Balloons over Pagan... Burma from the skies
“Start the fans,” David ordered. Instantly thinking I had reached the final stage of Richard O’Brien’s Crystal Maze, the sight of the red balloon slowly filling with air was mesmerizing.
An alarm call at 5am is not normally nice on holiday, but this one was different. We were being driven in a converted second world war Canadian bus to a playing field on the edge of Pagan (Bagan) for what would be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. Still dark when we got off the bus, we were ushered to a row of chairs and given a welcome tea and coffee. Our pilot – David from Berkshire – introduced himself and after an initial safety briefing he walked us round the field for the first look at our balloon.
I would never have thought that ballooning would be an option in Burma, let alone have a British pilot, but Balloons over Bagan, the company behind the flights, have been operating trips over the ancient city since 1999. All of their pilots are UK registered and the balloons are manufactured in Bristol; reassuring when you’re about to trust a wicker basket to carry you 300 metres above the ground. The company is very strict on whether it’s safe to fly, and often in the early part of the season (flights are from October to March) they have to cancel flights due to the weather – wind is the biggest factor in determining safety.
There are normally 10 balloons taking to the dawn skies and watching them all inflate just as it was starting to get light was fascinating. After a final safety briefing and the last gusts of air, the balloon righted itself and we climbed inside. Transfixed by the rest of the balloons being filled, I barely noticed we’d left the ground. As if by magic, a rainbow appeared over the Shwezigone pagoda in front of us and a spectacular sunrise unfolded behind us. We were off.
Apart from the noise of the gas to lift us higher, the whole flight was incredibly peaceful. The basket was divided into five sections – the central one for David and all his gas canisters, and the remaining four for us, with two passengers in each. I was amazed how much control David had, lifting us high in the sky to see the vast expanse of the temples below and then lowering down so you could see people gathered at the temples to see the sunrise from the ground. With temples of all sizes stretching as far as we could see, it is the ideal way to grasp the true scale of Pagan. Often a morning mist means the horizon is hazy, but we were treated to a rare, clear view of Mount Popa, a 90-minute drive away.
The morning breeze took us along the edge of the mighty Irrawaddy river and after 40 minutes we started to prepare to land. On occasion, the balloons have landed on sand banks in the river but David prepared us for landing in a sandy field on the edge of New Pagan, the town built by the government in the 1990s to relocate locals from the archaeological area to try to protect the temples. We took our landing positions – sitting inside the balloon with arms folded and heads down – while David brought the balloon down. His crew on the ground took the ropes and helped guide it to a less bumpier than expected landing. While the balloon deflated, we stayed inside the basket watching the crew work with military precision to tidy the ropes and balloon away. The vintage bus appeared again – a vital component as it contained our breakfast! Champagne, croissants and banana cake were served. The perfect end to a magical morning.
Cox & Kings operates tours and tailor-made travel to Burma, where an option balloon ride over Pagan can be organised. Please call a Far East specialist on 020 7873 5000 or visit the website for more details >