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Although senior tour leader David Lovejoy is a well-seasoned traveller and leads groups around Burma (Myanmar), nothing could have prepared him for his first hot air balloon over majestic Bagan.
Hot air balloon in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
If you’re looking for a space to place all your eggs in one basket, and throw caution to the wind, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better location than Bagan.
Not because it isn’t nearly as overrun with tourists as well-trodden destinations in neighbouring nations. Neither due to the veritable treasure trove of thousands of stupas tickling the sky silly until you giggle on its behalf. Nor the increased value of your hard-earned or easily found foreign currency in this mostly underdeveloped place. What then? In a word, light. Not the light necessary to float in the air, but vibrant photons.
Bagan or Angkor Wat…?
In contrast, when I stood in the mosh pit that is Angkor Wat to witness the legendary silhouette come to life at sunrise, my vision should only have been enhanced after an hour huffing the world’s body odour at some length. Yet, dare I say it, I was underwhelmed at the spectacle… The light dispassionately illuminated a scene that brought sorrow to life. Not so in Bagan, where even dirt has never looked more beautiful.
Where to begin?
These days gratification just can’t come quickly enough, so I don’t feel embarrassed admitting I was worried the prep would be a bore. It isn’t. You’re treated to coffee or tea and biscuits, and can sit on comfy stools to enjoy them while briefed.
The balloons are called envelopes, and they’re inflated quicker than you’d think considering their size. First cold air, then hot is blown in, the basket is righted, you hop in and away you go. The grandeur of the view can’t be overstated. In between short bursts of flame, absolute silence, total bliss. Even if you’re scared of heights the stability of what looks like an oversized breadbasket inspires confidence that you belong amongst the heavens. Towers, planes and helicopters are nice, but balloons offer the best view and the best experience.
Is hot air ballooning in Burma safe?
Even the most adventurous of us would prefer not to go splat (even if the colours would look spectacular). Well, it may comfort you to know that Balloons over Bagan has a spotless safety record, with nearly two decades and several thousand launches worth of experience. They say flying is the safest form of travel, and this was the first form of flight so there has been plenty of time to work out the wrinkles.
Imagine driving an automobile on the motorway, several factors more dangerous, yet less frightening because of the illusion of control. Now imagine there is not only a limit to the number of cars on the road, but you also receive live updates before and anytime another driver intends to change their speed or course. You could almost close your eyes, provided you told other drivers you were doing so.
I was hoping and trusting it’d be safe, but I didn’t expect to find the precautions taken so interesting. The setup resembles a DJ of the skies; there are two tablet PCs showing weather info in great detail, and walkie-talkies to communicate with other pilots. There are also loads of fuel tanks (but oddly you’re not allowed to smoke), and four flamethrowers to slay cold air.
Our pilot spoke eloquently about what he was doing and why, which reassured us that if something did go wrong, it was simply our time and we couldn’t fault him for oversight.
What about the weather?
When you’re on the ground, it’s easy to think of wind as more of a constant than it is, travelling the same direction and intensity, but it’s actually the most insane thing in the universe. No wonder weather is so hard to predict. There are infinite layers and pockets of wind traveling different speeds and directions even in a clear, supposedly calm sky. This is one thing we really got an appreciation for. The balloons take off at nearly the same time but can quickly end up miles apart. I forgive you weatherman.
Is it an ethical activity?
The last reason you really ought to consider dangling in a basket a thousand feet above Bagan is because you’re helping the desperate local economy in a big way. The substantial proceeds go to schools, electricity and other resources – there are villages here that didn’t have electricity up until a few years ago, and still don’t have it consistently. Expect to be surrounded by truly warm smiles once you touchdown.
What about landing?
The basket resembles a sack of potatoes when reaching the ground. Everyone assumes brace positions, which brings you below the edge of the basket so you can’t see the ground approach. Inevitably it comes a surprise! As it’s more important not to hit trees or other obstacles, and ensure the truly enormous balloon isn’t damaged by the landscape, you’ve got to be surgical with placement. Emphasis is rightly placed on location over finesse (we landed with a bit of a jolt).
The basket is padded with handles to grip, but after the previously majestic experience it was slightly jarring. Our pilot tells us there are soft landings and rough landings, a fellow passenger asks him what kind of landing this was.
“I think it was a perfect landing, don’t you?” he replies.