Bagan: Sunrise or Sunset?

While I was in Myanmar for two weeks, I heard Bagan was the crown jewel of the country – with over 2,000 Buddhist temples still standing today from an impressive original 10,000. The landscape, a mix of lush green trees and dirt roads over a flat horizon, boasts a plentiful amount of these ancient brick temples as far as the eye can see. Sometimes a mist shrouds the surface, or clouds create impressive contrasts with the sunlight. Nonetheless, I decided to check out the hype of these frequently Instagrammed shots of a sunrise in this mystic ancient city with hot air balloons all around.

As we went in April 2018, one important thing to note was we could not officially climb up temples to claim the BEST spot for sunrise/sunset, high enough to see the other temples but not too high from the ground. Myanmar decided to ban climbing on temples (again). Officially. But we asked locals who agreed to take us to the few temples that people could still climb and weren’t guarded. So we did this for a sunrise at Ta Wet Hpaya, which as of April 2018 was open for secret sunrise viewing.

Good news, it was indeed a beautiful spot to watch the sunrise. Bad news, we weren’t the only ones who learned about this ‘secret’ temple, so there were quite a few of us up there catching the most distinct part of Bagan sunrises: the hot air balloons!

While we didn’t have the clearest day to watch a super sunrise, we ‘got the gist’ of it. We arrived around 5:45 am while it was still dark out, climbed up the stairs to the roof of the temple, waited for the balloons to float out and for the sun to rise. The balloons came out very slowly out of a corner in the horizon around 6:45 am or so. I’ll say this, on a clearer day, I bet it would have been much more beautiful, and the colors would have swirled against that cotton candy pink and blue backdrop into a scorching ball of yellow fire on the horizon. It was a nice experience, but we decided that would be our only sunrise in Bagan, as the weather and cloud cover was supposed to be about the same for the other days. Bottom line: WORTH IT, IF you find a temple to safely climb and you have luck with a clear day. It’s a memorable experience, and I hope Myanmar revisits their ‘no temple climbing’ policy soon!

Sunset is a different story. Since the temples are officially closed for climbing, the Burmese authorities have attempted to narrow the spots to watch the sunset to two manmade hills where they actually check if you’ve paid the 25,000 Kyat pass to access all the temples. Guess what? We actually didn’t know this, and no one told us about this ticket in advance, so we never bought one. In the end, we got to catch a sunset on one of the hills for zero Kyat, as we convinced them that we left our ticket at home. Oops and yay!

Here, it was way more crowded than sunrise, because like I mentioned it’s a hot spot and one of the few ways to officially watch the sunset, plus it has a controlled entrance. So to get a nice spot in peace without people on the way is harder. Yet again, we did not have the clearest day for a sunset, so we took our pics and enjoyed the weather cooling down after a very hot day. Bottom line: WORTH IT to see sunset from the hill. Just buy your temple passes in advanced.

Lastly, or should I say firstly, we checked out the Nan Myint tower on our first sunset tour, which logically seemed like the highest, ergo best place to see the sunset. Alas, no, it was not and for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is too high up – and remember when I mentioned you don’t need a bird’s eye view, just to be slightly higher than one or two stories up? From the tower, the horizon doesn’t look as impressive. Then, reason 2, it is quite far from the densely populated temple area, which is the gem you want to capture in photos. And lastly, it’s not free. You have to pay an entrance of about US$5, and if you’re thirsty or hungry, the restaurant (with a lovely view) is available for a pretty penny. As such, the bottom line for this: NOT WORTH IT, but if you have an excellent camera lens, you may get some nice zoomed shots.

I think ultimately that sunrises are the most impressive in Bagan, although they depend on whether you can find a temple to climb with fewer people and cooperative weather.

What do you prefer: sunrise or sunset?


Glamping in the Wadi Rum Desert

IMG_1329Sunset over the Wadi Rum desert

On a week long road trip through Jordan, it seemed silly not to have an adventure in the desert, specifically the vast Wadi Rum, called “The Valley of the Moon,” which stretches across Southern Jordan. Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must if you have a few extra days to explore and are up for a different adventure. Initially, the Wadi Rum desert gained popularity among tourists after “Lawrence of Arabia” made its debut, in which many of its scenes were filmed. Besides memories of Peter O’Toole’s mesmerizing eyes, this desert became one my favorite landscapes worldwide.

After leaving our car in the gate, we were picked up by our hosts. We stayed in the Salman Zwaidh Camp (recommended by Lonely Planet), which is owned and run by local bedouins, or nomadic desert arabs, only they are allowed to operate within the protected areas of the Wadi Rum desert. The host of our camp Salman was very hospitable and ensured we had a wonderful stay at his camp. He really went out of his way to ensure we were comfortable, even though he had limited English. I say kindness and hospitality are among the universal languages we can all comprehend.

Sleeping in the desert can be a hot, windy experience, and since we didn’t have any camping gear, we stayed in a pitched tent with proper beds inside. It gets a bit warm during the day, but at night the desert actually became chilly, which was a welcoming relief to sleep soundly. There are toilets in a small building, running water, and the accommodations were quite nice for being in the middle of the desert.

View from the rocks to the tents with beds
Relaxing in the welcoming shade of the rocks
Beds in the bedouin camp Salman Zwaidh

As for the activities, you can take a truck tour of the desert, do some hiking on dunes and rocks, go on camel rides to watch the sunset, or just relax for a bit. Keep in mind, there’s no wifi or electricity to charge your devices, so it’s a nice opportunity to disconnect and be ‘one’ with nature. We decided to do 4×4 truck tour first to check out the landscape. It takes about 1.5-2 hours, and you stop at various land structures, dunes and bedouin shops, where you’re offered tea and encouraged to shop around from the merchant’s products. We ended up buying the spicy bedouin tea they kept serving us, because it really was good.

Overlooking the vast desert after a dune hike
Welcoming the shade on the 4×4 tour
A seemingly endless climb up a sandy dune
Local bedouin shop where the owner played the rababa
Hiking up the formations with proper shoes offers bonus views

A note here on dress code: this is still the Middle East, so women are expected to dress modest, so it’s not respectful to expose your shoulders or legs, despite the extreme heat. So things like linen, thin cotton are best to withstand the heat. You’ll get sand everywhere though, but at least it’s not sticky like at the beach.

After resting for a couple of hours at the camp, we snacked on some treats offered by Salman, and then decided to take the camel tour to see the sunset. This costs extra, but from what I recall, it was nominal. We made our way into an area with a large, flat rock to climb, and from there we saw the sunset. Nothing quite like seeing a burning ball of yellow fire pierce the horizon with fantastic pastel hues.

Sunset camel rides in the Wadi Rum
Follow the leader


Sunset over the Wadi Rum desert
Magical sunsets
Camels are lucky to have this view daily

By the time we got back to the camp, we were starving. Luckily, the chef was already preparing delicious Jordanian dishes for us to eat, followed by, you guessed it, more tea. When we went, we had just one other family staying at the camp, so it was nice to chat with them to learn their story and what they thought so far of Jordan.

Food prepared at Salman Zwaidh camp in Wadi Rum

The staff offers you privacy, and they don’t annoy you with unnecessary small talk, which may partly be due to limited English. However, they were very open about their lives in Jordan as desert people, how Wadi Rum has always been their home. It was fascinating to learn their ways, but their hospitality was the most impressive. We went to bed that night with bellies full and minds peaceful, free from devices and stress.

Sleeping in the tent overnight felt quite warm, and only around 3:00 am or so did the temperature drop so I could sleep well. I like it cold when I sleep, I mean REAL cold, so sleeping in the desert was something I expected to be a challenge. While it was silent at night, the one thing you could always hear was the wind blowing the through the heat and cooling the sand.

The next morning, we prepared for our journey onward to the Red Sea to Aqaba, but not before Salman treated us to hearty breakfast and more tea. We parted ways with the bedouins and the desert, and for a fleeting moment I felt like I was Santiago in the Alchemist, searching for and finding my treasure.

Tell me about your cool experiences in the desert below!