A Sea of Temples beneath my Feet - In a Balloon over Bagan03.05.2016 11:30
The flame hisses right above my head. A few roasted insects fall on my sweater. I shake them off, they fall a little forward, out and over the edge of the balloon basket. They plunge down almost 200 meters, landing on a field between some of the thousands of temples and stupas here in Bagan. We float on in our hot-air balloon above the vast plain, over the next sacral building, over ocher fields and dusty roads.
It is my first balloon ride. And the giant archaeological zone of Bagan is the perfect place for it: I am in vacation mode. Getting up early is no problem, the camera is ready for shooting. And my curiosity is colossal for floating at sunrise over a mystical place, together with a dozen other giant balloons that look like UFOs from another world over the ancient temples.
It is shortly before six o'clock in the morning, as the driver drops us off at the launch site. For Myanmar, it is still relatively cold, it's dark and without street lights, I have no plan, where we are exactly in the area of Bagan. We are brought into a low-fenced "enclosure", folding chairs, tea and coffee are waiting for us. Our captain is called Stephen, he comes from England and is already in a pretty good mood. He reads out our names and warns us about leaving the fenced area carelessly. The sky is getting brighter. I can see the balloons positioned side by side, many helpers buzzing around them, preparing our flight. Stephen explains the rules and how we have to sit in the balloon. I listen to his words with tires eyes, sipping on my coffee. But as the burners are turned on, I am suddenly wide awake. The balloon-envelopes are filling up, they expand like mighty giants above our heads.
"All right, get in." Stephen grins at us, operating the burner with his fireproof gloves, while we scramble into the basket and make ourselves comfortable in the narrow sections. As soon as the 16 passengers are inside, the Englishman fires up and we slowly ascend. Only one balloon has already outpaced us, the other captains continue to ignite the gas until their baskets also gently rise from the ground.
We float. Higher and higher we go up, approaching small clouds. The finger on the camera, my eyes constantly rotate back and forth between the display and the reality. The first temples rise out of the landscape like breasts of resting giants. The tower of the Aureum hotel grows to my left side, on the right meanders the Irrawaddy river southwards. Now I realize that we have started somewhere near the golf course. Stephen clicks around on his tablet computer, showing me the starting point and the likely route that is constantly recalculated via GPS tracking. The wind is pushing us pretty much in a southerly direction. The Englishman explains the various temples, tells us how he was hired and entertains us with his anecdotes of celebrities who already flew with him ( "Bono just loved it!"). Every morning at 4 am he needs to get out, seven days in a row - and then, on his day off, he has trouble sleeping long. Then he talks about weddings and parties in Bagan, about the most faithful dog which followed the balloon-pilots everywhere, and about his Burmese workers who do a "great job". In between, he turns our basket several times 360 degrees, so that all passengers can enjoy the panoramic gaze.
Meanwhile all the balloons went up, red, yellow and green they float at different heights over the temples. "Everyone can fly high. The greatest skill is to just glide a few meters above the stupas," Stephen says while sinking our balloon a little. This morning, we do not ascend above 300 meters - but at some points we could have almost jumped out of the basket unscathed onto a stupa. The sun slowly rises on the horizon, it is still hazy on the ground, between the temples wafts the mist of the night. We fly over one of the small villages with countless corrugated iron roofs, some farmers take their herds on the fields, and on the great temples that may still be climbed, the early-bird-tourists wave to us with their cameras.
After about 100 photos and some short videos, I am letting the camera dangle, just enjoying the view. The sunlight starts to turn these temples in the midst of Myanmar into reddish colors. The gas burners hiss from time to time. Apart from that there is total silence. We drift on, until we leave the temple field behind us, only the tops of few ancient buildings continue to peep out between trees. The balloon ahead of us is already preparing to land, while below us the rustic escort vehicles breeze in. Finally, Stephen tells us to sit down. He turns on the burner some more to escape a treetop. I hear a grinding noise below the basket, then we sink further. With a slight "Boink" we touch down. The helpers come running towards us across a field, they stretch the ropes so that the basket will not rise again by a gust of wind.
When all is secure, we get up. Stephen shows us the data on his tablet computer. 55 minutes we were in the air and we covered a distance of about 20 km. He continues clicking, then suddenly he laughs and says: "This was my 100th flight over Bagan". Applause - and of course Champagne for everyone, after we are already staggering drunk with endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline from our flight.
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