at the early dawn of Christmas Day, sipping hot chocolate or coffee getting warmed up with family around and excitingly opening wrapped up presents, I was up early for my 5 AM pickup to catch the sunrise while it was 14 °C outside.

During the pick up, I got a chance to chat with other fellow passengers and found myself not really alone for Christmas Day after all. As we were waiting for our balloons to be ready, warm coffee, tea and some biscuits were served. Our pilot, Gavin, was very informative of the safety precautions we need to be aware of. He also gave us facts about the company, the balloons and how they work. We even had a chance to get inside the massive balloon before it was fully inflated!

View from inside the balloon.
Our pilot Gavin and his crew getting our balloon ready for flight.

Just a few minutes before 6 AM, we were up! As we cruise along, the fog slowly unveiled the figures of the ancient pagodas like a curtain being drawn inside a theater that definitely gave it a dramatic suspense effect. The wind was colder from above but the fire being emitted by our balloon was comforting enough to warm us all. 

Another travel goal crossed off the list!

The pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar

We got to fly above some pagodas too and get up close. I was glad our pilot was not only keeping us safe but he also pointed out informative facts about the pagodas which I found really helpful. 

While most pagodas have four entrances (North, South, East and West), this is the only pagoda with five entrances which they believe to be the entrance for the next Buddha. 

After a few more minutes of cruising above, we started seeing a few glimpse of pink and orange streaks in the sky. The sun was finally rising!

Sunrise at Bagan, Myanmar

The flight took almost more than an hour in total. As we land, only then did I realised I was upgraded to the Premium Flight! What an even more exciting Christmas present! We were served champagne and croissants soon afterwards.

Champagne at 8 AM on Christmas Day! Why not?

Our Go Pro Shot from above!

It was definitely a good way to start the Christmas Day. I didn't mind the fact that I did it solo and was accompanied by strangers admiring the sunrise and beautiful pagodas from a hot air balloon.

Sunset at Bagan

After seeing the sunrise, I wouldn't of course miss to watch the sunset. There are various pagodas which offer a viewing platform to see the sunset. People started to swarm the Shwesandaw Pagoda , hoping to get a good spot for viewing. Good thing I was tiny and was able to squeeze myself in and steal a spot at the topmost level.

The crowded Shwesandaw Pagoda

View from above

Watching the Sunset at Bagan, Myanmar

Lantern Festival

As soon as the sun has set, everyone else made their way out of the pagoda and get on with their evening. During the balloon flight, our pilot told us that there will be a Lantern Festival worth seeing that night at the Ahlodawpyae Temple also well known as the Wishing Temple.

As I have entered the premises, I was welcomed by a beautiful chaos of loud music and chanting, of local vendors shouting trying to sell their items. I didn't know where to go so I looked around and avoided the stream of people making their way to the main entrance of the pagoda. I took a detour and found myself at the side of the temple where a small crowd has gathered arranging candles at the floor. 

As the organiser started handing out candles, my curiosity kicked in and I got myself candles. I didn't know what was happening to be honest and what it was for. All I remember hearing from our pilot that morning was that we must see it. I initially thought we were going to fly out paper lanterns. After a few minutes, they started lighting the candles so I lit up mine and joined the crowd.

A Burmese boy lighting the candles

There was a Burmese phrase formed using the candles that I later found out translates to "Fulfill the Wish". Now it made sense to me being that it is after all the Wishing Temple!

"Fulfill the Wish"
As I was lighting the candles one by one, I silently uttered my Christmas wish. It was perhaps the most genuine travel experience I have ever had. Being a non-Buddhist and participating in a very traditional Burmese festival was indeed a very unusual yet memorable way to end my Christmas Day. It was a humbling experience to be in that moment where you don't even need to understand what the locals around you were saying. You just have to feel how they are celebrating and you are already a part of them. 

I may not be able to see Christmas trees filled with fairy lights or hear Christmas carols during that day but I definitely felt the Christmas spirit, just in a different setting. It was still indeed a Merry Christmas after all!

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