There is a spiritual nature to hot air ballooning over the Bagan Archaeological Zone. To drift quietly above the patchwork farms and ancient temples at the mercy of the breeze is a meditative experience. Watching the first golden rays of light bless the rural townships, farms and plethora of ancient temples is a sight to behold.
Bagan the mighty
Bagan is an ancient city of central Myanmar, situated on the flood plains of the Irrawaddy River (also spelt Ayeryarwaddy). Though a long-time settlement, the city peaked between the 9th and 13th centuries, beginning when King Anawrahta seized the throne in 1044.
In 1057, Anawrahta conquered the Thaton Kingdom, home to the Mon people of Lower Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. He returned to Bagan with thousands of prisoners of war that included artisans, builders and Buddhist monks. King Anawrahta took a shining to the Theravada branch of Buddhism practised by the Mons and proceeded to convert his Kingdom to the faith. This instigated a frenzy of building religious structures that continued for two centuries until Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, sent his army to successfully conquer Bagan in 1287.
Building a phenomenon
It is estimated that over this two-hundred-year golden age of Bagan, more than 13,000 religious structures including zedis (local name for stupas), temples, monasteries and libraries were constructed. The archaeological zone stretches over an area of 42 square kilometres (26 sq. mi) and showcases a number of architectural forms and decorative styles. There are remains of over 2000 of these structures still observable today, in various states of repair.
Before dawn, we are picked up in an old bus with bench seats down each side. We are jolted from our blurry-eyed state by the bumpy, dirt roads of Bagan. The bus drives us through the darkness to where the balloon crews are systematically checking equipment and laying out huge burgundy swathes of fabric. As the burners inject hot air into the billowing pockets, they slowly rise from the ground. We are briefed and loaded into the basket as the sun smolders just below the horizon. As we begin our ascent there is a mist lying over the fields and forests. Apart from the intermittent jet of the burners and click of cameras, it is quiet.
As golden hour erupts, long shadows form and the breaking day is awe-inspiring. The flat terrain provides expansive views, revealing archaeological ruins stretching between the grey Irrawaddy and the horizon. A patchwork of yellow fields is interrupted with borders of greenery. We watch the pick-up vehicles chase the balloons via rustic roads.
Seeing a dozen other hot air balloons suspended over the landscape only adds to the spectacle. The three companies are represented in their burgundy, gold and green envelopes, a colour palette that resonates throughout Myanmar.
We pass over villages with their thatched and corrugated rooves. Local people go about their early morning chores below, and children wave enthusiastically as we float by. Later we found out that our guide on the ground, had never had the opportunity to see Bagan by hot air balloon. The price tag for this privilege is not one the average Myanmarese person can afford. I wanted to shout him a ride!
Ballooning over Bagan
Arriving in Bagan, you will instantly begin to comprehend the abundance of these ancient buildings – they are everywhere! You can barely walk 20 paces without running into one, and they are all different. Each one has unique characteristics to explore and it would take forever. The most serene and spectacular way to experience the majesty of the Archaeological Zone is by hot air balloon at sunrise. That first light bathes the dry rural farmland dotted with countless brick spires in a warm golden glow that is fit for a Bagan king.
We chose Balloons Over Bagan for our flight and could not recommend them highly enough. First and foremost we felt safe with their pilots and crew, who were also very friendly and knowledgeable. Their equipment appeared to be well maintained and their staff highly trained. Additionally, their ground crews were almost all locals, which is a great show of support for Myanmar people. I hope you get the opportunity to set sail on the winds over Myanmar and enjoy hot air ballooning over Bagan.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,