This has been my favourite day up to now, in spite of having to get up at 5 am! Not the best time of the day for me, it has to be said.
The reason for the early rise was a sunrise balloon trip over the wonderful Bagan area – an area with over 2000 pagodas and it is truly extraordinary.
We arrived at the launch site at about 6 am, and were served coffee and croissants while we had our safety briefing. To my surprise there were several balloons. The company we were with had six, and there were two other companies. We were the green balloons, and there were eight of us per basket.
Our pilot was an Australian girl who seemed to be incredibly competent (thank goodness) and a crew of about eight Thai people who get the balloon off the ground then chase around in a truck trying to follow us so they can be there when we land. I subsequently learned that the balloon company pay their crew even in the wet season when they can’t work, because they want to keep the best crew. And they were amazing.
One by one the balloons sailed off into the sky just before the sun came up, and we had the real treat of seeing the sun begin to light up all the pagodas in the area. It was an amazing sight, and I really enjoyed being up in a balloon (in spite of a near miss with a tall palm tree on the way down).
A trip to the market is always a treat, and today’s was no exception. The vegetables always look so fresh – even the betel leaves are beautifully arranged. A lot of men, and some women, chew the leaves – as sadly can be seen by the state of some of their teeth.
I was on a mission at the market. I knew we were visiting a school in the afternoon, and the boat company would be buying lots of things for the classroom – exercise books, pens and pencils. One of the guides suggested that some of us should buy some balls – and so I started a bit of a trend. In the end, the first school we visited got a bag with about twenty footballs in, and tomorrow we visit another school – with even more balls!
Education is compulsory from the age of five, and they attend the village school until they are thirteen. Until this village school was built, the children had to walk five miles each way to the nearest school.
The great thing about the school was that it was built with money provided by the tour companies. They have all donated money to build the primary school – about $10,000.
Although it is one big classroom, it is divided into individual classes, and the children seemed happy to see us.
They sang the Burmese national anthem for us, and we were rather bizarrely encouraged to sing Row Row Row the Boat to them. I’m not sure who was the most bemused!
It’s worth mentioning this lovely little chap. Children can be sent by their parents to the monastery, to learn the teachings of Buddha. The go as a novice, and can stay for as long a time as they like. It is entirely up to the child, and neither the parents nor the monks can determine the length of time – although the monks can encourage them. Our guide said he lasted two weeks, but some of his friends went at age nine (they can go earlier) and never returned.
We walked back through their village – and the people are so charming and welcoming. You get the feeling that nothing has changed for centuries, although one or two brick houses are starting to be built, and as mentioned previously there is the occasional solar panel. But inside, it’s the same layout – just beds, really. Everything else happens outside (except, I imagine, in the rainy season).
In this village, the people extract palm sugar from the trees – and a palm sugar farmer might climb up the trees fifty times a day to move his pots around and extract the juice. This is then made into small balls of palm sugar by the women of the village.
A really delightful day, with such an amazing people who smile constantly and work so hard.