Fearless explorer Allie Dunnington has travelled around 85 countries by hot air balloon. We’re delighted to welcome her to Bristol for an exclusive talk on Thursday September 14th, but before then, here’s a taster of her inspirational story from that very first ascension above Burma.
Hot air balloons in Burma: “It’s not flying, it’s floating”
He had to talk me into it. It was mid-afternoon, and I was nursing a sore throat by the pool while the rest of my tour group headed out to explore the red-brick temples of Bagan. I’d been feeling rather sorry for myself when, on my way back to my room, I’d bumped into the hot-air balloon pilot on his way to a flight over the plains.
“I’ve got one more space if you want it.” He offered. For me, flying meant turbulence, claustrophobia, and the sticky cabin air of a commercial airliner. I shook my head.
“I’m not a keen flyer” I said.
“It’s not flying, it’s floating.” He replied, clearly determined to persuade me.
I had to admit I was intrigued. The afternoon light was so soft and enticing, and I thought wistfully of the cool breeze I might find up there in the clouds. Before I knew it, I was climbing into the wicker basket of my first-ever hot-air balloon, wondering what on earth had come over me.
We have lift-off – Bagan from above
The sensation of taking off in a balloon is nothing like what you imagine. It’s not like standing on a cliff edge, with that feeling of vertigo and the abyss just beyond your toes, and it’s certainly nothing like the mechanical roar of taking off in a jet.
As we prepared to cast loose, I grasped the basket edges and steeled myself for the moment when my heart would plunge into my feet and my legs turn to jelly, but to my surprise I felt nothing of the sort. In fact, if I hadn’t been able to see the earth retreating and the buildings of Bagan’s town centre shrinking before my eyes, I wouldn’t have believed we’d left the ground at all.
Once in the air, all was perfectly quiet but for a few quiet gasps and the click of camera shutters. I’d been to Bagan numerous times before, but this was different: 2,000 Lilliputian spires were laid out before me with the glittering Irrawaddy as their backdrop, and I grasped for the first time what a monumental kingdom this once was.
Flying lower, I could make out intricate carvings on the rooftops, and see the shape of each pagoda on the ground. It was the most amazing sensation.
That first flight was back in 2002, and I’ve never looked back. I’m now a licenced commercial balloon pilot and have flown in 81 countries, each with its own attractions and challenges. I’ve floated over the endless sand dunes of Libya, soared to 3,600 metres over the snow-cloaked Alps, and shot a film with Werner Herzog while bobbing over the ‘Lost World’ of Venezuela. I’ve even had my balloon retrieved by camels in Rajasthan! Yet despite all these unforgettable experiences, I still have a place in my heart for Burma, the country where I first took to the skies.
Hot air balloons in Burma: Bird’s-eye view
Ballooning in Burma today has changed somewhat since my first flight. With 21 commercial balloons now operating (as opposed to a single craft in 2002), it rather feels like flying in a balloon fiesta – which is an experience in its own right! But while Bagan may be booming, the rest of the country is only just getting started.
Mandalay, which many terrestrial travellers dismiss as just another big, dusty city, becomes a complex network of stories waiting to be told when viewed from the sky. Every flight reveals a new insight into city life: an ant-like line of maroon-clad monks waiting to receive their morning alms; a taxi driver taking a nap between trips in a shady park; a woman hanging out the washing on a flat roof, partially obscured beneath a tangle of telegraph wires.
At Inle Lake, meanwhile, ballooning completely transforms the way you experience the landscape. As you putter from village to shore in a water taxi your experience is fragmented; you never comprehend the whole. But from above it’s a different story: longtail boats trace chevrons in the glassy surface, rows of floating crops divide the water into poker-straight lines, and the Shan Hills seem to cradle the sky between their forested peaks.
But though all of these destinations are spectacular, there is one place in Burma I love more than any other.
My favourite place: Ngapali
“Welcome to the wilderness” I say, pumping a few burns into the envelope as we hit 600 metres. The morning sun is just beginning to send its first rays over the mountains, illuminating the whole landscape in a golden haze.
“Down there is the Bay of Bengal – and over there you can see the Thandwe River, meandering down from the mountains. Beyond that, it’s jungle as far as you can see.” My passengers are peering in trepidation over the edge of the basket at the treetops sticking out of the morning mist, the river a golden ribbon disappearing into the mountains.
Sandwiched between endless, deep blue ocean and forested mountains, Ngapali is a balloon lover’s paradise. I first began exploring the area – one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining habitats for wild elephants – in 2013, and was immediately hooked.
Only from a hot air balloon can you drift over these unspoilt jungles, spotting monkeys playing in the treetops and hornbills darting from branch to branch. There aren’t many places in the world where you can fly so close to a major ocean, and I always get a little thrill thinking that if we just kept going, the next country we’d come to would be India.
Up, up and away
I pull the green-and-black ropes to rotate the balloon. It takes a bit of practice to make sure everyone gets to see the same amazing views without jogging the cameras, but after ten years I’ve had time to hone my technique.
Dipping low over Thandwe town, we’re close enough to count the mangoes at each market stall and catch the faint cries of ‘mingalaba!’ (‘hello!’) that drift up from the streets. Balloons may be a daily sight in Bagan, but here we’re still a novelty – attracting waves and grins wherever we go.
As the breeze picks up and carries us away from the town, I’m pleased to realise that it’s going to carry us directly over the gold-plated spire of Nandaw Pagoda, one of three holy temples in Thandwe, where a giant reclining Buddha lies in contemplation of the landscape. Peering over his shoulder as we drift past, I see what he sees: a thousand shades of mist stretching off into the hills, like a Chinese silk painting.
Coming in to land
An hour of flying and plenty of photos later, it’s time to scope out a suitable landing spot – which is no mean feat when most of the rice paddies are full of water. We eventually come to land in a nearby field, chased down by a crowd of children keen to investigate this new arrival. For me, this is one of the highlights of the trip: meeting local people who are genuinely surprised and excited to see you. That’s something you don’t often find elsewhere.
So if you have the chance to take a balloon flight – anywhere, at any time – take it. Ballooning offers you a unique opportunity to see the world from above: to spot the invisible patterns that surround us and see a side of life that’s usually hidden to all but the birds. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t loved it.
As for me – it’s no exaggeration to say that ballooning changed my life. The pilot who first persuaded me to set foot in a balloon is now my husband, and I get to share my adventures with people from all over the world. So I urge you to look past your fears and give it a go; you never know where the wind will take you.
Allie Dunnington is a pilot for Oriental Ballooning – a specialist company for hot air balloons in Burma. She will be speaking at an exclusive event in Bristol on Thursday 14th September 2017, book tickets here and hear her inspirational story first-hand.
If Allie’s tales of flying high above Burma have inspired you, get in touch with one of our expert travel consultants to tailor an itinerary.