BAGAN, 19 December 2019: The World Heritage town’s original hot-air balloon experience is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
The first balloon ride lifted off above the historic pagodas 31 December 1999 and survived through the thick and thin of Myanmar’s chequered history dominated by intransigent military rulers.
For decades the country was off-limits to visitors and faced international sanctions over human rights abuses.
“Balloons Over Bagan pioneered a vision of portraying Myanmar history at a time when the country was unknown to most travellers,” said parent company Memories Group’s CEO Cyrus Punof.
“Sailing through the skies in these burgundy balloons has become a once-in-a-lifetime experience for thousands of international visitors from around the world, and will continue to be for decades to come, but most importantly it has contributed hugely to the local community, including our staff, many of whom have been with us since we first began.”
There were eight passengers on board the first flight and another eight ground staff supporting the inaugural flight, none of whom had ever seen a hot-air balloon before.
Move on 20 years, and 17,500 flights later, the Balloons Over Bagan operates an average of 12 hot-air balloon flights daily and employs more than 200 ground crew.
“Following the huge popularity in Bagan, in 2013 we introduced balloons at Inle Lake, and in January 2020 we will launch in the picturesque town of Loikaw in northeastern Myanmar,” said the current general manager U Tun Thura. “And in all that time, we have never had any accidents or injuries,” he claimed. “The only ‘accidents’ we can recall are passengers dropping their phones or cameras out of the basket.”
At the height of its empire between the 10th and 13th centuries, Bagan was a cultural centre for Buddhism and boasted no less than 10,000 temples, stupas and monasteries. The kingdom collapsed in 1287 AD following successive Mongol invasions.
A devastating earthquake in 2016 destroyed some 400 temples and monuments, and major renovation plans were subsequently drawn up plus a ban was enacted to prevent visitors from climbing on the temples.
This resulted in a surge of hot-air balloon rivals, as authorities, tour operators and visitors alike began to acknowledge that ballooning was by far the most sustainable way to view the ancient ruins without damaging them. The archaeological site was finally awarded UNESCO conservation status in July 2019.
Balloons Over Bagan and its offspring, Balloons Over Inle and Balloons Over Loikaw, run flights in Myanmar’s dry season. They are part of Memories Group, which owns and operates resorts and travel experiences across the country, including its own island in the Mergui Archipelago with one resort, AweiPIla; yachting tours; eco-lodges; and Awei Metta, a resort-hotel in Yangon overlooking the country’s leading golf course.