Watching the sunrise over Bagan and seeing the old Pagan Kingdom in all its glory had always been on my bucket-list
What wasn’t on my bucket-list was dropping a crazy amount of money to see it ($300+). A very generous birthday present, however, meant I could witness this landscape that is literally littered with pagodas, we’re talking over 2000 temples, from a bird’s eye view.
The important question, was it worth it?
Earlier this week I wrote about the ten most breathtaking places I had seen on my travels. Sunrise here came top of the list and even without the balloon it is still a winner, so this mixed review of great views yet self-questioning might come as a contradiction.
The history of the ancient Pagan Kingdom always fascinated me at school, it is not easy to summarise in a few sentences so as always Wiki is the place to go.
To be very brief: The Pagan Empire started from what we now know as Bagan and was essentially the start of bringing together what we know as modern-day Myanmar, or previously, Burma. The history is rich, going back to the 9th century and all through an earthquake struck Bagan in 1975 over 2000 temples still survived and you could easily spend days on end exploring and soaking it all up.
Whilst you are most likely to arrive in Bagan on one of the many tourist buses that ply this route, and usually at some stupid time in the morning ready for sunrise the preferred route of travel is on the waterways. The seasonal dependent slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan will not only let you take in some beautiful landscapes but also take an insider look into local life along the Ayeyarwady river.
Back to point, the breathtaking views can come for free. The photo below was one of many I snapped just viewing the sunrise in Bagan from a top of one of the many temples.
Balloons over Bagan
The longest operating and most widely recognised of the outfits offering flights is Balloons over Bagan.
With a surprisingly great communication from their offices in Myanmar booking and arranging your flight in advance is easy and very advisable to get the date you want.
It is worth noting that if weather dictates a no-fly then booking for the start of your arrival in Bagan gives you more chance incase of any problems.
The trip starts with an early morning pick up in a converted bus. On arrival at the launch site coffee is served before the pre-flight briefing.
These guys are professional for sure. Our pilot had been in the industry for over 20 years and certainly knew his stuff.
The Balloons over Bagan flight last around 40 minutes and is truly breathtaking. Watching the sunrise and the mist slowly lift over the landscape of temples leaves you in awe and the flight experience itself is something I would highly recommend.
Where it all went wrong…
See, the problem of having a travel plan booked so far in advance is that travel shapes and changes us. By the time I reached Bagan I had gained a different view on the world than when I excitedly accepted this gift.
I’m not sure why but I expected Myanmar to be full of explores, travellers and backpackers really trying to get under the skin of this emerging nation which is still struggling politically and financially.
In-fact however, although I met a few of those people, I also came across group too scared to leave the confines of the pages in Lonely Planet and a lot of middle-aged, wealthy, tour bus travellers.
In itself, there is nothing wrong with that, but in a country where the types of hotels and transport provided by many of these tours feeds right back into a government with problems as a-pose to the people you have to start asking questions. Here is a helpful post on travelling Myanmar Responsibly
Although Balloons over Bagan isn’t government-owned, fresh from landing the reality smacked me in the face.
Champagne bottles were popped, little fences erected around us and french pastries served up.
The face of reality came from CoCo. A regular resident of Bagan, trying to sell his beautiful (and frankly dirt cheap) art work to us from outside the perimeter. The reality that the cost of this flight was a seriously changing amount for the man I was conversing with couldn’t have been any more clear.
Which is why, I imagine, had I been on the ground in Myanmar and not have been lucky enough to receive the flight as a present I would have been unlikely to book last-minute. Which, if you are thinking of going needs to usually be booked far in advance.
It also has to be pointed out that entrance fee’s to even access Inlay or Bagan are charged and go to the government. There does however seem to be more and more groundwork between the government and NGO’s to make a difference, though how much we can really understand the outside world is debatable.
Balloons over Bagan flights start at $320 inclusive of pick up, that champagne, snacks and the flight. Due to weather restrictions they usually only operate from October to March.