Apparently, hot air ballooning over the thousands of pagodas in Bagan is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar. Unfortunately, the hot air balloon season ended the day before we arrived in Bagan – BUT the well-prepared leader who organized our Myanmar adventure, Kristine (founder of Be The Change Global Outreach), contacted a ballooning company months before we arrived and convinced them to extend the season so that we could experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Oriental Ballooning Bagan picked us up from the hotel at 5:30 am and drove us to the launch site about five minutes away. There were tables set up with coffee and pastries for us to munch on while the hot air balloon pilots readied the equipment. There were 5 balloons going up this morning with eight passengers per basket – luckily two people from our ten-member team did not want to participate in the balloons so we had just enough people to fill our own basket.
Captain Jason from Canada flew our balloon, he flies balloons all over the world for tourism purposes and also races hot air balloons (of note, he said his favorite hot air balloon experience is flying over the Serengeti in February because the ground is covered in new born wildlife animals, he described it as a “safari from the sky”). Our group was divided into pairs to occupy each of the four compartments of the basket with Captain Jason occupying the center. Jason told us the max height for this flight would be 2,000 feet; a few people in our balloon, myself included, were worried about being fearful at such heights in a balloon, but Jason put us at ease and the balloon basket really feels more substantial and restrictive than it appears. The basket came up to my shoulders so I felt very grounded and secure in the space, not at all at risk of toppling out – I actually never felt fearful at all after we left the ground (much to my surprise).
I was a little disappointed by the air quality (common theme in Myanmar), the view seemed a bit hazy and I couldn’t see in every direction as far and clear as I had imagined. The sights were spectacular nonetheless, with pagodas of all sizes and significance being pointed out throughout the 2+ hour ride. It was also neat to see the other balloons floating around us and to see the changing perspective of the landscape as our aircraft moved higher or lower in the sky. Jason landed the balloon on a small patch of land in the middle of the Irrawaddy River where a crew had set up a table with champagne and fruit to welcome us back to the ground. We toasted the adventure and thanked our pilot for an informative and safe flight. We rode a small wooden boat down the river to Old Bagan where a van was waiting to pick us up and take us back to the hotel. The balloon experience was expensive (~$400usd per person) but the rest of this trip was so incredibly cheap that this was worth the splurge – I would really recommend taking the opportunity to hot air balloon at some point, somewhere (bucket list!).
We made it back just in time to catch the end of the complimentary hotel breakfast. The Hotel Yadanarbon breakfast buffet (included in cost of stay) was surprisingly robust with stir fried noodles, mohinga, salad fixings, fruit, pastries, eggs, bacon, juices, tea and coffee. We ate our fill and then decided to set out in search of souvenirs. Most of us opted for pedaled bicycles to get around town today, I can’t recall the exact cost but it was less than the electric bikes so probably $2-4usd for the day. There are plenty of shops along the road between New Bagan to Old Bagan (exactly as it sounds – Old is where locals live and have established residences for many, many years; New is primarily vendors and new hotels where tourists stay). All of these shops sell the same types of souvenirs that are sold outside of the pagodas (lacquerware, longyis (Burmese skirt), linen tops, sand paintings, jade pieces, etc.) and it is very difficult to differentiate between the quality in many circumstances though prices vary widely. I bought a lacquer clutch purse which I got pretty cheap due to someone else’s bargaining tactics – everything is less expensive in bulk so a fellow traveler in our group named a “3 for …” price and I ended up paying 8,000 kyats (~$6) for the clutch. The woman in this stall had a lacquer plate she was working on so we were able to see a little bit of the skill that goes into these crafts.
A couple of us stopped into a jewelry shop off Kayay Street which was quaint and homey, the owner was really sweet and answered all of our questions about the variation in quality and price of the stones. We also went into a small stall that had a variety of beautiful fabrics which a co-traveler requested to be made into a longyi, the shop owner even offered to deliver it to our hotel later that evening when it was complete. While one friend was in another shop making a deal, I was standing outside by my bike and a group of four young boys ran up smiling and pointing at the side of my backpack; I had stuffed airplane snacks in the side of the bag for this very opportunity. I dispersed the snacks I had on me and then the boys (ages 5-9 I’d guess) started showing us the postcards they were selling and just asking for money. One boy had a stack of foreign currency and would approach tourists saying “where are you from?” then proceed to name the country for each foreign bill in his stack and ask for the tourist’s hometown currency for his collection (pretty smart kid!). The boys followed us around to a couple of different shops and eventually a couple from our team decided to treat them to ice cream, the boys were thrilled!
After a few hours of bicycling and souvenir hunting, we went back to the hotel where my roommate and I decided to go for a swim. The pool was just the right temperature, no cold shock upon entering but cool enough to be a reprieve on a hot day. After our swim, we grabbed some snacks at the hotel restaurant – fried spring rolls and fresh papaya juice. The fresh papaya juice was so good, it tasted like a thick smoothie; I enjoyed this treat frequently during my stay in Myanmar.
Our group arranged for a sunset dinner cruise with Cruise de Bagan for the evening, we paid 30,000 kyat (~$20usd) per person for the 4 hour tour. This price included pickup at our hotel just after 4 PM, a complimentary cocktail once onboard, full dinner service and then transfer back to our hotel at the end of the night. This cruise was a great experience, the sunset over the river and sites of the pagodas at dusk were very memorable. Our group of ten was accompanied by another group of four and that’s it; just fourteen total patrons, though the dining room had space for 60+. There is a full bar on board the boat with 1,000 kyat beers and 3,000-6,000 kyat cocktails and fresh juices. There was a live band playing on the upper deck, they were lively and fun. The food was tasty too; mixed veggies, a couple of curries – typical Burmese food as we’d come to know it, but not as greasy and heavy as we’d previously experienced. After dinner we relaxed on the lounge chairs of the upper deck and I may have drifted off to sleep. We made it back to the launch point around 8:30 pm where the van was waiting to return us to the hotel. And that was it for Bagan, we would head to Inle the next morning.