By now, images of hot air balloons dispersed across the skyline of Bagan are almost synonymous with travel in Myanmar. With my (very) short itinerary in this picturesque architectural town, ballooning seemed like a beautiful and memorable way of viewing the immense number of pagodas (it's estimated that there are about 2200 temples and pagodas that remain today- there were over 10,000 during the kingdom's heyday from the 11th-13th centuries) scattered across the sparse landscape.
I took the plunge online with Oriental Ballooning and crossed my fingers after submitting my credit card info, aware that all flights are dependent on weather conditions. Fortunately, all of the stars aligned that morning for a prime flying experience. [A little aside- I was impressed with the speed and politeness of their correspondence up to the day of pickup, which gave us confidence about this pricey experience]
On the morning of the scheduled flight, we waited in the lobby in the dark for the 5:30am pickup. We were driven to a field where tables were set up for a light breakfast and tea with the opportunity to chat with other basket-mates before the flight. As the sun began to peek out, the pilots introduced themselves and called out the passengers riding with them.
After a safety briefing, we watched in fascination as these simple yet magnificent contraptions got prepped for takeoff. 12 of us climbed into each balloon (4 baskets, 3 people per basket, not including the pilot) I'm not sure what I expected but everything about the experience was very gentle; we floated off the ground slowly as the landscape below seemed to pull away. Something to get used to is the sound and sensation of the hot air blowing every few minutes almost right above your head. Despite (or because of) the haziness in February (word on the street is that the sunrise is much clearer later in the year) I enjoyed the soft light and cinematic views of the cloudy sky.
Our pilot talked us through the flight, pointing out some of the main temples in Bagan such as Ananda, Sulemani and Dhammayangyi (pictured above). Soon, the sun was up and it was time to secure a landing spot. The magical thing about ballooning is that while they all take off from the same spot, your path literally goes with the wind.
It was interesting to learn that many of the empty fields below have now been designated as a new hotel zone to accommodate all of the tourists interested in visiting Bagan, and I was told that soon, the balloons will end up landing farther and farther out from the center of Bagan. Like many other developing countries, this popularity can go both ways. While more lodging would certain make a trip more economical for many visitors (room rates in Myanmar seemed relatively expensive due to limited supply), only time will tell if it is possible to preserve the authenticity of the local lifestyle and integrate as many locals as possible into the tourism industry during this period of incredible growth.
If you have a few minutes (2 minutes and 21 seconds, to be exact), I invite you to experience the weightlessness of drifting gently along the horizon.
Our pilot navigated us to a soft open field for landing. I loved observing the crew of about 10 men taking down the balloon, wrestling with the billowy fabric that just a few minutes ago was capable of transporting us across Bagan.
Oriental Ballooning Lanmadaw, Hman Kyo Quarter, Nyaung Oo
Online reservations recommended.
[We found out that the government allows a limited number of balloons up in the air at once over Bagan and the operating companies split that quota. If you're deciding between which company to fly with, they all take off from the same field at around the same time, so it could just be a matter of availability.]