On the shores of Inle Lake in Myanmar, in the grey light of the predawn, villagers are hurrying along a dust lane to witness something miraculous. In a ploughed field, a strange amorphous form the size of a tennis court is beginning to swell like a proving loaf. Children gaze in wonder. Old men shake their heads and spit betel juice as the shape, now fat with air, suddenly rears upright above the palm trees. A moment later, with fire breathing into its open mouth, the whole contraption rises into the sky.
For 15 years, sailing skyward in a hot air balloon has been one of the highlights of journeys to Myanmar. Until now the experience was confined to Bagan, where thousands of ruined temples and pagodas are all that remain of what was once one of the greatest cities in Asia. Those flights were pioneered by Balloons Over Bagan, the brainchild of Australian/Burmese couple Brett and Omar Melzer. This awe-inspiring vision on the Inle’s shores is their newest venture: a balloon “safari” in Shan State.
Once upon a time, the iconic experience at Bagan was sitting on the ramparts of an ancient shrine at sunset to view the darkening pagodas across the plain. Balloons Over Bagan changed that. Rising aloft on thermals as the early sun illuminates the ruins soon became the way to see a site that is as evocative and magnificent as the temples of Angkor. But while still a thrilling experience, it is no longer very novel – or exclusive. Brett and Omar now operate 12 balloons every morning, and this year two other operators have begun balloon trips over the site. It was to create something more exploratory and more private that Brett and Omar looked to Shan State.
But when I first came to Myanmar, almost 20 years ago, it was all pretty exploratory. In those days, tourists, and facilities for them, were few and far between. But since 2010, when Aung San Suu Kyi lifted her call for a tourism boycott in the light of the military junta’s move towards free elections, eager visitors have made Myanmar Southeast Asia’s hottest destination. You can trek between monasteries in the northern mountains, sail on a private yacht through the beautiful and largely uninhabited Mergui archipelago in the deep south, or take the road to Mandalay in style and browse the markets in colonial hill stations with crafts experts.
In Yangon, the former capital, there is still a sweet air of nostalgia after the decades of isolation. Grand colonial buildings crumble behind iron railings. Old hotels have been painstakingly renovated. Down on the waterfront, the luxury Strand could be the setting for a Somerset Maugham story, with teak floors, huge baths, afternoon tea and a wood-lined bar where rubber planters would feel at home discussing prices and mistresses over G&Ts.
Not far away, the gardens of the Governor’s Residence still glow with lanterns, while sophisticated diners enjoy some of Asia’s most exquisite cuisine, followed by a hand-rolled cheroot in the moonlight. Yangon is home to the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the principal pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist world. Its fame rests on the fact that eight of the Buddha’s hairs are said to be contained in the pagoda beneath 60 tonnes of gold. Pilgrims circle the great shrine beneath strings of coloured lights like promenaders on a pier. Shoals of bald pink‑robed nuns float through the Shrine of the Sun and the Moon, while in the remote reaches of the terrace lovers stroll hand in hand.
Back in the old days, the road to Mandalay was an osteopath’s nightmare. Now you can travel up the Irrawaddy on a choice of elegant cruise boats, notable among them Belmond’s Orcaella and the Sanctuary’s Ananda. It is one of Asia’s great river journeys: in the early mornings, spectral fishermen paddle through a soft grey void, and at Sagaing, scores of pagodas adorn misty hillsides like some vision of paradise; nights, meanwhile, are ink-coloured and star-filled and the boats’ spotlights, searching for markers along the banks, illuminate long streams of silver moths.
Bagan, of course, is the main destination of the river journey; at one time it was the height of Burmese civilisation, brought down by the armies of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. Its secular buildings have since vanished, leaving only the crumbling ecclesiastical bones – thousands of pagodas strewn across a hundred square miles of thorn bushes, tamarind trees and grazing goats. This original hub for Brett and Omar’s ballooning adventures is also the jumping-off point for their new venture in Shan State.
I flew into Heho, an airport as small and jolly as its name. From the hills the road descended to a damper world, where farmers splashed about in paddies, ducks paddled in the ditches and buffaloes sank up to their necks in wet fields. At Yaunghwe I took to a longtail boat to explore Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most exotic locations. When the Intha people, who populate the lake, migrated here in the 14th century, they found the shores largely occupied. So they took to the water, creating a labyrinth of canals and irrigation channels. Their houses stand on bamboo stilts and their vegetable gardens are made by binding the lake weeds into floating fields. Everything comes and goes by boat – vegetables, schoolchildren, firewood, the morning post. Across its surface, against a backdrop of porcelain mountains, the silhouettes of fishermen standing in their canoes with their nets, manipulating long stern paddles with one leg, represent one of Inle’s most iconic images.
At Ywama, near to the Shwe Indein pagoda complex, I came upon a floating market. Lined with stilted houses and shops, the high street was full of boats. The goods – vegetables, kitchenware, cooking oil, charcoal, flowers, fish and the ubiquitous Burmese cigars – were weighed against defunct torch batteries, then wrapped in banana leaves. I bought chrysanthemums from an elderly lady chewing a formidable cheroot. She extracted my change from her brassiere, then asked where I was going. I told her about the ballooning and her face lit up. “Next time you come, take me. I want to fly.”
Early the next day I crossed the lake in darkness. White mists curled off the black water, a flock of birds ghostly in the predawn. In a field at the end of the village, where the balloon was slowly inflating, was my pilot. A ballooning teacher and inspector, Cary Crawley is also a splendidly old-fashioned figure in a cravat, leather blazer and gloves, a man of urbane charm who seems to have stepped straight out of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines into a ploughed field in remotest Myanmar.
Once the balloon was upright, we climbed into the basket and the burners fired. Then, as delicately as a feather in a draught, we were lifting off. The villagers jumped to their feet and began cheering. I was suddenly the Wizard of Oz, waving to the crowds of munchkins who were growing smaller by the second.
These days there is hardly any novelty in flight, nor in aerial views of the earth. But the difference between looking down from the basket of a hot air balloon from a few hundred feet and peering through a thick airplane window at 30,000ft is dramatic. As the sun’s first rays broke, the world below unfolded in wonderful patterns – green strips of vegetable gardens separated by inky bands of water; boats trailing gloriously angled wakes; fields sliced geometrically by canals; a man and a white buffalo ploughing ribbed symmetries – while a buzzard sailed beneath us. Gliding along corridors of air, we had an entirely new perspective.
The Melzers have sought to create the sense of a safari in their new Shan State venture. Balloons do not lend themselves to very precise direction, so the idea is to explore remoter regions with a ride at each stage of an itinerary. Thus, the next morning we travelled by road to Pindaya, famous for its caves that contain over 8,000 Buddha images. But the real attraction here is the sheer beauty of the landscape. It is straight from a storybook, a place of neat farmhouses, country lanes dipping in and out of shadow, and chequerboard fields still tilled and harvested by hand.
I stayed the night in a monastery inhabited by two monks, where the Melzers have created a pop-up lodge. In a side aisle, a feather mattress was prepared with fine cottons and a mosquito net. A candlelit bathroom with hot water, scented soaps and ladles had been created in one of the outbuildings. Evening drinks were served with the pilots, a distance away so as not to disturb the monks, while a chef had been drafted in to prepare a lavish dinner served on the balcony, among gas lanterns and soft cushions. The monastery is only the first stage in the Melzers’ plans for accommodation here; they have bought land and are building a small private lodge as a base for further ballooning itineraries to be launched next year.
In the morning, as the sun rose behind haystacks, I was floating elegantly again over little-explored countryside where bullock carts trundled along dust lanes and every field was a different shade of green or yellow. An hour and the softest of hillside landings later, champagne awaited.
After a toast, we retired to breakfast, laid out on white linen at a table set beneath a cathedral-like banyan tree. Women in lampshade hats were harvesting with sickles in the next field, tying the wheat into bundles to be laid out like embroidery in the sun. The only sound was the trailing melody of birdsong and distant voices. Being airborne, weightless, drifting above scenes of utter tranquillity, had stirred a sense of magic that lingered in this wonderful alfresco repast. Soon enough, the fresh coffee would be drunk, the warm croissants eaten. But for now, I did not want to stir, to speak too loudly, even to turn my head too quickly, lest the spell be broken. There is a delightful, enduring unreality about Myanmar. There are moments when the whole country feels like a flight in a hot air balloon: elegant, slow moving, old fashioned – evoking a sense of wonder, with a touch as delicate as a feather.
More off-the-beaten-track adventures include the new mobile safari camps setting up from Kenya’s Northern Frontier to Ladakh’s Nubra Valley and the bespoke experiences being forged across Papua New Guinea.