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Updated: 26th August 2015
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 is, was it worth it?
Watching the sunrise here was arguably one of my happiest memories. Even without the balloon, it is still a winner, so this mixed review of great views and 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 although 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.
While 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 the point, the breathtaking views can come for free. The photo below was one of many I snapped just viewing the sunrise in Bagan from the 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 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 the weather can dictate a cancellation. So, booking for the start of your arrival in Bagan gives you more chances in case 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 lasted around 40 minutes and was 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 of the world than when I had excitedly accepted this gift.
I’m not sure why, but I expected Myanmar to be full of explorers, travellers and backpackers really trying to get under the skin of this emerging nation. A nation is still struggling politically and financially.
However, although I met a few of those people, I also came across groups too scared to leave the confines of the pages of their guides 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 feed right back into a government with problems as opposed to the people, you have to start asking questions. Here is a helpful post on travelling to 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 Frech pastries served up.
The face of reality came from CoCo. A regular resident of Bagan, trying to sell his beautiful (and frankly too cheap) artwork to us from outside the perimeter. The reality that the cost of this flight was a seriously life-changing amount for the man I was conversing with couldn’t have been any more clear.
He tried to approach us. Quietly and with no hard sell. I could see the poverty divide, literally, as a small fence got erected around us (us being the people with enough money to drink champagne at 9 am in the morning in a worker’s field after our Hot Air Ballon ride had touched down). I realised the price I had paid for this incredible moment wasn’t, in fact, that of the ticket. It was that of a moral level that money couldn’t define. But no one else acknowledged Coco other than to look away or rebuff his beautiful and frankly cheaply priced pieces.
“They came. So many people come, but they don’t buy, they don’t speak. They don’t even ask my name.” he told me, slowly rolling up my new exquisite sand painting.
This is why, I imagine, had I been on the ground in Myanmar and not been lucky enough to receive the flight as a present, I would have been unlikely to book at the last minute. Which, if you are thinking of going, needs to be booked far in advance usually.
It also has to be pointed out that entrance fees 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 NGOs 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, champagne, snacks and the flight. Due to weather restrictions, they usually only operate from October to March.