Bagan’s balloonists face stiff winds in the dwindling sky over Myanmar’s temple landscape. We meet the plucky pilots who navigate from small baskets.
The air is clear. There’s barely a cloud or the slightest breeze in evidence. But Andy Davey’s gaze is trained on a small gray ball hanging high in the cobalt sky. He wrinkles his brow, mutters something indistinguishable, and sips his coffee. Is there a storm brewing up there?
It’s nearly 4:30 am, and we’ve been standing in a field for almost an hour, waiting to take off. The beams of flashlights are dancing across the dry grass all around us. Dozens of young men are driving tractors back and forth, tugging on ropes, heaving bottles of propane onto their narrow shoulders, yelling orders. Suddenly, things move fast. Davey points to one of the wicker baskets beneath the huge red tarpaulins billowing overhead like giant jellyfish that glow intermittently. Climb in, sit down, hold tight. He turns the valves, checks the frequencies of the three radios, gives the thumbs-up, grabs the burner lever – and we lift off.
Andy Davey, 51, is a balloonist from Bristol, England, who has flown all over the world: the Fiji Islands, the South of France, the Alps, Chile and Cyprus. Between October and March, for a company called “Balloons over Bagan,” he takes tourists into the sky over one of the largest historical monuments in Southeast Asia. Bagan, 36 square kilometers of officially designated “Archeological Zone,” encompasses more than 2000 temples, burial mounds, monasteries, stupas and pagodas, some of them over a thousand years old. Nowhere in the world are there so many Buddhist structures in such a small area.
The tall man with the broad smile likes to talk about the difficulties of ballooning in Myanmar; the unpredictability of rainfall and winds between the Monsoon and dry seasons; how even cumulonimbus clouds 200 kilometers away can affect the wind’s speed and direction; how a temperature difference of just two degrees Celsius can affect buoyancy. Davey is fascinated by the weather, and going with the wind is an adventure every time. “You never know where you’ll end up.”
But in Myanmar, the real turbulence occurs on the ground. In 2010, after decades of military dictatorship, the country held its first free election, the EU lifted its sanctions, and Barack Obama paid a visit. Between 2014 and 2015, foreign investment doubled. Official tourist figures for 2010 stood at roughly 800 000, but the estimate for 2016 is closer to six million. Myanmar is opening up so rapidly that the government, worried about its cultural heritage, is constantly passing new laws – some for the preservation of Bagan. Since the fall of 2015, balloons have no longer been permitted to take off or land in the temple area and must keep at least 90 meters between themselves and the buildings, twice as much as before. Also, they may not overfly the center of the zone except for an emergency. The Ministry of Culture’s reasoning: The balloons could knock the towers down and set the temples on fire. Davey says that no such thing has ever occurred.
He was there in 1999 before any commercial tours existed and all you needed was permission from the monasteries’ most senior monk to fly over their heads. Seventeen years on, 21 red, yellow and green balloons rise into the sky every day in the high season, with two other companies running balloon trips, too.
Davey’s colleagues come from all over the world: Javier from Spain, Paolo from Italy; chief pilot Bart is Belgian, and Milton and Elly, the only female pilot on the team, are both from New Zealand. They all rely on their intuition, not just on weather models. On occasion, they have had to land outside an airport or a town, and even on a freshly sown field of beans. They often lay bets as to who will actually land on the designated spot.
As we glide through the air, the sky turns gold and saffron. Below us, peasants drive their water buffalo across the fields. The balloon’s shadow dances on the treetops, and beyond them, the Irrawady River is a pale-blue serpent meandering across a countryside framed by white sandbanks and hills on the horizon.
For a long time, the military junta disregarded Bagan’s cultural treasures. Collapsed temples were cobbled together with modern bricks; cheap mortar was used to patch up crumbling stucco while hotels with pools and golf courses sprang up between the sacred buildings. Pagodas were closed and used as venues for exclusive dinners, and in 2005, an ugly concrete observation tower mushroomed out of the plain. The Buddhist heritage site was turning into a Southeast Asian Disneyland. A severe earthquake (6.8 on the Richter scale) hit the region on August 24, 2016, damaging many of the buildings. With an application pending for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the government now wants to show just how serious it is about protecting Bagan.
Despite the political confusion, Davey is glad he and his colleagues are still allowed to fly at all. “For many years, we were able to do what was strictly regulated in other parts of the world.” In private, the balloon pilots say that the government needs a scapegoat for everything that’s out of control in Bagan: the machinations of the old guard of corrupt military men; the wholesale incineration of waste; the building boom that continues unabated despite a building ban.
The pilots rely less on computers and more on instinct when they fly
The UNESCO office in Bangkok wouldn’t say whether or not they thought the balloons posed a genuine risk, and the head of the culture department, Bich Hanh Duong only expressed official support for the preservation of the temple site, adding that the same standards applied to Bagan as to comparable UNESCO sites. The reality looks a little different: The royal city of Luang Prabang in Laos retains its title, even though some 50 000 people live in its direct vicinity. Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia were included in the list individually, without being lumped together with other buildings in a large protected area. And hundreds of balloons fly over Cappadocia’s protected fairy chimneys every day.
Many visitors to Bagan come just for the balloon flights. In the past season, Balloons over Bagan alone had over 22 000 passengers. The ride costs 330 dollars, a price many regard as fair for such an unforgettable experience. Not only hoteliers, restaurant owners, souvenir vendors and the balloonists themselves benefit, but also the 200 locals who work for Balloons over Bagan. They are paid all year round, even in the off-season. On long days, the pilots give them an extra tip. When a vacancy opens up, it attracts hundreds of candidates. A flight ban would be a bitter setback for the region. “We have to stick to the rules or ballooning in Bagan will be a thing of the past,” says Davey. “This also means that we sometimes have to disappoint passengers.” Like they did yesterday. The wind was all wrong, so the balloons had to take off far to the south and set a northeasterly course, traveling at two knots, which is too slow. They were forced to come down before they even reached the pagodas, so the only temples the passengers got to see were on the postcards that are always handed out at the end of a trip. But today we are in luck. We can see pointed towers and massive buildings rising from the morning mist. There’s golden Shwezigon Pagoda, boxy Thatbinnyu Temple gleaming white in the distance, and Shwesandaw Pagoda with a large platform from which you look out over a wide expanse of copper-colored earth and dense rainforest. This, says Davey, is where he best loves to fly. Is he anxious about the future? “No. It’s always been the same in this country.” But if necessary, he and the other balloonists will move on. “We fly where the wind takes us.”
Our author was not happy about heights before he made the trip to Bagan. But since hovering in a balloon above the sacred buildings there, he knows it’s not always best to have your feet firmly on the ground.