Ampersand's Travels...

Private tour of Burma including 'Balloons Over Bagan'

By Mark Wright, Ampersand's senior sales consultant

Burma Marks VA FAM 10
Throughout the latter half of 2013, a lot of my time was consumed by meticulously planning every aspect of a special group trip to Burma in January 2014. I thoroughly enjoy ensuring that no detail, however small, is overlooked in the planning of a holiday so I can take away the stress and difficulties of the travel planning, allowing people to relax and enjoy the country as much as I did when I first fell in love with it. Once the pre-planning was done and we were travelling, I could finally relax (a little) and enjoy visiting Burma once again.

There are many interesting things I could, and want, to write about this fascinating country after our collective many visits and the wonderful time I had this time, but that would result in a full-blown thesis. For now I thought I would concentrate on one of my personal highlights from the visit, the Balloons over Bagan. For the last year I had heard nothing but glowing praise from our clients for this experience and I would finally be able to witness it for myself. Burma is a country that demands early morning starts, whether it’s to catch the sunrise or to catch an unflatteringly early flight from Mandalay to Heho. However, nothing beats the 05:00 start for the ballooning!

Informing the group of 23 people of this unfathomably early start (whilst they are on holiday!) may seem like the difficult part, but being first in the lobby of the Aureum at 05:30 with a broad and easy smile was my challenge. At 05:35 sharp, with the moon still shining bright, we were collected in large safari style buses by Balloons over Bagan. The 15 minute drive to Shwezigone sports ground (near Shwezigone pagoda), where the balloons would take off from, was undertaken with silent excitement and trepidation filling the air. As we arrived at the sports ground the darkness was still revealing nothing to us, except our friendly pilot, Andy, from Bristol, UK. His bright and friendly smile greeted us on the bus and we were ushered to the safety zone around a campfire for tea and coffee. Very civilized indeed!

At this point it is useful to mention the high safety practices that are involved at Balloons over Bagan:

 •    Commercial passenger ballooning is the safest form of all air transport.
 •    In Bagan they are always very careful. They only fly when there are light surface winds less than 8 knots.
 •    Since they launched in 1999 they have never recorded any accident or incident, however minor.
 •    Their pilots and technicians are European Nationals qualified and registered in the UK.
 •    Their balloons are built to the highest standards of the British aerospace industry by Cameron Balloons Ltd and Lindstrand Balloons.
 •    All their crew are trained to the highest international standards and have all been trained in first aid by UK Public Transport Inspectors

Over tea, coffee and biscuits we were given a short but thorough safety briefing on the balloons and what to expect before we climbed into the baskets. During the briefing the day slowly began to break and we could begin to make out the 10 giant balloons lying flat in the middle of the sports ground. The excitement was building! Between us, we were split into two groups and asked to stand behind our basket. Then came the roaring noise of 10 fans blowing air into the balloons, which took a good 20 minutes.

Finally we were able to clamber into the baskets and prepare for take-off, which was an incredibly smooth affair. We were one of the first of 10 to take off, allowing us to look down on the remaining balloons and see the sun rise in the distance. In the balloon you can only control the height you are at, the direction in which you travel (and where you ultimately land) is completely up to the wind. The 45 minutes we spent flying were incredible; the silence you experience in the air and the dawn landscape is magical, only to be occasionally disturbed by the pilot opening up the flames to increase our height. Being above the vast and awesome temples and pagodas of Bagan, having only seen them from the ground before, was a real treat – one that I would readily recommend, even urge, people to do whilst in Bagan. It wasn’t only the temples and pagodas that impressed us, but the mighty Irrawaddy River, Mt Popa in the distance and the other 9 balloons dancing in the morning air.

Our landing was expertly handled by our pilot, Andy, and we felt safe and well looked after from start to finish. The thrill of the experience didn’t end there, as the ground staff had set up a beautiful array of fruit and pastries and – most importantly – some bubbles for us to enjoy. The whole morning was beautifully organised and executed by Balloons over Bagan.

This wasn’t just my highlight, but also the highlight of many of the rest of my group. If you would like to learn more about my trip, or would like help organising your own experience of Burma, please do let us know.

My email address is mark@ampersandtravel.com or you can phone me on +44 (0)20 7819 9770.

Burma Marks VA FAM 1
Burma Marks VA FAM 3
Burma Marks VA FAM 5
Burma Marks VA FAM 6
Burma Marks VA FAM 11
Burma Marks VA FAM 9
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 •    Top 20 Burma Travel Tips
 •    Insiders Q&A with Khin Omar Win from 'Balloons Over Bagan'
 •    Burma Photoblog: Part 1 & Burma Photoblog: Part 2
 •    Burma Tips from James & Robin
 •    Reflections on Burma: Reporting back from our research recce