Bucket List #22- Ride in a Hot Air Balloon

March 24, 2009- I’m excited to be able to check off multiple bucket list items on one trip. While I was researching this adventure, I spent a lot of time reading hotel reviews and travel forums, trying to make my tight budget stretch as far as possible. Luckily, traveling in Southeast Asia is notoriously cheap and there were plenty of options that wouldn’t break the bank. One thing I knew I was going to have to make room in the budget for as soon as I saw it was a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. Balloons Over Bagan is a UK company with an impeccable safety record, and even though flights were pricey, it immediately went on the itinerary.

I have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise flight. This trip is a lot of things, but relaxing isn’t really one of them. Note to self: try to build in more leisure time in future. I’m picked up in a rickety old red bus at 5:30 and we drive to an open field next to a golf course. Two other buses have already arrived with other passengers and the crew is unfolding our balloon. Three European couples and two monks, my fellow passengers, are having tea and coffee while the balloon pilot, a funny little British man, runs around the crew, giving orders.

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The balloon flight itself is absolutely magical. Floating through the air over these temples that look straight out of a movie set is an otherworldly experience. The valley is hazy with fog, which is a shame for photos, but feels like a dream. The occasional burst of noise from the burner is the only sound- everyone in the balloon is mesmerized into silence and the world below is still asleep. I know this is going to be the absolute highlight of my trip, and probably one of the travel highlights of my life.

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The flight only lasts about 45 minutes, which is far too short. I’d like to stay up there all day. Our landing is relatively gentle, for a basket full of people dropping out of the sky. The crew serves us champagne and pastries before the buses take us back to our hotels. As we’ve landed in a field right next to mine, I could have walked (along with all the local women carrying baskets on their heads).

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More than seven years after this experience, I can confirm- this hot air balloon right was easily one of the highlights of my life. If you find yourself in Burma, don’t miss this!

Good Morning, Yangon!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

33 hours of travel have completely discombobulated my internal clock, so I’m awake hours before dawn. My hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 7:00 a.m. and I’m eager to start exploring, so at 6:00 I go for a walk with my camera to see what Yangon looks like at this hour.

Street vendors are already cooking on small fires along the side streets. This stuff smells better and better all the time, whatever it is.

Packs of wild dogs roam the streets along with the ubiquitous monks in their long red robes.

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Women walk around with baskets of produce on their heads and trucks are already full of people, stacked three deep and hanging off the backs, on their way to somewhere. This city wakes up early.

Back in the hotel, my favorite discovery of the morning is that the giant windows in my 9th story room don’t lock. I slide one open and pull up a chair to watch the city come alive.

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A young monk is running from a playful pack of dogs. Trucks full of the local faithful trundle up the hill to Shwedagon. Longyi-clad men perform basic grooming tasks outside. One brushes his teeth on his front steps, another is bathing shirtless with the aid of a garden hose. I can hear chanting from the monastery next door, and frequent wake up calls from the rooster population. Hundreds of pigeons and sparrows add to the soundtrack. I could sit here all day, but I have adventuring to do.