Ballooning Over Bagan and TAD
So many of the pics I saw in the web were of balloons floating over the BAZ at sunrise. It looked so magical that I knew I wanted to do it. So I did some research and signed up with Golden Eagle Balloons for the premier sunrise ballooning excursion. The premier meant that there were only 8 people in the basket, not 16 like a regular excursion. And I wanted to make sure I got some good pics, so the premier excursion it was!
Another early wake up. Well that's assuming I slept at all. I left my CPAP machine in in Yangon (along with my big duffel suitcase) so I wore my new dental device. It's horrible. It's supposed to reposition my jaw so that I keep my airway open when I sleep. And if this sounds sexy, it really isn't. All I can think of is Michael Anthony Hall at the end of Sixteen Candles when he's in the parking lot with Jake's girlfriend and she tries to wake him up and he says groggily "Mom, come on! I've got my head gear on." Sorry, I worked at a movie theater when it came out. I can practically recite the whole movie! Anyways, I slept poorly, if at all, but got dressed around 5AM and was ready for the pick up at 0530.
We drove out into a field and then had coffee, tea, and some snacks while they prepped the balloons and then gave us our safety brief. There are three ballooning companies in Bagan with a total of 12 balloons taking off every morning. Uls was our balloon driver. A crusty old guy from Germany, but he seemed to know his stuff. First they blow cold air into the balloon and then once it gets pretty big, they start with the heat. So it was definitely kind of cool. Once the balloon itself was ready, we climbed into the basket and off we went. I did a balloon trip in Kenya and I forgot how cool it was. We slowly floated up into the sky, barely missing some nearby trees and then we slowly made our way higher.
It was great to look down across the BAZ to see all of the temples and stupas across the countryside. In addition to the dusty air, a lot of the locals use fires for cooking, as well as for burning of trash, so there was a cool haze in the air that hung over the ground. When we looked down directly below us, it wasn't that bad. But when I was trying to take pictures of temples a bit farther away, even with my telephoto zoom it definitely make the pics a bit hazy. I've done some minor photoshopping to make some of the colors pop a bit more. Apparently the best time to come to Bagan is in December, just after the rainy season when it's lush and green and the air quality isn't as bad.
We floated for probably a good hour across the BAZ, coming really close to some of the big temples, and I took lots of pics. Ballooning is more of an art than a science and it's not like you can steer the balloon. Uls ended up putting us down in a small clear space in the middle some some low trees and shrubs. But we got down safely and then it was time for the celebratory glass of champagne! As one does. Then it was back to the hotel, pack, and head to the airport.
Now I got asked a lot about what I was most looking forward to on my trip. Angkor Wat, Bagan, Mardi Gras, hiking the Milford Track with SB. I had lots of answers. But what worried me the most was my trip to Myanmar. It's definitely off the major tourist routes in Asia and while it's building up it's tourism infrastructure, I just thought there was a lot of risk associated with going there. You pretty much have to fly to Bagan. The train takes 12 hours. 12! I suspect you can drive quicker, but I'm not sure how much. And there aren't a lot of airlines in Myanmar. During the military government years when the country was under sanctions, they had some problems getting airplane parts. So that's lovely. But I did my research and the only "accident" that Air KBZ had was when it went off the run way once. No injuries, so I figured I was fine. But what I was more worried about is if there is a mechanical problem and I get stuck in Bagan. I'm flying to Phuket the next day so my travel options are limited if I run into a problem.
And that brings me to TAD. In addition to TBN (Tour Bus Narcolepsy), I also suffer from Travel Anxiety Disorder. TAD. And yes I'm a veteran travelor and I know how to roll with the punches and work the system to get where I need to go. Snow delay in Chicago, what about routing me through Houston. Or San Fran. I know the US and the United operations well so I can usually figure out a way overcome any obstacle. If I know what the problem is, I can figure out a plan to resolve it and then I feel so much better. I'm a planner at heart.
Where am I going with this? Well the Air KBZ plane took off on time, but not 10 minutes into the flight we are turning around. Fuel instrument problem as best I can tell from the not quite good enough English from the Captain. So we land. And then we wait. First they till us that it will be an hour. I'm cool. Then it's, oh an engineers is driving to Bagan to see if he can fix the plane. Driving from where? If he can't fix it, they will send another plane from Yangon. Now all this time we are trapped in the departure gate area that feels like the waiting room from hell. Uncomfortable chairs, insufficient air conditions, and no public announcements at all. Oh, and no wifi at all. So I was definitely feeling trapped. The English speaking travelers take turns trying to get some information out of the Air KBZ people who for the most part don't really know what's going on and really can't communicate it that well. Hours go buy. I need water. So I go back into the main "terminal", if you could really call it that. The only place open is a pastry shop. They do bring us food. Rice with something that smelled, and I'm not kidding, like dog food. Ugh pass. And all of this time I'm trying not to have a full blown TAD fit. I'm thinking the nice couple from SF and I could probably pay a driver and get us to Yangon by midnight. It could work. Maybe. My flight is at 0830. Oh, and I still need to get my bag from the hotel in Yangon. But maybe that could work. I mean, money will solve lots of problems. Right?
After 6 hours, they finally let us know that we are going to be put on another airline that leaves at 630PM. The flights into and out of Bagan are either early morning, or early evening. There are no flights in the middle of the day, which explains why we were stuck. When I got re-booked for Yangon Airways and went through the security again, they checked my boarding pass with the passenger manifest. My name wasn't on it, so the Yangon Airways agent just put a check next to passenger 24. That's me, passenger 24. Lovely.
Amazingly enough we made it to Yangon (only 8 hours late) and my bag made it as well. Time to re-pack and crash. Off to Phuket in the AM!