in International Travel

Hot Air Balloons, Horse Carts and Hops

imageWe were up by 5:10am to catch the Balloons Over Bagan bus, which was a combination of retro 1950s styling and new luxuries (like air conditioning). The retro suspension rattled us over the imperfect roadways on the way to other hotels to collect the remaining balloon passengers. Thankfully, my concentration on retaining the contents of my stomach were distracting me from the reality that I was soon going to be suspended in the air very high above the ground. The bus unloaded us in a large field, where the crews were already hard at work getting the balloons and baskets ready for our departure.

imageThe group was corraled into a circle of inward-facing chairs, where we could enjoy coffee and biscuits and watch the crews do their thing. The two English pilots eventually came over to introduce themselves and organize us into groups. We were brought over to our respective balloons and given a safety briefing. It was hard to believe 16 tourists and a pilot could fit into such a small basket. The group stood aside as the crew began to inflate the balloons, first with large fans and then with the propane-fueled burner. At least six other balloons were being launched from the same field. The sun began to rise as we all piled into the balloon and finally launched.

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I was surprised by how stable and lofty the basket seemed. Our ascent was fairly slow, which gave me time to get used to the height. The rising sun burning off the fog among the thousands of pagodas was spectacular, and for a moment I forgot that there sixteen of us unsecured inside a balloon rising above the trees. That, or the Xanax finally kicked in. As we continued to rise, Mike, our entertaining UK pilot from Bristol, slowly spun the balloon around so that we could see in all directions – Mt. Popa to the east, the Ayeyarwaddy River to the west! New Bagan to the south. The sunlight was beginning to hit the pagodas, making the landscape beneath us glow. Our balloon continued to rise and around 1200 feet, I decided the Xanax wasn’t strong enough, so I sat down in the basket. This helped my heights anxiety, because I couldn’t see out of the basket and there was little to no wind. I could hardly tell we were moving.

All the balloons headed in the same direction and, after about 40 minutes, we started our descent. Interestingly, the pilots had minimal control over steering, but the crews were in constant contact, so they coordinated a landing in a field. One by one, the balloons would land, their crews racing to provide assistance. Our turn came and, in case the basket tipped over, Mike ordered us into the landing position: seated, heads down, cameras away, and holding onto the rope handles. As we got closer, he released the hot air at the top of the balloon and we softly came to a rest on the ground. The crew cheered and the passengers clapped! We remained in the basket until instructed to re-enter a new corral, where champagne, croissants, and chairs were waiting for us. After a few minutes of chatting with the pilot while the crew packed up, we received our certificates and got on the bus for the trip back to the hotel.

Not that safety was ever really a concern, but I was pretty impressed with the whole operation. The company, owned by an Australian, has been flying in Bagan since 1999, so I suppose they’ve had time to get their process down. I’ll very likely never do it again, but now I can say that I survived a hot air balloon ride over Bagan in Myanmar.

imageMr. Min Min and the driver arrived around 9am to bring us to our next activity: a horse cart tour of the pagodas. We split up – Chris facing the rear and Dan sitting in front one on cart, Adam facing the rear and I sat in front with the driver on the other. Our horse was female, she was seven years old, and she obviously didn’t like the dirt roads. We cruised through the bumpy streets, winding through the small villages past half a dozen small pagodas and stupas. When we finally reached the farmland, there were stupas in every direction! It was almost surreal to think of how many images of Buddha (statues) were in Bagan if every stupa, temple, monastery, and pagoda contained at least one.

The trail was very dusty and, though the pagodas were fascinating and beautiful, I am thankful the ride only lasted one hour. We rejoined Mr. Min Min and headed to lunch at the Green Elephant, where we partially helped cook our own meal. This was a much less informative demonstration and we were happy to sit quietly, drink beer and snack on potato chips. Lunch was a typical Burmese meal of curried chicken and fish, lentil soup, white rice, vegetables and fresh fruit.

imageAfter lunch, we returned to the hotel for naps and relaxing. Later on, we rejoined Mr. Min Min for a boat ride on the Ayeyarwaddy River for sunset. Beers in hand, we chatted with our tour guide while the boat (and many others like it), climbed up the river and turned around. The engine was shut off and we “slid” back down the river watching the sun fall behind the cloud for an impressive, orange sunset. Mr. Min Min invited us for more beers in his village, so once again we piled into the van.

His village was basically the area that we had the horse cart tour through earlier. In fact, one of the cart drivers walked in shortly after we arrived. We continued our chat, comparing stories of our hometowns, snacking on potato chips. Our early morning caught up with us eventually, so we called it a night and drove back to the hotel.

Bagan is an interesting town. Where it lacked in charm and finesse, it made up for with it’s rich history. It’s not my favorite stop on the tour of Myanmar, but I am certainly glad we made the visit.