By Susan Bender
We first viewed the magical city of Bagan from the tiny windows of a twin-propeller plane; vast tropical plains dotted with over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas and monuments stretched out ahead of us. We travelled only with hand luggage which allowed us to whizz through the airport on arrival, it was such a freeing experience. In no time at all, we were ensconced in our sumptuous villa at the Aureum Palace hotel surrounded by acres of lush tropical landscaped gardens and ancient temples.
I insisted that we see Bagan in a hot air balloon at sunrise with Ballons Over Bagan, call me a romantic or crazy, I must be crazy since I’m terrified of heights and suffer from vertigo. The cold, hard reality and madness of it all hit home at 4:30am when I was getting dressed for our balloon ride. I wore my Philip Huang indigo tie-dye hoodie that I’d made in Bangkok (I wanted to blend in whilst floating through the skies) and teamed it with a cream Bite organic jersey top and cotton hemp trousers.
Surprisingly enough the sheer terror, nausea and anxiety I felt quickly disappeared after the initial take-off. I was left in awe and wonder, silently floating through the sky (apart from when the burner thunderously shot huge flames up into the balloon.) We had panoramic views across the early morning sky, below us we saw over 2000 Buddhist and Hindu temples with magnificent gilded stupa’s, red bricked pagodas, small villages, farms and hundreds of palm trees.
Hot air ballooning has a minimal impact on the environment, although fossil fuels are burnt, propane is a much cleaner fuel than butane or petrol and our flight was only an hour causing a very low level of emissions.
Late afternoon we glided into Old Bagan on an e-bike, we rented it for $5 US per day from our hotel Aureum Palace. Foreigners aren’t allowed to drive motorbikes or scooters in Myanmar. Meandering along the deep and sandy dirt tracks, the air cast an orange hue across the thousands of 11th-12th century pagodas dotted along our route, we whizzed past local shepherds with their cattle, bright pink Bougainvillea bushes, ox carts and young school children flooding out of school.
We left our e-bike and took a guided tour by horse-drawn cart, a charming and low impact way to view the magnificent temples and pagodas we’d seen from the skies earlier that morning. The fashion gods were certainly smiling on me this afternoon; I jumped into the back of the cart and noticed the fabric of the cushions were emblazoned with @Guccighost’s interpretation of Gucci’s iconic double GG logo.
It was a real fashion moment travelling around town in a Gucci emblazoned horse and cart.
Ayar Jetty Adventures
Continuing our slow travel we arrived by horse-cart at Ayar Jetty for a 2.5hr romantic sunset cruise on the Irrawaddy river. 10 minutes into our cruise the engine decided to conk out. After repeated efforts to start the motor our skipper dramatically dove into the river to see if the motor was caught up in the sandbanks or debris.
We watched river life unfold before our eyes as the sunset slowly sunk beneath the horizon, took endless portraits/selfies, drank tea and nibbled sweet tamarind flakes to pass the time whilst the whole disaster unfolded before us. After about 40 mins our frustrated skipper called to the other fishing/cruise boats moored in the dock to help us.
I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer sense of unity and fellowship within this vibrant boating community.
Immediately men, girls and boys of varying ages jumped into the river and waded over to us to help. I was ready to roll up my dress and get in on the act too, but was sadly stopped by our guide (insurance purposes). A larger boat carrying barrels of oil and a young family onboard also came to our assistance to help push us back to shore, that signalled the end of our disastrous cruise.
Our poor guide ironically wore a red polo t-shirt with ‘BEST. DAY. EVER.’ printed in white bold capital letters on the back, we did have a giggle about it, given our current situation. He apologised repeatedly for the disastrous journey and offered to buy us cocktails to make up for it in a local bar.
I told him it was quite the opposite, we’d had the best time ever (no puns intended); it was so amusing to watch the whole drama unfold, plus we had the added bonus of meeting a fascinating and friendly community that lived and worked on the river.
Lost in paradise
The adventure didn’t end there, on our journey back to the hotel we decided to go off the beaten track, not paying attention to the time Craig noticed the battery of our bike had run terribly low. Lost and panicking on the side of the road we waved down a tuk tuk to ask how far away we were from our hotel. Luckily enough and much to his and our surprise it was the driver that had dropped us off in morning for our balloon ride, so he knew exactly how to direct us back, locals are always willing to help a tourist in need.
We literally willed our little e-bike to make the couple of miles down the road to our hotel, leaning forward (like little children when they want to go faster). We made it back and headed straight to the bar, two large margaritas were duly ordered and well deserved.
Siem Reap was the destination we were extremely excited to see, in fact it was the starting point from where we planned our honeymoon. And we certainly weren’t disappointed. We were picked up at the airport and greeted with two ice cold fresh coconuts by our driver. The hotel’s simple entrance belied the hidden tropical oasis that stretched out behind the gates; lush foliage, tropical trees surrounded the enclosure and walkway. Stepping into this beautifully tucked away retreat we immediately felt relaxed cocooned in the sensory environment.
The Anjali hotel mixes modern, minimal interior design with local influences.
The implementation of their environmental agenda and continued commitment to sustainability and the surrounding community is admirable.
This is a plastic free hotel, you won’t find any plastic bottles or straws. They use eco-label products whenever possible, bathroom amenities are locally produced and organic. It has a water saving system with solar panels and the swimming pool uses salt water instead of chlorine.
Even the cooking oil for the restaurant and lounge is donated to an NGO, where they transform the material into soap and biodiesel. Rooms are equipped with Intelligent A/C (which I discovered later much to my exasperation). The customer service here is exceptional, the high level of attention and kindness from the friendly staff reflects the genuine and peaceful working environment that’s so close to nature.
Our deluxe suite was located on the top floor, it was a spacious open plan, modern room flooded with natural light, featuring a large balcony enveloped with lush tropical vegetation overlooking the sumptuous zen pool. The best feature for me was the freestanding bathtub in the room.
Craig went off to explore the hotel (meaning the bar and lounge), I filled the bath, adding Burt’s Bees Lemon and vitamin E bath oil, turned off the A/C (I hate using A/C and prefer to use a ceiling fan or acclimate to the local heat) and hopped in.
Around 15 minutes later the phone rang, I ignored it a few times, but it kept ringing. I knew it wasn’t Craig (he was definitely still in the bar and knew I wouldn’t get out of the bath to answer just the phone). Then there was knocking on the door, reluctantly I got out of the bath, modestly wrapped in a small towel and dripping wet answered the door. A member of staff from the front desk explained the Intelligent A/C alerted them that our A/C was off, they wanted to check if everything was OK and reboot the system.
I don’t think he quite understood why someone would turn the A/C off in that heat. It’s safe to say that incident reaffirmed my hate for A/C, intelligent or not!
Our adventures would now start to begin and see us trekking through a tropical woodland at 5 am up a steep 67m hill to visit a magnificent temple made in honour of the Hindu god Shiva, sailing through monumental limestone formations in Vietnam and kickboxing on the spectacular coastline of Krabi, Thailand.