A thick, but cheerful Australian accent cut through the still, dark air.
“Tea, coffee, and fat free biscuits are over there!”
The man laughed at his own joke, throwing his booming roar into the dark corners of the nearly empty field. Rickety, canvas camp chairs were placed in a large circle with a light in the center, séance style. There were similar circular gatherings across the field, with patrons floating around like sleepy ghosts, tea or coffee and aforementioned biscuits in hand.
Out of context, I’ll admit that this scene was bizarre. As the corners of the sky started to blush, everything came into focus.
A large open field still shrouded in darkness. Large piles of maroon fabric were scattered through the grass and oblong woven baskets lay patiently nearby. And then there was fire.
Enormous blowtorches spat blue flames into the billowing maroon curtains and, slowly but surely, those curtains turned into balloons. They jostled for space in the pale sky, overshadowing the upturned faces of the watchers who would soon be riders.
Dust started to catch in the air. This was not unusual. This was Bagan after all — which our guide told us meant, ‘scorched earth.’ The appeal of this sunrise hot air balloon ride would be to see the nearly 2,500 pagodas from above in the early morning light, as the sun hit the faded brick walls.
The only issue was getting up into the sky. After flinging ourselves over the high sides of the basket, we settled into position — four people to four compartments with our pilot, Clive, in the center, surrounded by a mess of tiny computers. He frequently operated the loud and intimidating blowtorch that spat its blue fire up into the balloon above us.
Takeoff was as peaceful and effortless as slipping off to sleep. One minute the crew was smiling at us from over the side of the basket and the next they were waving as they rapidly shrunk in size. The world became miniature — a tiny moving model. We hadn’t fully woken up and neither had the sky. It was the color of the mixing water from an oft-used paintbrush. Within 10 minutes, however, someone spotted the sun on the horizon, steadily making its way around the curvature of the sky in its daily celestial routine.
The dust in the air caught the light, creating a golden mist that hung around us. The trees turned purple and yellow as the taupe-colored dust took a warm glow and the pagodas shone rose gold. The rising sun transformed the scorched land to one that glittered. As we floated through the now dusty purple skies, others in their comically large balloons floated by as well, the experience only punctuated by the crackling stereos from the pilots’ walkie talkies, the “oohs” and “ahhs” of passengers, and the cackle of birds.
We passed over pagodas and drifted by villages, where we could see ashy, half-burned trash piles. There, we caught the acrid odor of burning plastic and cooking food.
Some villagers left their houses to look up at us and wave, their dogs circling anxiously, curious at these alien shadows ominously blocking out the early morning sun. The smoke billowing up from the villages as people burned huge pyres of garbage followed us and everyone in the baskets started to cough.
This had been an unexpected glimpse of Myanmar (nee Burma), and one that was difficult to see. But, like a bird, the balloon had no motivating force, no intention, and it was honest in its declaration of place.
We drifted past the smoke, past the villages until we came to an empty stretch of land. It looked to me like a desert — its floor made up of thousands of rivulets of sand made it the perfect expanse to land a balloon.
We descended onto the mounds of sand before learning it was actually a dry riverbed that would be filled with water again during the rainy season. We climbed out of the basket into the pseudo desert. Though I was firmly rooted on the ground, my thoughts were still in the air and I realized that, in an odd way, the balloon had let us touch land, sea, and sky that day.
The magic of the balloon in Bagan has lingered, perhaps because I’ve never viewed a place from that perspective. I don’t think the feeling will ever fade, and I’ll never forget observing the intricacies of a place from above while peacefully floating through like an errant breeze.
Illustration by Passion Passport intern, Rachel Heckerman.