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Balloon Over Bagan

by Anita Brace


Wouldn’t you like to ride . . . in a beautiful balloon?  The opportunity was irresistible to a pair of shutterbugs with a yen for photo vantage points combined with a little adrenaline.  The balloon flight over the Bagan Archeological District, Myanmar (Burma),  offered magnificent views along with adventure.

 In late afternoon  the big red balloon lifted the wicker basket holding my friend Pat and me from the scrubby field.  Farmers just coming in from their fields waved and cheered.  Our 30ish English pilot, Jackie Hillbed, worked the gas valves with jet pilot finesse, alternating the “whoosh” and “roar” of the overhead burners that had periods of quiet lifting, and moved slowly with an almost imperceptible breeze. 

We planned to follow the curve of the broad Irrawaddy River south, as it meandered between shallow banks. Fields, farms and villages dotted with thousands of temples dating from the 11
th to the 18th century edged the river on the east.

The air currents traveled uncooperatively wayward, sending us drifting over the
river’s edge toward a half mile of potential wet feet, not to mention damaged camera equipment.  Did I hear “Mayday!” spoken into Jackie’s handheld radio?  Probably not . . . but I did hear her radio Bagan Air Traffic Control,  “Request permission to ascend to 3,000 feet”, and the (reluctant?) reply, “Granted, but no higher.” 

The flames from the gas jets heated our faces as we rose, up and still higher. We hovered over a landscape of green fields sprinkled with farmhouses, laced with roads carrying oxcarts, horse carriages, and goat herders, and studded with graceful pagoda spires. High enough to see the curvature of the earth, we hung almost motionless, with the balloon rotating lazily to face the wide stretch of the river,  and then the temple-accented plain bordered by mountains-- just a blue line in the distance.

Smoke from cooking fires below us drifted the wrong way, toward the river.  Jackie radioed our chase crew on the ground, “Release a black balloon.”  A small helium balloon rose slowly, changing directions as it caught the air currents at different elevations.  The breeze at one level blew the direction we needed!  With burners off, the air in our balloon cooled and sank gently until we entered the southeast air current.                     


Lower now, architectural details of the temples we passed were visible. The intricate brickwork of the 13th century Htilominlo Pagoda passed beneath us, the low sun highlighting the pyramidal crown.  A row of white stupas topped with gold ornamental umbrellas (hiti) slanted dark shadows across a brown field.  A 51 meter golden spire surrounded by four smaller spires topped the mammoth complex of the Ananda Phaya, famous for its beauty. 

Sunset watchers waved to us as we passed the 11th century Shwesandaw Temple with its five flights of almost vertical stairs and narrow terraces.  From the air, and without its lotus bud spire, it might have been mistaken for the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza.  I threw a congratulatory salute to those on the fifth level, remembering how hard I had worked to haul myself up the steep risers to only the third landing for yesterday’s sunset.    

As the sun dropped toward the western mountains, warm light turned ancient brick spires to faded rose and burnt orange, reflecting shimmers from newly-restored gold leaf and sparkling white pinnacles. Shadows lengthened and the light shone golden on fields and facades.   Our silhouette moved across the landscape, casting a sharp balloon outline as we wafted by.


Magnificent!  Incredible!  I couldn’t stop my shutter finger from stuttering through 100 photos.  Later I learned from Jackie that the record was about 600, shot by a magazine photographer on assignment.  Finally, the view captured me completely and the camera hung quiet as we floated silently along.


My friend Pat expressed it well.  “I felt suspended in time as if there were no past or future, just the ‘now’. . . in a void above a strangely flattened world.  I was alone, but at peace, enveloped by a great silence.  The earth stood still.”


Jackie commented on how quiet we’d become, as we gazed in awe at the beauty and history over which we passed.


Coming down was an anticlimax.  As we approached more closely to the ground, our skillful pilot looked for an open field without crops, at least a moderate distance from power lines and rows of tall trees.  She passed up two or three possibilities.  A flare of flame from our burners lifted us over obstacles in our downwind path.  


The right spot appeared; we drifted lower.  Landing created a little apprehension tinged with regret that the ride had ended.  Barely a bump, and we were earth-connected once more.  Another small crowd of farm families gathered to watch, as our chase crew pulled hard on tether ropes and anchored us to the bumper of the heavy hauling truck. The big basket and 20-meter-high balloon would be packed away until the next trip tomorrow morning.


A champagne cork popped!  “Cheers”, said Jackie, “and congratulations on a successful flight.”   The three of us lifted glasses to each other. 


“Jackie” I said, “what happens if you can’t find a breeze that blows you away from the river?”


 “Worst case” she answered, “is that we land on the sandbar in the middle, and wait for the crew to come and find us with a boat.  It’s happened a few times.”


 The sun dropped below the mountains across the Irrawaddy, the balloon and its crew disappeared into darkness, and Pat and I took our euphoria on our brightly painted bus back to the Bagan Hotel. 


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