Today in Seattle the sun is shining, robins are pulling worms from the ground and our cherry trees have erupted in their frothy, fleeting coats of pink and white blossoms. Given that the world outside is a resounding exclamation of ‘Spring!!’, I’m loathe to recall the dark and wet of January, quite possibly our most miserable month here in the Pacific Northwest. But in reality it wasn’t that long ago that I fled Seattle for Southeast Asia and traded my intentions to learn to ski for three weeks of wandering around Myanmar (Burma.)
The trip was equal parts rediscovery of a country I met in a past life, an attempt to locate a friend and a little bit of indulgence to celebrate my 30th birthday. This last part mainly took the shape of finally embarking on a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan, an experience that caught my eye over seven years ago when I first entered the travel industry. Lying along a bend in the Irrawaddy River, Bagan is the name given to an archeological zone consisting of somewhere between 2,000-10,000* payas (stupas, pagodas and temples) erected during the height of the Pagan Empire from 1044-1287 AD. Earthquakes have damaged or leveled many of the structures over the years and while hundreds of the temples remain untouched and unrestored (and contain amazing original frescoes), truly careless restoration by the former military regime has kept a seemingly obvious UNESCO designation at bay.
In travels near and far, I have found that the man made rarely competes with the natural world in terms of ability to take my breath away. That is, a sunrise experienced from any mountain range/desert/river throughout the world > the same experience at Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, etc. (This may sound cynical but it is a personal preference; as the Oracle of Delphi first stated, ‘know thyself’.) However, viewing the pagodas, temples and payas of Bagan at sunrise, from a hot air balloon, on a somewhat milestone birthday was pretty darn special. It didn’t hurt that my good friend Leigh was there to share the occasion too. In short, you must include hot air ballooning in Bagan on your trip to Myanmar! I’ll let the photos tell the story from here.
Having never been in a hot air balloon before, I found the entire launch process both fun and a little hilarious! First the balloon is rolled out then teams inflate the actual balloon (also called an 'envelope'). We were briefed on how to properly enter the basket and then at the exact moment when he balloon is ready there is a sudden controlled pandamodium while everyone tries to load as quickly as possible. Then before you know it you are off the ground and on your way!
I was struck by the silence of the experience. Too high above the ground to hear the racket of rickshaws, horsecarts and mopeds below, floating in the balloon was serenely quiet. Even the birds flying well beneath our basket made not a sound. They looked like marionettes or fishing lures being jigged along by an invisible line.
I have little talent and no training as a photographer and these were the images I captured. Imagine what you can do with a little camera know-how!
Our pilot, Christophe, was from Belgium and flies balloons all over the world. He is a self-described 'adventure balloonist' and holds balloon pilot's license #1 for Chilean Patagonia. (If you've ever been there, you know that the fierce winds of Patagonia would make attempting a balloon flight an adventure indeed! Understandably, this form of tourism never took off in Patagonia. Pun intended.)
Our balloon remained in flight the longest and we were treated to close fly-bys at several of the most popular and photographically desirable temples. After a smoothe landing in a small field all passengers shared a light champagne breakfast to toast the morning and Leigh made sure that everyone raised a glass for the birthday girl who probably blushed uncontrollably at the attention.
I recommend giving yourself one or two full days to explore Bagan's temples on the ground by bicycle or horsecart then save the balloon trip for once you have a feel for the layout of the complex. In doing so you'll be able to fully appreciate a much different perspective of the many payas you have already visited. I flew in a balloon with 16 passengers but for an additional fee, smaller baskets of only 8 passengers can be arranged for those wanting more space for photography.
Ask our Myanmar Travel specialist about arranging your balloon flight in Bagan to commemorate a special event (like a birthday!) or just because!