You may have seen some awesome photos on my Facebook page (if you haven't liked it already, why not!?) about a hot air balloon flight I did in Myanmar, and be wondering how I'd managed to fly in a hot air balloon. It's true – It's a little out of my $3 a day budget. I had sent an email to a hot air ballooning company offering to write an article in exchange for a complimentary balloon flight over Bagan. It was a long shot, but it can't hurt, can it? Their reply shocked me, 'Sure – would you like a balloon flight over Inle Lake too?”
I also write for a website called 'Adventure In You' which has a massive audience specialising in adventure travel in South East Asia, which is probably why the balloon company was so keen, but securing this package also reflects a nice vote of confidence in my writing ability.
Balloon Ride Over Bagan
My first flight was over Bagan, the ancient capital of a wealthy Empire which would someday form modern Myanmar. Prosperous and devoutly religious, they set about building temples and Buddhist stupas in something of a frenzy, until some 10,000 were strewn across the Bagan plains, an obscene number for so small area. Today, only a fifth (but still over 2,000!!) remain to form the breathtaking spectacle you can see today. My balloon took to the skies alongside 21 other balloons, and stayed low, floating above the temples which seemed close enough to reach out and grab.
A thick fog had rolled from the nearby Irrawaddy River overnight, and woven itself between the temples, giving the early morning scene a sense of peace and stillness. The sun broke the eastern horizon, and the temples absorbed its amber rays, displaying the golden hues in their brickwork and intricate details. The scene was ever-changing, the temples and scenery unfolding before my eyes as though revolving along a conveyor belt, with temples fading from view to be replaced by others.
Flying Over Inle Lake
I knew nothing about Inle Lake; I had only gone for the air balloon flight, but I was blown away by the lives led by the people who lived there, and their harmonious coexistence with nature.
As the balloon soared higher, I saw that the lake was sliced into narrow rows. These were the 'floating gardens'. Vegetation has been clumped together and made into these rows which are held in place with sticks of bamboo to the muddy floor of the lake. They are actually floating, and can be rearranged by removing the bamboo struts. On these floating lanes, tomatoes and other vegetables can be grown which;
a) don't need watering.
b) don't destroy the habitat for fish.
c) look really pretty from 6,000 feet above.
With a hot air balloon the wind dictates your journey, writes your story, and it decided it wanted to give us a glimpse into normal village life by blowing us directly overhead. The village was built on the lake. Yes, on. Houses were erected on stilts. Schools, shops and monasteries too. Each household had a boat moored up outside which was used to go to the shops, to drop the children at school, or for a cup of tea with the neighbours. A world away from what we would call 'normal life', and yet for those people it was exactly that. A hot air balloon drifting overhead was a pleasant break from routine, and they rushed out to wave and take photos, wearing the characteristic wide and genuine Burmese smile I have come to love.
The two balloon flights were a beautiful and memorable experience, absolutely one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar, and I hope the photos and words do some kind of justice to it. Anyway, now I'm off to ask Richard Branson if he'll send me into space in return for a article. It can't hurt to ask can it?!