BAGAN, Myanmar — The moment of takeoff was silent, and mesmerizing.
Within seconds, our hot air balloon was floating above the treetops, gliding toward what Marco Polo called “one of the finest sights in the world” when he saw it 700 years ago: the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan.
Below us, the baked brick spires of hundreds of 11th and 12th century Buddhist temples poked skyward through the purple-red horizon of dawn, graceful and serene. When I spotted the giant golden dome of the Dhammayazika Pagoda, glittering like a jewel in the first rays of light, my heart skipped a beat.
I had just spent several days exploring these iconic monuments and pagodas, walking through their dark stone corridors, climbing their steep exterior steps. But peering at them from the edge of a moving basket in the sky was an entirely different experience, at once thrilling and existential.
Our pilot, a Belgian named Bart D’hooge who has flown here for nine years, described Bagan as “stunning … even if you see it just from the ground.”
“But once you take off in a balloon, you get a completely different perspective,” he said. “It really gives you a bit of an idea of the size of the ancient kingdom” that flourished here a thousand years ago.
The city is home to the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas and monuments in the world. More than 2,200 are spread across a plain adjacent to rice fields and villages along the Irrawaddy River. Only from above can this vastness be fully appreciated.
The temples were built by a series of Burmese kings who ruled the region for roughly 250 years, until city was abruptly abandoned in the late 13th century for reasons that are not entirely clear. Although time and the elements have eroded many of the structures’ once ornate exteriors, the buildings themselves are still largely intact.
On Aug. 24, 2016, a magnitude 6.8 earthquake shook central Myanmar, damaging at least 389 of them, according to the country’s Department of Archaeology. Some have been closed to the public fully or partially. Others are in various states of repair, covered in elaborate arrays of bamboo and wood scaffolding.