By Susan Baily
They’re back – October’s the month Balloons Over Bagan take to the skies of Bagan for the 18th year. The photos are iconic and, although the prices are notoriously high, the feedback is unanimously superb. Thousands of tourists a year are privileged to enjoy this experience yet few people realize what goes on behind the scenes. Myanmore sits down with the staff of Balloons Over Bagan (BOB) to see what it takes to run a ballooning operation in Myanmar.
Since its humble beginnings in 1998, the BOB team has grown to 180 local staff and more than a dozen international pilots. This year they will have 12 balloons in Bagan- capable of flying 1,200 passengers per week and 13 buses to transport guests. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it takes a lot of organization and planning to ensure a smooth operation.
“Our days start at 3AM”, says Ko Myo Latt, a ground operations manager who has been with Balloons Over Bagan since 1999. “Although the guests are not picked up until around 5.30 or 6 AM there is plenty of pre-flight work to be done.” Along with the pilots, the ground managers are responsible for checking the weather satellites and releasing test balloons to check the wind patterns. They use this information to predict the flight path and chose an appropriate launch site.
Floating above a dream-scape
The crew then lay out the balloons in the dark and await the arrival of the passengers. Once the basket is loaded, they assist in the balloon launch to ensure a smooth take-off.
During the flight, the crew use radios to stay in contact with the pilots and the airport’s Air Traffic Controllers (ATC). They track the balloon’s flight pattern yet it is impossible to know exactly where or when the balloon will land. As the balloons begin their descent an amusing game of chase ensues with the staff zipping through the fields in buses and trucks to greet the balloon. They assist in landing the balloon and then serve up a light breakfast for the passengers.
After the flights, guests are dropped back at their hotel but the crew’s work continues. The balloon canopies must be carefully packed to avoid tears and the burners and other equipment must be cleaned. Balloons Over Bagan insists on following international safety standards despite the challenges of working in a developing country. Spare parts are imported from overseas and a certified ‘balloon inspector’ is employed full time to ensure all maintenance is carried out to the highest standard.
Then the preparation for the next day begins- checking bookings and organizing the early-morning hotel pick-ups. The balloons fly every day in the high season meaning the crew are working long hours for 6 straight months. With this gruelling schedule it is hard to see why the crew wouldn’t opt for a more ‘normal’ job at a hotel or restaurant. But chief pilot Bart D’hooge believes that several factors contribute. “We offer training to our staff and everyone has equal chances to grow through the ranks. In addition, we continue to pay salary in the low season even though the work load is much less.”
Kids from the primary school in Sai Kam village.
Indeed, during the low season the schedule is much more lax. After packing up the balloons for storage, the season closes with a big party followed by an annual trip to the beach in April. The remainder of the low season includes bus maintenance, regularly scheduled equipment checks and occasional training sessions.
It is also in the low season that BOB contributes the most time and energy to its community development projects. Since the start of BOB, the owners and crew have made regular donations to the Bagan community. During the 2015-16 season, for example, they built a primary school in Sai Kam village and provided the necessary funding to ensure the teachers are paid and the students have the proper materials. They also are regular participants in the Bagan Plastic Campaign’s Saturday clean-up activities. After the August earthquake, the BOB crew were some of the first on the scene to help clean and repair damaged pagodas. The community also praises the team- who can be easily spotted thanks to their trademark red polo shirts- for their generosity and support.
The BOB team help clean and repair damaged pagodas after the August earthquake
Myo Latt attributes his dedication to BOB in large part to this aspect of the company’s ethos. ‘We are proud to work for BOB. We are able to improve of the lives of Bagan people and show off the beauty of our town to foreigners.’
As another ballooning season begins, the crew is excited to be reunited with the pilots and start flying again. If you find yourself in Bagan and have the privilege of flying with BOB, be sure to give a special thanks to the guys and girls in red.
Photos credit: BOB