Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Midair Grand Finale

Getting a wake-up call at 4:30 in the morning was not something I particularly looked forward to, but the reason why I was up that early is. I concluded my 5 quick days in Myanmar with a bang by getting on a hot-air balloon on my last day in Bagan, just before I took the morning flight back to Yangon and then home the same evening. I have never been in a hot-air balloon before in my life, nor I saw one up close in person, and looking at those iconic pictures of the giant balloon flying over the pagodas in almost every guide book and travel site, I couldn’t think of a better place to do it for the first time than in this picturesque town.

Okay, maybe I should get that question in everyone’s mind answered first before I go on sharing my experience. I personally do not know how safe flying a hot-air balloon is in general, as compared to being on a commercial jet or ski lift or driving a car, but I don't personally consider this a high-risk activity, and I never had the faintest concern over my well-being before, during and after my flight.  The equipment was from overseas, so were the pilots, and on the day of my flight – which is not even the most prime travel season - they got over 12 balloons flying, so presumably they know what they are doing and have plenty of experience of it.

There were 3 operators in the area, and the one I went with was called Golden Eagle Ballooning, which is the one recommended by my travel agent who arranged everything for me at Bagan, and with their main office right at my hotel it’s even easier for me to re-confirm my flight in case there’s any last minute adjustment required (they may cancel the flight at last minute depending on weather condition, and in that case you will be given a refund) I know nothing about the other 2 operators, but judging from the number of balloons they flew on the day of my flight, they were more or less similar in terms of operation scale.

Given it’s my first time on a balloon, I didn’t know what I should bring in terms of camera equipment so I brought along with me many just in case - turned out I didn't make use of most of them (just too much hassle switching lens in a tight space and time-frame). It’s still completely dark when I was picked up by the operator shuttle at 5:15am, then after a few more stops to pick up more passengers from different hotels around Bagan, the driver took us to the lift-off site which is in the northern part of Bagan near Nyaung-U, at least that’s what my iPhone GPS told me.

We began with a quick and easy breakfast with pastries and much-needed coffee at the site – considered the remote location they did reasonably well with a comfortable setup, with proper tables and chairs and tablecloths and everything really. Soon our pilots and the crew appeared and began with the welcome speech and introduction and then split us into 3 different groups. Each balloons can take up to 12 passengers but on the day of my flight, there’s only 9 in the group, which means there were more space in the basket cabin and more comfortable.

Josef our pilot then drew everyone in the group close to our hot-air balloon and began the safety briefing – how to get on, how to get off, what we can do, what we can’t in mid-air etc – just as the ground staff completing the final preparation for the flight. The sky has brighten up somewhat while they were preparing, with the official sunrise time imminent, and they started the burner to inflate the balloons.

I don’t know how to describe but the scenes of seeing that many giant balloons slowly getting ready were memorable enough. Turned out we were the first one that’s ready to take off and so, with the instruction from Josef we each crawled into the different sections of the basket and before I knew it, we were off the ground. The flying experience was definitely unlike flying on a plane or riding on a cable car - it’s much quieter, almost like you were floating in mid-air, only interrupted by the occasional roaring of the fire burner when the pilot need to get to a higher altitude. And there’s no windows and we were moving in such slow speed that I did feel like I was flying, in a sense.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The sky was kind of hazy the day I was up there, but still I was able to take some decent shots of sunrise using my longest lenses on my DSLR. And my 360-degree camera toy also came in handy to take those amazing wide-angle shots. During our flight, Josef would point out various remarkable archaeological sites in Bagan, most of which I have visited just the previous day. But it’s so much interesting looking at them at an entirely different angle, and I could also see the plains and forests surrounding this beautiful town of thousands pagoda. There were quite a number of other balloons too, and each operators all flew off from a slightly different sites so we only saw them far apart.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The balloon didn’t get as close to the pagodas as I expected (because of safety precaution I assume, to us and to the pagodas) so the zoom lenses came in handy. And I also stopped and just sunk into that feeling of floating in mid-air, looking over the fields with totally unobstructed view and infinite sight of greens and pagodas, and just let the wind took us to wherever it blew towards.

On the brochure it mentioned each flight took around 45-60 minutes, depending on the weather condition. Turned out ours happened to be the one staying the longest in the air and closer to the 60 minute mark – we saw the others well on the ground just as we made the descent and final approach. Lucky us! Soon after Josef told us to get into the landing position (sitting inside the basket with knees slightly bent and hands holding the rail), we have safely landed, not on the original take-off site but in an alternative site in the south near New Bagan. The ground crew was quick to get to where we were (all the staff including the pilots were in constant radio communications throughout the flight) and set up the table for our after-flight drinks (champagne of course, what else) and more snacks (the banana bread was excellent, by the way).

And after the time to relax and enjoy the beautiful morning, reminiscing the unique flight experience and receiving the certificate (“it didn’t give you the license to fly a balloon by yourself”, our pilot has reminded us), we were driven back to our hotels via the same shuttle that took us earlier. It’s only 9am when I reached “home”, so plenty of time for me to have a second breakfast at the hotel patio before I need to pack up, be picked up by my tour guide Mr B and the driver, and head to the airport to bid farewell to Bagan.

When I was planning for the trip, I hesitated whether to take the hot-air balloon not because of safety but the price (it cost more than my round-trip ticket to Myanmar), but at the end I think the experience was well worth it, and Bagan was the perfect place to do it for the unique view the balloon offers and the chance to see from a totally different angle. It’s truly memorable and that also brought my Myanmar trip to an end with a grand finale journey.

(And that's the last piece of my Myanmar Journey. Thanks for reading guys!)

More pictures from my Myanmar journey:

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