What's it like to take a hot-air balloon ride over the pagodas of Bagan in Myanmar?
Awake at 5am, after barely sleeping because of my excitement, I stumble onto the bus without breakfast. It’s a delightfully retro bus, too, in keeping with the mood of Myanmar. It delivers us to a field already busy with hot-air balloons despite the fact it is still dark. Some buses have been requisitioned as a safety tether to stop any wayward balloons taking off without us. I am flying with BOB (Balloons Over Bagan) and a safety briefing accompanies a breakfast of coffee (poor), tea (good) and cookies (excellent). The balloon will take 16 passengers, split into four compartment to balance the weight, plus a pilot, Javier. He sits in the middle with the gas cylinders for company.
At 6.30am, we take off, rising slowly in the slow wind of dawn. New legislation now prohibits balloons from flying below 90 meters in height, to ease disturbances at the temples, making photography more difficult. A zoom of at least 200mm is needed to capture details of the temples. Until the sun rises, the landscape looks dull and my camera ISO jumps around. We fly slowly in parallel with the Ayeyarwady River, passing temples and pagodas slowly appearing in the growing light. The scenery is beautiful and the morning mist mixes with the white plumes of smoke from chimneys below where wood fires are being lit against the cold mornings of the Myanmar winter. We take it all in with an almost reverent silence, broken only by the sound of Javier gas-burners keeping us aloft.
The sun finally crests the horizon and everything become clearer. Shadows form. The camera is happier but there is no time to make adjustments as there is so much to take in. It’s better to live in the moment and let the auto settings do the rest. Even so, the time goes too fast. After 80 minutes, we bump down to a soft landing in a field near the road. The BOB team have followed us and quickly set up a picnic table. We revel in champagne, excellent carrot cake and other treats, and the discussion become animated. Our retro bus comes to pick us up and we are soon back at our hotel, eating a proper breakfast. But we are not really paying attention. We are still dreaming of pagodas in the morning light.