It might stretch your travel budget, but a hot-air balloon ride over the temple-studded plain at Bagan is an unforgettable experience.
By YE MON | FRONTIER
BAGAN’s status as one of Myanmar’s most popular domestic and international tourist destinations has been enhanced by its addition in June this year to the World Heritage list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO.
The temple-studded plain of the ancient Bagan kingdom covers a vast area beside the Ayeyarwady River and the options that visitors have for exploring it at ground level range from rented bicycles to horse-drawn carriages.
For those with the budget, one of the most spectacular options for viewing the temples is a trip in a hot-air balloon, which have been floating through the skies over Bagan for 20 years.
The service was pioneered by “Balloons over Bagan”, which received approval from the military government’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to operate hot-air balloons at Bagan in 1999. Balloons over Bagan was one of the first commercial hot-air balloon operators in Southeast Asia.
In 2013, three companies linked to businessman Mr Serge Pun bought the operator of Balloons over Bagan, Shwe Lay Ta Gun Travels and Tours, and in 2017 the business and Pun’s other tourism assets were spun off into a Singapore-listed company, Memories Group.
Growth in the tourism industry after the transition to semi-civilian government in 2011 encouraged more operators to begin flights in Bagan, beginning with Oriental Ballooning in 2013. The following year Golden Eagle Ballooning and STT (Shin Than Thu) Ballooning launched flights. Most of the pilots are from Britain.
The hot-air balloons that ride the thermal currents over Bagan soon after sunrise in the dry season provide an unforgettable birds-eye view of temples, villages, farmland and, in the distance, the Ayeyarwady River gliding slowly down towards the delta.
The ballooning season is from early October to April, as they do not operate during the rainy season when weather conditions can be turbulent.
Hot-air ballooning is not cheap.
Balloons over Bagan offers classic and premium flights, costing each passenger US$350 and $450 respectively. The classic service, with up to 16 passengers in a big wicker basket, includes breakfast. The premium service is for a maximum of eight passengers in a smaller basket who enjoy a more substantial breakfast that includes champagne and cheese.
The flights are supported by a ground crew that begins preparing the balloons at a launching ground not far from New Bagan at about 3am. Balloons over Bagan uses a fleet of vintage buses to collect passengers from hotels at about 5.30am.
When the passengers arrive at the landing ground, where the dominant background sound is the roar of the gas-fired burners slowly filling the balloons with hot air, they are divided into groups and introduced to their pilot, who will give a safety briefing. It includes the easiest way of climbing into the basket and how to sit when the balloon is landing. The passengers are also served tea, coffee and biscuits.
As a safety precaution, pregnant women and children aged under 10 are not permitted to join the flights.
By the time the safety briefing has ended, the balloons are almost completely inflated with hot air.
When the balloons are ready to lift-off, the pilot will ask the passengers to climb into the basket and to demonstrate how they must sit for the landing.
It’s an exhilarating experience to ascend into the cool morning air with the sun low in the sky and enjoy a 360-degree view of Bagan at a height of between 275 metres and 366m, though sometimes the balloons climb as high as 500m.
The balloons are forbidden by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism to fly too close to the temples to avoid any possibility of a mishap that would result in damage to priceless heritage architecture.
The flights last about 45 minutes and the balloons land in fields in a hotel zone near the Bagan-Chauk Road. The pilots radio ahead so that some members of the ground crew are in position for the landing and others can begin preparing breakfast.
As the balloon descends, the pilot instructs the passengers to be seated and brace for the landing, when the basket might bump on the ground a few times before it is seized by members of the ground crew and brought to a halt.
Apart from being served breakfast, the passengers also receive a certificate as a memento of their adventure in the skies over Bagan.
Then they board a vintage bus and return to their hotels at about 9am.
Editor’s note: The writer travelled as a guest of Memories Group.