BAGAN, 27 January 2020: A hot-air balloon flight over the ancient city of Bagan in central Myanmar must rate of one of the top ‘must-do’ experiences in Southeast Asia, with the evocative image of dozens of balloons gliding over the pagoda-strewn plains featuring on the front covers of guidebooks, magazines and brochures.
Now in its 21st year, pioneers Balloons Over Bagan (https://www.balloonsoverbagan.com/) with its distinctive burgundy-coloured balloons decorated with a gold motif logo, spread its operations to Shan state’s Inle Lake in 2013
This month the company, part of the Memories Group since late 2017, commences the second season flying at the off-the-beaten-track Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state, best known for its ‘long-neck’ Padaung women. Balloons Over Loikaw has daily flights during the short January-February season (with two-day balloon safaris in two locations also possible), while Balloons Over Inle (https://www.balloonsoverbagan.com/services/balloons-over-inle) operates from early November to mid-March, coinciding with the peak tourist months – and also the driest, calmest, coolest time of year.
Visitors to Inle Lake, the second-largest in Myanmar (116 square kilometres), invariably board a long-tail boat to explore its lake-dweller Intha villages, leg-rowing fishermen, craft workshops and floating gardens.
Travel agent Mu Kyi who works for Mr A Tun Travel ([email protected] ) in Nyaungshwe is one of a few people in the travel business from the Pa-O hill tribe minority groups. He explains that the balloon flights, as well as providing a novel way to get a real appreciation the terrain, also spark the curiosity of visitors about exploring on foot or bicycle around the lake and its hinterland.
The option of a balloon flight (USD350) gives travellers a unique bird’s eye view of the topography of the lake and its human habitation. “The view from above gives you a whole new perspective on the landscape,” says Dustin Main who runs ‘un-tours’ to Myanmar (dustinmain.com/tour-to-myanmar). Having explored on the ground – and on the water – for more than half a dozen years around Inle lake, Main says a balloon flight can reveal new insights into the lake, which is one of the highest in Myanmar at 880m (2,900 feet) above sea level.
The excursions begin pre-dawn, with early-morning wake-up calls and short transfers to Nyaungshwe’s canal jetty for those staying in the main settlement servicing the lake. Guests domiciled at resorts on the long lake itself are ferried in long-tail boats, across the lake to the western shore, to the main launch area – though this can change depending on the wind direction. As well as life-jackets, warm blankets are provided, as mornings can be misty and chilly.
After a safety briefing and hot drink, guests can observe the balloon’s inflation alongside local villagers who emerge from their houses to witness the spectacle. With just six or eight in a basket, there’s an intimate atmosphere, and mounting anticipation. Veteran Yorkshire pilot Dave Sutcliffe adds some humour to proceedings, alleviating the nervous expectation fueled by caffeine.
Once the balloon is upright, guests are invited to clamber aboard the wicker basket, assisted by the energetic, smiling local crew, and passengers assume a sitting position for the few moments of take-off. Smoothly airborne, the balloon drifts with the light winds, though there is no sensation of any breeze. As the earth falls away, more of the watery world unfolds below.
Fields, some green with vegetation, others fallow or waterlogged are laid out in every direction. The boundary between solid land and water is blurred. Beyond the fields, there are rows of floating gardens, built on lake weed and secured with bamboo sticks, growing tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, lettuces, gourds and flowers. Intha fishermen can be seen paddling standing upright in small wooden canoes between the rows.
As the sun rises, it illuminates the ridge of the western ranges which hem in the lake. Families appear in the windows of wooden stilt houses to wave and call out. No flight is the same, the balloon able to be rotated and ascended or descended, but not steered. Some flights glide along over the floating gardens, stilt-house villages, and golden-spire pagodas. In contrast, others may climb several thousand metres and fly over the mountain range, landing among forests of pine, sandalwood, eucalyptus and tamarind where Pa-O and other hill-tribe minorities reside, farm and forage. Flights last an hour or more, with the dedicated balloon crew tracking the flight and arriving in time to assist with landing and sometimes re-positioning the balloon.
After touching back onto Mother Earth, a light breakfast of pastries and fruit are served, including a toast with sparkling wine, and the pilot hands out flight certificates, while the crew scurry about taking down the balloon. Passengers are then taken by minivan (and boat) back to their accommodation, in time to enjoy a second breakfast at their hotel. Photos taken during the flight by a mounted camera, showing the basket, balloon base and backdrop, are available for download soon after.
While part of the grandeur of balloon flights over Bagan is the skies full of other balloons, Balloons Over Inle often only has one balloon airborne, meaning passengers enjoy a more exclusive, personal experience.