Adventures, Races, Kit and Life
Bagan is one of those places that as you cruise down from altitude towards the tiny airport, rewards you with incredible views of the surrounding landscape and the almost magical promise of a fantastic experience. It then whole-heartedly delivers.
Bagan is Burma’s greatest architectural site. It consists of 4,400 red brick temples, varying in size, status, religion, restoration and even historic importance spread across a 26 mile plain.
It’s an explorer’s wet dream, even now. You can seek out hidden passage ways; discover, by torchlight, colourful murals shrouded in darkness; venture up subtle stairways to the top of the temples and experience wonderful panoramic views of the scenery, which are delightful in daylight and also as the sun sets over the mountains.
It’s all set in rural countryside and on fertile flood plain. Ox carts roll by; farmers are hard at toil in the fields, seemingly oblivious to the string of tourists (although these only impact on a few of the more famous temples); monks clad in their orange cloaks stroll along the dusty paths from temple to temple. It has a relaxed and almost lazy pace to it and feels like stepping back in time to somewhere both natural and in tune with the environment. It is beautiful, even spiritual.
The sheer volume of temples spread over the flood plain means that it rivals Cambodia’s Anchor Watt in terms of wow factor.
In addition to this and mainly because of this, Bagan is also the world’s most highly acclaimed ballooning spot. It offers a 45 minute unique and even luxurious experience of the best of Bagan. The British run operation has ramped up over time and now runs 9 separate balloons, often twice a day. It’s a pricey $300 but take it from a tight-arsed Welshman, it’s genuinely worth it.
The experience starts very early in the morning and you wait in the pleasant, cool darkness to be picked up outside your hotel. It begins with a degree of style when the World War 2 military buses, modernised for tourists (well a lick of paint) arrive and then chug off to the take-off site. An early start is essential to make the best of the morning’s gentle breezes and also catch the perfect variety of light offered by the sunrise.
You arrive at the launch site, basically Bagan’s soccer pitch. Camp seats have been set up for the guests who are treated to tea and coffee (to help wake up sleepy eyes and balance the morning chill) as well as a range of tasty snacks whilst the organisers run through the safety briefing. It’s all awfully sophisticated. Then sit back and watch in comfort as the team inflate the balloons one by one. There is a tingle of anticipation as the heaters literally breathe fire into the deflated canopies and one by one they start to take shape and stand to obedient attention. The twilight enhances the flames’ colours and it becomes incredibly exciting to watch.
Before you know it 9 balloons stand erect and ready for take off. 8 people then clamber into each balloon, comfortably fitting into the basket, which has seats and even seat belts. Then the pilot tugs the rope and the gas heaters flare up like giant Bunson burners sending a pillar of flame into the canopy. Everyone glows red and feels the heat of the flames warm their cheeks, as the balloon slowly eases from terra firma.
Gracefully you soar upwards and out of the field, gliding through the thin band of early morning mist and up above the temples. Below, little kids fetching the morning’s water shout out, “Hello!” and wave frantically, as if they didn’t see this every single day. Before long you are soaring way above Bagan’s 26 mile plateau and its incredible temples.
Majestically you drift, absorbing every detail below. The sun steadily rises providing a range of colour and light quality which illuminates the plateau below., Gradually the experience grows and grows. The early morning oranges, reds and maroons, particularly prevalent upon the layer of dawn mist slowly surrender to the crystal clear clarity of emerging daylight. As you drift on the breeze golden temple tops are revealed popping out of the mist or a tree line and sparkle in the early morning sunlight. They really do have a Godly feel to them.
You glide over magnificent temple after temple. The larger temples filling the background provide picture perfect frames for the smaller temples directly below our balloon. It is breath taking. The balloon is at the mercy of the wind, which determines your path. The pilot is only able to control the height. He does this well and you descend to pass some of the temples incredibly closely, enabling you to really appreciate the detail of the red bricks and even the ornate carvings before ascending up again towards the clouds. This enables you to capture the more panoramic view of the broader temple field, including the famous Ayerwady River and even the auspicious Mount Popa in the far distance.
The aerial view provides a greater understanding of the temples themselves and also the surrounding grounds, which are often extensive. You become aware of the North, South, East and West gates all being slightly different and having different spiritual significance. You really get a clear understanding of the broader architecture and the effort that went into their design and construction well over 1,000 years ago.
With no noise, it is incredibly peaceful and the balloons seem to cruise along in almost slow motion providing ample opportunity for your senses to fully absorb the breadth and depth of the aerial views in all directions. There is so much to take in. The experience is even amplified by the presence of the other balloons that look like works of art themselves and even enhance the already incredible scenery. If you are lucky you can snap them as the heaters roar and capture their bright pillar of flames distinct against the morning colours.
Approximately 45 minutes later, although it seems much longer, as you have been in a state of relaxed, tranquil slow motion the whole time, absorbing the scenery like a dry sponge, you begin to drift towards the landing spot. It’s a remarkably smooth touch down and the team (who have arrived in the military buses) pack up the balloons with incredible efficiency. Meanwhile the tourists are provided with small camp chairs, a flute of champagne or two and a variety of delicious pastries, whilst you have time to excitedly reflect on the wonderful, once in a lifetime experience. As if by magic, local kids appear to sell their home made postcards – naturally of balloons floating over Bagan’s temples.
What a unique Christmas day!