It’s been a dream of mine for a very long time, to go up in a hot air balloon. It’s been a much thwarted dream as well. When I lived in the UK I was twice booked for a sunrise balloon ride, and both times got cancelled for bad weather.
I have travelled in many locations around the world that have hot air balloon rides available. But somehow they are always booked out when I get there – my local guide once said, “the flash hotels book them out well in advance for their guests, no one else can get them”. This may or may not be correct, but I am still always too late.
I did once get to go 50 metres in a hot air ballon – at a ball in London at some military barracks, where amongst the many attractions (I was also very taken by trying to ride dodgem cars in a ball gown) there was a hot air balloon. It was tethered to the ground and only allowed to go up 50 metres but I was still enraptured, and even keener to go for a real flight one day.
So heading towards Bagan, a plain of 2200 pagodas and temples, I can’t think of many locations more suited to a balloon ride. Our guide doesn’t want to get our hopes up, but as we are watching sunset across the plains from Shwe San Daw pagoda, he is working the phone – and then we get the good news – because of cancellations, 3 of us have gotten onto the sunrise flights the next morning. Queue an over-excited Vicki for the rest of the evening.
We are picked up early the next morning in the distinctive Balloons Over Bagan buses (world war 2 relics I believe) – very chilly in December, I need a fleece for warmth at this time of the day. We arrive at a sports ground where 6 flat balloons are laid out on the field, their baskets on their sides but attached, and the basket also now tethered to the bus we got picked up in. While we drink a nice warm coffee, the crew hold up the opening to the balloon and use large fans to start filling it with air.
Once the ballon is filled, but still lying on it’s side, the burners are turned on (and carefully directed through the relatively narrow neck of the balloon). The heated air starts to do its work, and slowly the balloons rise majestically into an upright position.
At this point we get our safety talk – I can’t remember much of it but it was along the lines of “get in when we tell you, try not to fall out when we are in the air, don’t stand on the seat when we are in the air or you are likely to fall out, and sit down and hold on when we land.” And “here’s a cap for each of you, wear it so you don’t burn your head”. Pretty straight forward then.
Our balloon and basket are upright, and we follow the signal to get in it – we’ve been split into 4 groups of 4, one for each corner of the balloon (they are sectioned off), with the centre space reserved for the pilot, his gas bottles, and his controls for the burners overhead. For some reason I expect there to be a lot of pfaffing around at this stage before we take off, like when you get on a plane, but no such problem here. Less than a minute after we are all in, with a couple of blasts of heat, we are suddenly floating a couple of feet of the ground, without feeling any movement at all. The crew drop the tether to the bus and we are off, rising swiftly and smoothly to 1700 metres.
This is it, the realisation of my dream, and it is truly amazing. I am floating, there is no other way to describe it. There is no sense of movement, it is more serene than I thought possible, and I have a very silly grin on my face. So what is the view like up here? – well you’ll just have to check out the next post to get an answer to that one!