The Holiest of All Cities, Varanasi

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There are places in the world that you feel drawn to. Varanasi, a city in northern India, has always been one of those places for me, and even though this was my second time visiting the city, it never ceases to amaze me.

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india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8049Nothing like sitting down and enjoy a cup of chai

Varanasi lays on the shore of the Ganges river and it is the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. It is believed, that when a person dies within the city, or has their remains cremated in the temples alongside the Ganges, they attain instant moksha (release) of the cycle of death and rebirth—a similar principle to attaining Nirvana in Buddhism. Because of this, countless people make the journey to Varanasi to spend their last days, and there are countless funeral pyres cremating bodies along the river throughout the day. It is a city where death is intertwined with life, and where death is venerated, welcome, and never feared.

india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8200Cricket game on the shores of the Ganga

india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8196When passing sacred water in Varanasi you can relax, Shiva’s cobra has got your back.

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As a main artery, the Ganges runs along the city for miles and it’s where most spiritual events are held. The river is very much alive in Varanasi, with people bathing in the mornings or doing puja, and with countless boats transporting worshipers and tourists from ghat to ghat. The Ganga, as it’s also known, is both a place for the living to go about their day and for the dead to rest.

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india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8003The Ganges is an integral part of people’s live in Varanasi

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india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7956Countless boats transport worshipers from ghat to ghat

Cremation is the most common type of funeral in India and the cremation ceremony is one of the most fascinating events I have seen. As mentioned above, Varanasi is the holiest place in Hinduism to pass away or to be cremated, and the ceremony rituals reflect this. This is what we learned from talking to people in Varanasi, and we hope that we are not misspeaking in this post—the last thing we want to do is to offend Hinduism and its followers, or to not convey the ceremonies properly.

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The body of the deceased  is wrapped in a fabric (different colors for different people) and is carried  on a bamboo stretcher by male members of the family from their house to the Ganges. This is usually done by foot through the narrow streets of the old city where no cars can fit. When they arrive at the river, the body is washed and purified in the holy waters of the Ganga and then placed on a large pyre of wood. The eldest son in the family is also prepared for the ceremony by shaving his head, dressing in all white, and washing himself to purify in the river. He is the person in charge of lighting the pyre, and he can only do so with some fire kindled in the eternal fire—a fire that is kept in a temple and that has been lit uninterruptedly for centuries. As the funeral pyre starts to burn and the fire becomes stronger, sandalwood dust and incense are added to the pyre, and a designated person who works at the ghats is in charge of adding wood, keeping the pyre lit, and making sure that the body burns completely.

india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8494Sadhus are holy men who have renounced all their material possessions

india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8128Funeral wood is an important business in the city

The cremation takes around three hours and can burn through 350 kg (770 lb) of wood. This is no small number, especially when 1 kg of wood costs around $2 USD (150 INR) and far exceeds what many of the people in this country, and other developing countries, earn in a month. The high cost of the wood results in some families throwing unburned bodies into the river. Everyone is cremated in Varanasi with a very few exceptions: babies and small children are thought to be pure and thus their souls don’t need to be purified—the same is true for Sadhus (holy men) and pregnant women. A fascinating exception is of people who died because of a snakebite. Snakes are a manifestation of Lord Shiva, and some people believe that you achieve immortal life in another world if you die from one. Unburned bodies are tied to rocks and thrown in the Ganga.

Finally, when the cremation is done, the eldest son collects some water from the river in a ceramic pot and pours it into the ashes. He then breaks the pot and the ceremony has ended.

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Nobody cries and no one shows signs of grief or mourning as it is believed that the  dead are off to a world far better than the one they left behind. Women are not allowed at the ceremony because they may cry or sob and this might interfere with the soul reaching its resting place. We even heard (although it sounds extreme) that women were not allowed because there had been incidents of mourning wives jumping into the burning pyres. For non-Hindu, the ceremony might seemed unnatural or strange but I think that not fearing death, and rather welcoming it, is actually something we should learn from Hinduism.

After spending some very interesting and eye-opening days in Varanasi, it was time for us to move on. Prepared for the 18 hour journey towards Aurangabad, we boarded a sleeper train and let the landscapes of central India pass us by.

Talk soon, metta,
Tracy & Simon

india_varanasi_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_8397We also visited Sarnath, a place where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma

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Christmas in Buddha’s Birthplace

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When you travel, you can’t always plan where you’ll be during special holidays, even less when you are traveling for a long period of time. This happened to us for Christmas (2014), when we found ourselves fortuitously in Lumbini, Nepal. This might not sound too weird until you start thinking about it, and realize that we were going to spend the birthday of Christ in Buddha’s birthplace. Talk about religious mixes!

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Lumbini itself is not a city but a holy site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site,  where many buddhist countries have constructed monasteries honoring Siddhartha Gautama’s birth in 563 BCE. The holy site is surrounded by a small town where you can find accommodation, food, and all the buddhist paraphernalia you have ever dreamed of! Lumbini is located very close to one of the main border crossings between India and Nepal, a town called Sonauli, and we shortly visited on our way to India. The weather was cold and foggy but we hired a rickshaw and were headed out for some religious sites!

nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7831_simon_uribe-conversNepali workers fixing the roof of the Thai monastery 

nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7823_simon_uribe-conversBurmese pagoda

nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7821_simon_uribe-conversSri Lanka’s Temple

Besides the  many temples, pagodas, and monasteries—all built in their country’s original architecture—the main attraction is the Mayadevi Temple marking the exact place of Buddha’s birth. There is a stone pilar commemorating the visit of the Indian emperor Ashoka that was erected close to 245 BCE, a holy pond where Buddha’s mother (Queen Mayadevi) took a bath before the birth, and a Bodhi Tree covered with prayer flags and surrounded by holy men in meditation.

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nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7837_simon_uribe-conversMayadevi Temple commemorates the place of Buddha’s birth

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nepal_lumbini_viaje_asia_2014-2015_img_7843_simon_uribe-conversBarefoot holy men meditating under the Bodhi Tree

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Our time in Lumbini was short. We enjoyed it and braved the inclement weather but were ready to venture into a new land and start our Indian discovery. Our journey would take us from a holy birthplace to a city where death is most sacred: Varanasi.

Nepal and its Mountains

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Nepal is a country of mountains. In fact, three-fourths of the country are in the Himalayas, there are over 250 peaks higher than 6,000 meters (19,500 ft), and eight of the world’s highest peaks are here. It is no wonder then, that many of the people who visit Nepal come for trekking. Unfortunately for us, I was in no condition to trek due to the whole pinching-my-nerve-debacle in Thailand and we had to look at the mountains from a distance… But this wasn’t a problem because  our spirits were lifted immediately after arriving in Pokhara by seeing the views! The city has a beautiful lake where you can rent wooden boats to take you around and enjoy the Annapurna’s incredible peaks.

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Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7061_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe closest we’ll get to Everest this time around

Even though Pokhara is Nepal’s second largest city, its calm streets and fresh air are a relieve from bustling Kathmandu. Cafés by the lake, temples, and small shops and their friendly owners  kept us busy for a few days of relaxation. The weather was cold but usually sunny and it was a delight to spend time in a new city.

Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_6969_Simon_Uribe-ConversTracy braving the Himalayan cold 😉

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Since we were not trekking but still wanted to get closer to the peaks, we decided to splurge and take things to a much higher level, and I mean that literally. Pokhara is one of the most beautiful places to do paragliding and Tracy and I enjoyed our first flight! It was absolutely breathtaking.

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Pokhara was very good to us; we enjoyed the food, the people, and each other. And if that wasn’t enough,  our last evening blew our minds all over again!

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Nepal_Pokhara_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_7458_Simon_Uribe-ConversEven an early bus ride is enjoyable with this view!

The Explorer, a Poem

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Tracy came across this poem and it’s just too beautiful not to share. It perfectly describes how we feel about traveling and seeing the world. There is a link to the original source below, but I’m also copying it here. It was written by Abigail Leigh.

I can’t help but feel my heart
is a suitcase,
made for the leaving,
always packed and waiting,
it is
sitting by the door.

Memories of places been once
before are nestled inside
of me,
but space within there
shall always be,
to fill and cram
with so much more.

So if by chance you too have
a suitcase heart like me,
pick it up and take it,
why don’t you,
and carry it with mine.
Let us keep on
go go going,
Let us explore and never stop,
till we’ve rolled and dragged
our suitcase hearts  across
every snowy mountain top.

And when we’re finally opened up,
to be at last unpacked,
all that anyone shall inside see,
is our travel memories,
hoarded by both you and me.
But not shall we regret a thing,
or beg to forgive,
for to travel is to live.

Source: Darling Magazine

Beautiful Kathmandu

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Every trip to Nepal starts with Kathmandu’s airport, a small, overcrowded place where you’ll be waiting for your bags to come for what it seems an eternity. And of course, the trip is followed by a stay in Thamel—the tourist neighborhood, trekking agency central, and home to everything “Everest”—Everest Hotel, Everest Café, Everest Beer!

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One of the things you’ll first notice in Nepal is that you are constantly being “watched” by countless Buddha Eyes. They are virtually on every stupa (Buddhist shrine), door, flag, and t-shirt you encounter on the street. On the stupas, they are looking out in the four cardinal points symbolizing the omniscience of Buddha, and they do really transmit a sense of peace and wisdom. Simon, of course, could not stop taking photos of them!

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Nepal and momos are simply made for each other. Sticky and soft dough pockets filled with soul-satisfying meat and vegetables, smothered in a savory vegetable sauce with a little chili for heat, will make any wanderer, trekker or local a happy person. Wandering though the streets of Kathmandu would beckon us to buy 6 momos from the woman selling them out of a make shift steamer, and for the mere price of 70 Nepali rupees ($0.60USD). Momos represented a respite from the chaotic Thamel streets and the cold wind from Everest. Simon and I had a cold pretty much the entirety of our Nepali trip and momos were one of the main medicines to keep us going on to see more of the beauty in Nepal. During one of our trips to see Boudhanath, the countries’ largest stupa, we happened upon a small, local Nepali shop to buy tea and of course, momos. There was a familiar voice ordering to the side of our table.  I (Tracy) turned my head, not actually believing I could know the person in this obscure spot, but holy hell I did! In the far corner of shop sat a girl that was a regular at the restaurant I used to work at in Moscow, Idaho. Of course I had to go up to her, she didn’t really remember me but we talked for a few minutes about our mutual home on the other side of the world. Not only did momos make us feel comforted in a foreign country, but they also brought me home again.

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Kathmandu has many things to offer and is a great place to start experiencing Nepali culture. From the monkey temple (Swayambhunath) to Durbar Square (Kathmandu’s historical downtown) people are able to immerse themselves in Buddhism and Hinduism and to see how these two religions coexist with seemingly no difficulty.

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Visiting Nepal in December 2014 was a gift that both of us enjoyed in our own ways. Simon loves the mountains, and stupas. Tracy relished the generosity of Nepalis and we both obviously loved the food. After the devastating earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people in Nepal last April, we both truly treasure the time we spent navigating our way through thousands of Buddhist temples and the iconic engravings on each one. Sadly, so many artifacts and living ancient villages were destroyed. Nepalis must rebuild and accept the destruction so unfairly brought upon them. We ache for the woman who sold her momos on the street and the ancient ruins now decaying in a landfill, there is no replacement that can quickly be built. Nepalis are strong, resilient, and peaceful people, and an ancient one as well. Our hope for Nepal is that it can find peace within its borders by remembering the beauty of its history, but also the necessity of looking forward. The best way we have to help Nepal is to promote its beauty and encourage people to visit.

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Bye for now Kathmandu, hopefully we’ll be able to quote Cat Stevens in the near future: “Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you…”

Los Monkeys and the Guatemala Adventure

We haven’t been too active, and there are still two countries (Nepal & India) from  our Asia trip to tell you about, but this couldn’t wait: We just booked flight to Guatemala and we are going to spend 20 days discovering this enigmatic Mesoamerican country! Our friend and travel/wedding photographer Rob showed us the “Explore” tab of Kayak.com, a feature that every travel should know about! You simply tell it where you would like to fly out of and the dates, and it shows you a world map with all the destinations and their prices on it. We were delighted to find round trip flights from Bogota to Guatemala City for only $207 per person :D. The temptation was too much to not grab our credit card and go for it. We’ll be there from the 10th till the 28th of July. Have you been to Guatemala? Share your recommendations on the comments! Guatemala, allá vamos!

The City-State of Singapore

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After four months backpacking through South East Asia, Singapore felt like an oasis. The impeccable streets, the lack of tuk-tuks, the ordered traffic, and the honk-free driving felt like a dream. We only stayed for three days as a layover for our flight to Nepal but we made it count—especially the large amount of food we ate!

Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5797_Simon_Uribe-ConversMasjid Sultan Mosque

Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5800_Simon_Uribe-ConversMuscat Street, great place for food and drinks

We had the luck of staying with Kevin and Jade, friends of a friend, who were kind enough to open the doors of their home. We had a great time! Singaporeans are known for their love for food and Kevin showed us why. First, we went out for dinner to try the famous Singapore chilli crab, listed at number 35 on “World’s 50 most delicious foods compiled by CNN Go! If that wasn’t enough, we had a late dinner (or supper) of chicken wings, chicken satay, and stingray followed by ice cream made with local fruits. Everything was absolutely delicious, so much that we forgot to take photos of the food! Oh well, at least you get to see one of them.

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Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5881_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe famous “Merlion”

Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5837_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe three towers at the Marina Bay Sands

We spent our days walking around the city, enjoying the modern architecture, the many parks, and the interesting mix of cultures. Overall a great place to visit to try all the amazing food in the country and to escape the madness of other Southeast Asian countries.

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Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5806_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe National Library

Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5831_Simon_Uribe-ConversThere is even Christmas decorations in Singapore!

Finally, no visit to Singapore is complete without exploring Changi Airport. Complete with free movie theaters, free massage chairs, various gardens (including a butterfly one), and the tallest airport slide in the world, this place is amazing. We came two hours earlier than recommend for our flight to have enough time to wander around. Totally worth it.

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Singapore_Singapore_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5917_Simon_Uribe-ConversProbably the best view of any toilet I have ever been to

Into the Burmese Mountains

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We had to get out of the cities. We needed space to think and fresh air to breath and most importantly, we needed to get away from the tour buses. This is why we decided to explore the northern region of Myanmar and the beautiful Shan State. Whenever we hear something on the news about Myanmar it has to do with this state. The Shan, the local ethnic group, consider themselves different from other tribes in the country and would like to be autonomous. You can’t blame them, they have their own language (closer to Thai than Burmese), culture, food, and according to the people that we spoke to, they have been bullied by the Burmese government for far too long.

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Myanmar_Pyin_Oo_Lwin_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5152_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe famous Shan noodles

We started our exploration in the city of Pyin Oo Lwin, a small city with a few markets and a botanical garden. The lack of activities was exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries. After a few days of eating, bicycles rides, and sleeping in, we took a train to Kyaukme. The train was very nice and the views fantastic. One of the highlights was crossing the Gok Teik Viaduct, an old rickety bridge built by the British that rattles as if it were going to break! The views again are incredible and well worth the train ride.

Myanmar_Pyin_Oo_Lwin_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5241_Simon_Uribe-ConversTracy gets ready for the train ride

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Myanmar_Pyin_Oo_Lwin_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5312_Simon_Uribe-ConversGok Teik Viaduct

Our plan in Kyaukme was clear, explore the rural mountains on dirt bikes and visit some rural villages to better understand life in Burma. I, Simon, had never driven a dirt bike or on an uphill dirt road for that matter. It was a challenge for sure but one that I’ll remember for a long time!

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We drove by rice fields, small villages up in the mountains, through narrow bamboo hanging bridges, stopped at temples and met some very interesting locals. For example, we met a man who was 103 years old and had both legs completely tattooed. He lived with his 100+ year old blind wife and people stop to donate some money in return for a blessing. At the end of the day, we stayed in the living room of someone from the village and ate dinner with them. We had a local guide who knew the region and who organized things along the way—no one speaks English around here, it’s awesome!

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Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5536_Simon_Uribe-ConversInside the living room

Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5614_Simon_Uribe-ConversOur hostess getting ready for her day 

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We ended the two days-one night bike trip with a smile and dirt on our faces. We were happy.
If you are interesting in doing something like this, there are two people who run tours: Thura (thuranaing84@gmail.com) and Joy (joy.inmyanmar@gmail.com). Just be sure to specify up front if you are going to be charged for two days or one and a half depending on your return time to Kyaukme. And of course, let us know in the comments if you have any questions!

Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5713_Simon_Uribe-ConversHappy and dirty!

Ancient Mandalay

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We spent three days in Mandalay visiting temples, old monasteries, and small villages. The time went by quickly in our sightseeing marathons but we were able to see and enjoy most things that the city has to offer. From a 4 meter golden Buddha statue to the longest teak bridge in the world, Mandalay offered us impressive sights but it was nevertheless slightly underwhelming.

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Hundreds of monks line up every day at around 11am in one of the biggest monasteries in the world to receive their daily meals. Even though the sight of myriads of saffron robes made Simon very excited, the place has been overrun with tourists who all want to take the same photo. The sight is nevertheless astonishing to see.

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Myanmar_Mandalay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4604_Simon_Uribe-ConversAll Burmese try to apply gold leaf on the Buddha at least once in their lives, the second most holy pilgrimage site in the country

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U Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world, was built to connect villages to the imperial city. The bridge was built in the 1800’s, measures at 1.2 Km (0.75 mi) long, and is still used by many people. Watching the commute of hundreds of locals during sunset was easily one of the most photogenic times in Mandalay.

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Myanmar_Mandalay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5122_Simon_Uribe-ConversA Burmese teaching Simon how to properly tie his longyi, a traditional male skirt

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After enjoying the ancient sights of Mandalay, it was time to head north for some well deserved honk-free environment and adventure. Next stop: Pyin Oo Lwin!

The beauty of Bagan

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Bagan is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any trip to Myanmar. The city is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world and the complex housed more than 13,000 temples in the 12th century. Nowadays, we are left with ‘only’ 3,000 temples that are sure to keep us busy and in complete awe during our visit.

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We spent our days riding an electric scooter (regular scooters are not allowed for tourists) and wandering around in almost no order through a myriad of temples. Some are small little stupas not bigger than a one room house, while others are massive structures rising five stories high from the ground. There is something for everyone and you are guaranteed to find yourself standing alone in many of them. Because there are so many temples and it is very unlikely to visit them all,  you have a sensation of freedom and peace contrary to the anxiety of ‘must-see-everything’ that many might experience in places like Angkor Wat.

Just relax, enjoy the scenery, and be sure to climb some temples at sunrise and sunset: the views are like no others.

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Given the large area of the complex, a fairly popular activity is to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. Unfortunately for us, or most any other backpacker, the price of the ride ($280US per person) was prohibitive. This however, didn’t impede us from enjoying the wonderful scene of hundreds of balloon flying over thousands of temples. Waking up for sunrise if definitively a must for everyone, you won’t regret it! A small piece of advise, avoid the main sunrise and sunset temples as they are overcrowded with tourist buses. Remember that there are 3,000 temples to chose from!

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3643Birds turning into hot air balloon, only in Bagan

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Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4358Simon enjoying the sunrise view (photo by Emil Kastrup Andersen)

Every main temple has a family who lives besides it and is in charge of keeping it clean and of opening the door early in the morning. During our first sunrise we met ‘EE-EE’ (a very phonetic way to write her name) and spent three hours with her and her siblings playing football, taking photos, and enjoying cups of teas. As we mentioned in our last post, Burmese are one of the most friendly people we have found in Asia—’EE-EE’ and her family were an example of how wonderful everyone is in this country.

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Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3821Simon busting out his South American football ‘skills’

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3767Tracy, ‘EE-EE’, and her older sister

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3512Goodbye for now Bagan, we hope to see you again soon