Sorry for all the dreamy language and travel writing clichés this post contains. This was my favorite travel experience to date, and I can’t help but gush when I talk (or write) about it!
Want to skip to my video of my sunrise balloon ride in Bagan? Click here.
15 years ago, sitting in my 9th grade Geography class, I opened my textbook to look up a fact during a study session. Flipping through it, I stopped on a page in the Southeast Asia chapter when a photo caught my eye. It was a shot of a dozens of temples peeking out from a behind a red haze, sprawled out over a flat landscape that seemed to go on for miles.
I remember being struck by the photo for reasons I wasn’t sure of. Silence and mystery seemed to emanate from the page, and I could almost feel how ancient these structures were. Where did they come from? And how old were they? It looked like an illustration from a fairytale book or a fantasy novel. Underneath the photo, there were these words: Bagan, Myanmar.
A few years later, when in the depths of my travel obsession in college when I would spend days on the Lonely Planet website researching locations I never dreamed I would actually get to go to, I found another photo of the temples, this time with hot air balloons floating above them in early morning light.
I felt the same rush I’d felt when I saw the first photo. The temples of Bagan had already seemed magical to me, but now they felt like they were straight out of a dream. I told myself that someday, I would get there. It felt like a nearly impossible goal to achieve – few people in my family have left the state of Texas, let alone traveled to the other side of the world. But I knew I’d get there.
Cut to ten years later. I pile out of a van at 5:30am with a handful of other sleepy travelers. We follow our driver across a field in the darkness, led by his blinking flashlight. Set tables with white tablecloths come into focus and I’m directed to sit at one of them. It was time for a pre-dawn breakfast, but I wasn’t very hungry – my stomach had been lurching with excitement since my alarm had first gone off at 4:45am.
My friend Kat from Germany sits down next to me, yawning. When I told my tour group that I’d be dishing out the $400 for the sunrise balloon ride over the temples, she was the only one who’d wanted to join. Though I’d only known her a few days, I was happy to have someone to share the experience with. Waiters served us a hearty breakfast, and I sipped as much coffee as I could. I wanted to be as alert as possible in the next hour.
A few minutes later, a rep from Oriental Ballooning introduces himself and assigns us to our pilot, Piers. After a quick briefing about takeoff and landing procedures, we wait as he directs the young men that are starting to inflate our balloon. I’ve never seen the process of hot air balloon inflation before. Giant fans are brought in to blow up the balloon while on it’s side, then burners heat the air until it lifts up above the basket, ready for takeoff.
We hopped in and braced as Piers called orders into a walkie-talkie, firing the burners into the balloon. He warned us that winds could be strong, so we’d need to take off quickly. We braced as he blasted the heaters into the balloon, and suddenly I felt the earth fall away below us. Piers gave us the okay to stand up. We were airborne!
I’ve never been in a hot air balloon before. It’s not unlike my experience paragliding, except that the quiet morning air was interrupted every twenty seconds with the burst of the burners as we gained altitude. It felt smoother, and I love the gliding feeling as we watched the farmland drift below while more balloons took off behind us.
Piers tells us that 21 balloons would be up in the air today, the maximum allowed by the local government. Three companies run these sunrise tours – Balloons Over Bagan (the oldest company), Oriental Ballooning and Golden Eagle. As we watched other balloons float past us, I was glad we’d chosen Oriental because we only had 6 other people in the balloon with us. Some of the ones from the other companies had up to 16 crammed into one big basket!
The sun was gaining piercing brightness when the last balloon took off, and suddenly the fleet was heading south, towards the temples. Bagan has over 2,000 temples spread out within it’s borders, many of which are over 700 years old. Most of them are made of rich red brick, though there are some white, grey, and even gold variations. Some are stupas and don’t allow entry, others have vast caverns inside holding giant buddhas and elaborate mural paintings.
But I’d examine the temples later. For now, I watched as they floated into view in the hazy morning light, like ghosts emerging from the mist. Silently, we passed over the giant Dhammayangyi Temple, abandoned, and then over another multi-tiered stupa with sunset-gazers waving at us from the roof.
It was a feast for the eyes. It seemed like every direction I looked, it was another jaw-dropping view of temples and misty, mysterious landscape. I had been worried that I’d built this up in my mind for too many years that it would be a let down, but it was even more amazing than I’d imagined it would be. A truly magical experience, one I won’t forget for the rest of my life.
After what felt like only a few minutes (it was actually nearly 45) Piers told us we’d be landing soon and we needed to sit down and prepare. I sighed, put my camera away and braced for impact. We landed delicately on the soft shores of the Ayeyarwaddy River. After disembarking, we shared a champagne toast to celebrate the momentous morning. Nothing could have wiped the smile from my face.
I remembered my 15-year-old self sitting in geography class, dreaming about a place I never imagined I would actually see for myself. It made me wonder about all the other places in far away lands I’ve seen only in pictures, and if someday I’ll be able to see those too. It certainly seems more possible now, more than ever.
If you want to get a taste of how magical the ride was, check out this short video I edited together from that morning!
Have you ever been somewhere or done something you’d been dreaming about for over a decade? Did it measure up to your expectations?