x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sailing over the grand Irrawaddy in Myanmar

On the road I'm floating 50ft in the air on the first leg of a magical balloon safari in Myanmar which will take me from the pagodas of Bagan to the mesmerising water culture of the Inthar people at Inle.

A balloon drifts past a temple in Myanmar.
A balloon drifts past a temple in Myanmar.

A winding charcoal mist is snaking around the pagodas as though rising from a smoky sea, and crows are flying up in the eerie stillness. We see a line of monks waving below and a panoramic view of an ancient kingdom. This is truly an unworldly realm, a spectacular theatre of pastel hues and dragonflies. I'm floating 50ft in the air on the first leg of a magical balloon safari in Myanmar which will take me from the pagodas of Bagan to the mesmerising water culture of the Inthar people at Inle.

On the ground, the politics are certainly murky, but boycotting tourism plays into the hands of the government, which does not want anyone looking in. As long as you avoid sponsoring state projects, your money can help the locals. It really struck me that you see only discerning travellers in Myanmar. Ballooning here has a majestic tradition that runs deep in Burmese blood. Even the mythical Kinnara in Buddhist lore is half man and half bird. Every year there is a fire balloon festival in Taunggyi, when hundreds of ornately shaped balloons are sent into the skies. Here in the 1930s, the acrobat U Kyaw Yin would perform on an iron bar suspended beneath a balloon. He claimed his descendants were ballooning far enough back to predate the first recorded balloon flight, in France in 1783.

The six-day safari starts with the stunning majesty of Bagan. Here, 2,000 pagodas built in the 12th century stretch on over the plains - as explorer Marco Polo noted in 1298, "they really do form one of the finest sights in the world". Our pilot, Leigh Hooper, says: "I've ballooned all over the world and there's nowhere more perfect or spectacular for ballooning than Burma" - and, in the absence of natural elevation, there is no better way of gaining perspective on the landscape than aloft with Eastern Safaris, which operates the largest luxury passenger balloon fleet in Asia and offers daily dawn flights over Bagan from October to the end of March. Here, like the rest of the meticulously monitored safari, each balloon is piloted by a licensed British expatriate.

The best time to start is with the light winds at sunrise, I'm told, so, as the darkness lifts, up we go with a whoosh and the mildly deafening roar of the burner. It's a comfortable balloon for eight people and we ascend smoothly, lightly brushing the trees as we go. Hooper chuckles: "Don't worry, tree snakes can only jump a metre or so." But we're not worried; we're in capable hands. Hooper qualified as a commercial pilot at the age of 21.

The safety measures here are so tight, I'm told, that Eastern Safaris even turned down the custom of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich when it was felt the winds were not suitable for flying. Ballooning is a little like sailing in the sky - you must bob up and down till you find the right thermals to ride and you cannot control exactly where you are going. "Ballooning is useless as a mode of accurate transport getting from A to B," says Hooper.

This means there's a ground crew of some 60 people scurrying around like ants below us, tracking the balloon on the nearest paths and roads they can find. "But that's the beauty of it, it's always a great adventure," Hooper adds. It is a sensational hour - floating over the grandeur of thousands of stupas, the spectacular Buddhist shrines that cover an area of more than 16 sq km by the grand Irrawaddy river.

We hear the call to land and six or seven of the crew leap up from the ground and cling to the trail rope to guide us down smoothly to a welcome breakfast; we actually bounce before we come to standstill. The next stop is Pindaya caves - a two-hour bus journey from Heho airport after we fly up from Bagan. We nestle into a decadently converted Yangon bus, where we are served cake and tea in Art Deco armchairs. The wind stops our dusk flight but gives us time to admire a local Shan umbrella workshop.

The next morning, however, surrounded by wonder-eyed Shan villagers, we take off for a flight over a Tuscan-like setting of rolling green hills and Shan mountains. The well defined shadow of the balloon moving over the landscape is like nothing I have ever seen. It is not long before local schoolchildren are running beneath the balloon, jumping fences and squealing until we land in a field of long grass to their utter delight but to the total bemusement of the local military.

The next ride was an epic - one of the first balloon trips over Inle Lake. It is impossible to appreciate the size of the lake until one flies over it and we have no idea how easy it will be to get across. We drift over floating water gardens at chimney height, watching patient local fishermen and boats laden with produce on their way to the market on the labyrinth of canals. We find there isn't enough wind to get us over the lake so we have to rise and rise to find the right thermals, finally ascending to almost 2,750m. In the process, we are blown so far off track - about 20km - that we land in a remote mountain village where no one has seen a foreigner in 50 years. The whole population comes out to greet our landing and make us an impromptu lunch in the square. It takes two hours of full-on hiking for the ground crew to reach us.

We return to stunning accommodation at the Inle Princess Resort where an Inthar fisherman leg-rows us through the reeds and stilted villages at sunset while we lie back on cushions and eat wild strawberries beneath a shining orange sky. It was relaxing to be on the water for a change, as I had been hiding a growing fear; my latent vertigo had kicked in for a few minutes above the cloud line. I had cringed and cowered down but thankfully it didn't last too long. Over the course of the safari, I realise that there's nothing that quite lifts the spirits like a balloon trip, drifting at the mercy of the wind with your cares left on the ground.

A nine-day stay in Myanmar including a night at the Governor's Residence in Yangon and a week sailing the Irrawaddy on the Orient-Express Road to Mandalay riverboat costs from £2,475 (Dh13,600) per person. The price includes a balloon ride at dawn over the temples of Bagan. A six-day balloon safari by The Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) over Pindaya, Inle Lake and the temples of Bagan, accommodation included, costs from £3,525 (Dh19,400) per person. travel@thenational.ae