November, 2010 saw the lift of longstanding sanctions and boycotts of Myanmar with the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after 15 years of house arrest, effectively opening a largely unseen and significant portion of southeast Asia to Westerners for the first time in decades. Both historically significant and stunningly beautiful are the 3,000+ 11th century temples found in the ancient city of Bagan that draw in visitors from across the world.
There are several ways to see the spectacular surviving ruins; from tour buses, horse-drawn carriages, bikes or simply by foot. However, one mode of transportations tops the rest: hot air balloon. The day starts in the chill of morning with hot drinks and baked goods, served al fresco in a field while the crew fills the massive balloon. After a quick safety tutorial, you (and about seven others) lift off from the mist.
During the hour-or-so ride, the ground crew follows the balloon and is in constant communication with the pilot. Pilot Pete Dalby from Oriental Ballooning, monitored our balloon with an iPad. Since one can’t really “drive” a balloon and it just drifts on the breeze, it’s the pilot’s job to direct it to a safe open space for landing, occasionally pulling a lever to give it some gas to stay afloat. The trick, according to Dalby, is getting close enough to the temples for a remarkable view, while keeping safety a top priority.
The landing zone is always variable, using any open space—sometimes a private farm, sometimes right beside a temple, and a tractor is always a part of the ground crew so it can go “off-roading” if necessary. After landing, all the attendants receive certificates signed by Dalby and a toast of champagne and fresh papaya juice to cap off the extraordinary morning.
There are two companies offering hot air balloon rides: Balloons Over Bagan, with 14 years experience and a fleet of ten balloons (each fit for 12 passengers), and the newly formed Oriental Ballooning, with a fleet of three balloons fitted for eight passengers.
Photos by Tanveer Badal