Self-styled mystics and hangers-on; tourists, travelers, and passers-by; families, friends and gawkers galore; all and others were decamped across the top of the multi-terraced Shwesandaw Stupa when we arrived. The time was shortly after 6am and sunrise was about 45 minutes away, but as with job-interviews and first dates, it is much better to arrive early than late. This is especially so when the location is as popular as Shwesandaw. I was a bit dismayed by the Brownian motion-crowds on top, but our intrepid photographer guide, Nathan Horton, just made his way through the throngs with authority. We followed, grateful that he seemed to know what he was doing. He was. The spot he led us to was perfect for setting up tripods and staying out of the milling masses above us.
Shwesandaw Stupa, built sometime around 1070 (all dates are CE), is also known as the Ganesh pagoda as at each the four cardinal points sits the benevolently protective deity.
Our early hour allows us to not only setup in peace but also affords us the opportunity to shoot some cool blue and deep purple pre-dawn images.
Ananda Temple is one of the few of the over 2,000 temples and stupas that are illuminated at night. Built in 1105, inside are four standing Buddhas in alcoves, each one facing the four cardinal directions. Two narrow ambulatories permit the faithful and photographer alike to shuffle from alcove to alcove.
As the darkness begins slowly to lift, other stupas are revealed, creating evocative layers with lines of trees. To the left is the Ta Wet Hpaya temple and partially lit-up to the right, and further away, is the uniquely 5-sided Dhammayazika stupa, with its gold-painted, bell-shaped anda rising aloft.
To the south-east, Sulamani Temple rises through the bluish-purple gloom, like some Tomorrowland rocket, poised for lift-off.
Sulamani was built in in either 1174 or 1183, depending upon one’s source. Due to its pyramidal terracing and numerous minor stupas studding the exterior façade, the temple cuts a distinctive and beautiful outline, whether day, dusk, or dawn.
Quickly the light begins changing…
A brief blaze of orange fire lights up the thin scudding clouds above…
Before the sun finally makes its awaited appearance…
As well as the balloons.
Dahmmayan Gyi Phaya is a building of imposing bulk. This temple was built sometime around 1164 by the notorious and much hated King Narathu to assuage his guilt for smothering his father and then killing his rival-to-the-throne brother. The killing wasn’t finished though as after executing one of his queens for a some minor infraction, the father of the unfortunate woman sent eight assassins disguised as Brahmen priests to dispatch the odious brute. Which, they did.
The daily — weather and conditions permitting — dawn flying of the balloons over Bagan have become as much of a sunrise attraction as the sunrise itself. The balloons — run by three different services, including the original Balloons Over Bagan — have an impeccable safety record and though the flight is relatively short — usually not more than an hour — it is exhilarating.
The ride this morning must have been stupendous. Each balloon carries a load of 16 camera and selfie-stick waving passengers and one pilot, crammed into the large hanging basket.
The balloons are not supposed to rise over 1000′ and some float quite close over the stupas and temples of Bagan.
A multiple exposure: three shots of the same balloon drifting low over and seemingly through the stupas. A burst of flame lights the 3rd exposure, pushing the balloon just that much higher.
Somehow it seems fitting to end this short photo essay with this image of a blurred bird a-lighting on the top of a close-by stupa. The balloons continued to float across the plains for another 15 minutes or so, but our sunrise was at an end, though the day was just beginning.