My throat is super sore when we get up at 4:30 for our ride to the balloons due to yet another late night coughing fiasco. Drisdelle looks sick as shit, even sicker and shittier than yestershitz. I’d overheard him harfing in the bathroom late last night. We’re pathetic, tired, worn out pieces of useless human junk. But we’ve also dropped a million Burma bucks on this balloon thing and there’s no way we’re bailing on it. Meanwhile, MacKay is snoring through it all like a lumber champ.
I get out to the lobby and dump some hot tea down the tender throat. There’s a British guy out there with the same hack that we’ve got. He’s doing the same thing. We give each other the nod, like, “you too, eh?”, “yeah bro”, “Sucks shit, right?”, “yeah bro”, “Have a good one”, “Cheers bro”.
A mini van pulls up and there are a couple of people in there already. Drisdelle and I squeeze in the back. Everyone’s a little too tired for small talk right now and we pull away in silence.
We drive around to another hostel place and wait outside for a while. Sun’s actually starting to come up, aren’t we supposed to be on the balloons for that? 15 minutes later and we’re still waiting outside this place. Totally wearing the no sleep crankypants right now and I have no patience for whoever it is holding us up. Finally a little Burmese princess comes out dolled up like it’s the Grammy’s. Her boyfriend bashfully apologizes as best he can for her and they fill in the remaining seats.
We unload by a field where we can see the shadows of the balloons in the oncoming dawn. They’re overturned and laying flat on the grass waiting to be blown up. There are tables with candles on them that we get seated around. They serve out some croissants and some much needed coffee.
While we’re trying to wake up with the breakfast fixings a group of 6 pilots makes a line between our tables and the balloons. One of them starts introducing the others and it seems we’ve got a squad of six polite British pilots taking care of us this morning. Seems they’re a few gallons of coffee ahead of us and their smashing accents and quick wit does wonders to pull us out of our morning comas and on board with this whole ballooning thing.
They do a role call and it looks like Drisdelle and I are with a dapper gent named Rick. So is the princecss and her boyfriend and 2 other couples from another table. Rick is exceptionally nice. He leads us over to our balloon and gathers us around. Then each pilot signals that they’re ready and all at once the helium lights up in a blazing horizontal torch straight into each balloon. They slowly start filling up and tilting skywards. Some tractors with ropes attached back up to pull the baskets upright as they get to capacity.
Rick doles out some instructions on entering the basket and for take off and landing positions. We’re all set! Everyone takes a corner of the basket and Rick fires up the torch to raise the balloon into the air. With the sun peaking the horizon, the hot helium blast on our faces and the gentle wobble as we lift into the air, this whole thing is already an amazing experience
We begin our ascent up to around a thousand feet and in the distance the great sea of temples come into view. We’d scooted around most of them yesterday and that was a great way to see them. This absolutely blows that experience out of the water. Capturing all of the temples in a pic all in one go is nigh impossible there are so many. The perspective from above with hundreds of temples to the West, the trees, rivers and farm lands throughout, and the rising sun in the East is nothing short of stunning. Balloons dotting the landscape make for an amazing accent to the scene.
The Burmese princess in our basket has her boyfriend on super selfie duty. He doesn’t seem to mind and she’s legitimately smiling away between course review of his work. At one point she pulls out a little doll and starts getting shots of it with the temples in the background. I feel a little tap tap from inside my pocket and it seems Narco wants to make a new friend. I pull him out for a pic and the girl starts giggling and pointing. A short puppet dance ensues at 1200 feet.
(You can’t tell in the pic but Narcopiggy is thrilled)
Drisdelle and I snap a couple pics of ourselves and the landscape but upon review I quickly incinerate each and every one of them. We look like absolute shit this morning. I still have the red pus eyes and he’s trying so hard not to be that guy that barfs over the side hundreds of feet onto a balloon below us.
A good concentration of temples is upon us now. “This is super fucking awesome” seems to be the common sentiment from everyone. No matter how terrible we feel this was definitely worth it’s weight in kyat.
Roughly an hour into the ride we’ve passed over hundreds of temples and are already into our descent. Rick expresses that the winds are swift today. He starts pulling guide wires and eases off the torch.
Rick aims us at a small corner of a clearing just passed a line of trees. I’m no expert but this maneuver seems rather difficult to pull off. The balloon glides just feet above the trees, over a small fence, Rick tosses out the ropes and some locals help guide us to a soft landing in the corner of the field just before we hit the fence on the far side. Wow, nice fucking job Rick! He passes the congratulations on to the guys holding the ropes like a true gentleman, “Amazing job guys! You are absolutely the best!”.
After squaring away the balloon into the center of the field with a couple puffs of helium, we de-balloon and are led to a small clearing with some chairs set up in a circle. The pilots all give us a round of applause and hand out some champagne to celebrate a good morning flight. We get certificates to prove our accomplishment.
After taking a long gaze at the horizon in pensive contemplation of all his hopes and dreams, Rick comes over to chat with us.
We tell him about our travels and where we’re from and whatnot and then I start asking him about the whole ballooning gig. He tells us that there’s a 6 month season here in Bagan that ends around April. Rick has a house in the UK but spends the other 6 months flying balloons over the Tuscany region in Italy, “Those hillside towns and the wine region where they make Borneo.”, “Yes I’ve been, it’s absolutely gorgeous there. Views and food.” Good on ya Ricky b’y, living the dream.
We pile back in the Van and bounce back to the hostel. The Burmese princess and her boyfriend are the first to get off. Shaky start this morning waiting on them but everyone warmed up and it’s all smiles and hand shakes now as they exit. There is a mom and daughter combo from Indianapolis sitting beside us. The mom pipes up as soon as the couple close the door, “You know he’s a famous singer?”, “What? That guy?”, “Yeah, you didn’t notice all the locals coming up and taking pictures with him?”, “Ohh I thought it was the girl. He was being a good BF and taking pics of her all day”, “No, no he’s a famous singer here in Myanmar. He’s a celebrity.” Did we just go ballooning with a Burmese pop star? That’s cool.
The mom is unusually interested in Drisdelle and me. I think it’s because we told her we’re Canadian. Or it could be the fistful of prescription drugs she pounded this morning. At least that’s how she’s acting. Maybe the helium got to her. She’s eyeing us up like candy so hard that the daughter is actually awkward and literally says, “Mom! Stop embarrassing me!” Mom is unphased, “I first saw Thailand at the Montreal Expo in ’67. I always wanted to go.” I tell her that’s kind of weird because I’m pretty sure my dad actually worked at that same expo in Montreal that year. I seem to recall him recounting some funny anecdote about stealing a flag or something (but that’s a dad story for another time..). “Ohh! I just have to get a picture of you guys!”, “Yeah sure”. And then she kisses me on the cheek as her and her beet red daughter exit the van.
We get dropped off back at Ostello Bello at around 8am. What a morning, what a killer experience that was! Yesterday was previously the highlight of the trip. Probably bedtime for bonzo now thou…”You want scooter!”, oh it’s the laundry girl again. “No thanks we’re good. Maybe later.”
Back at the room MacKay is still sucking all the oxygen from the room and sawing down logs with each inhale/exhale. The Korean dude is somehow sleeping through it. We tip toe passed, hold our coughs and crashitty crash crash.