Friday, August 18, 2017

Yangon from above

A flight on Yangon’s latest tourist attraction

Irarely have the opportunity to a look at Yangon from 220 feet high. Most of the time, as a pedestrian, I look up. At Shwedagon, at Traders Hotel, at Sakura Tower. But recently, for the first time, I saw my city from above.

Enter Mingalarbar Balloon, one of Yangon’s newest tourist attractions. Looking forward to the opportunity of getting some fresh air, a friend and I chose to take the sky.

At first, we were more nervous than excited. A whole range of questions ran through my head as I was stepping into the basket. Will this be my last trip? Are these guys competent? How does an air balloon work anyway? What I am even doing here?

I quickly checked over the balloon’s entry criteria to see if, by chance, I could escape my ordeal.

The view across Kandawgyi Lake to Shwedagon Pagoda. Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar TimesThe view across Kandawgyi Lake to Shwedagon Pagoda. Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times

In fact, not everybody can get onboard. Pregnant women are not allowed - they have probably ballooned enough the authorities might have thought, people with a record of mental illness nor elderly people with chronic disease are eligible either. Nothing concerning lifestyle journalists though. Bummer.

It might not have been the case in the taxi that took us to the balloon launch site in Kandawgyi Park, but all passengers must wear a seat belt. Smoking and drinking is not allowed, especially for the cabin crew - again here, different rules than in a taxi.

I am going to use that metaphor one last time: contrary to the taxi you came in, littering or throwing objects from the balloon is strictly prohibited.

I could go on listing the security measures as I learned them by heart, and asked all the questions imaginable as to delay the whole thing.

Staff are on hand to remind you to stay in your positions. Lae Phyu Pyar Myo Myint/The Myanmar TimesStaff are on hand to remind you to stay in your positions. Lae Phyu Pyar Myo Myint/The Myanmar Times

Contrary to what I had thought, the balloon is not a hot air balloon. It is filled with helium gas, which is unvolatile, and firmly sealed so there are no leaks. One of the main concerns for the regional government was to avoid a flammable device that might set the park on fire.

Residents of surrounding Mingalar Taung Nyunt did light up a bit when they heard the attraction would be situated near their homes. A number of demonstrations have taken place since the local government greenlit Mingalarbar Balloon’s plans to operate on public land in August last year

Another concern was that the balloon would damage trees in Kandawgyi Park.

“No trees were cut,” says U Nay Win, the operation manager of Mingalarbar Balloon, “we’ve only relocated and replanted some ten little bushes”.

The balloon on its launch pad. Lae Phyu Pyar Myo Myint/The Myanmar TimesThe balloon on its launch pad. Lae Phyu Pyar Myo Myint/The Myanmar Times

In July, Frontier reported that Culture Attractions, the joint venture company who operates Mingalarbar Balloon, were required to relocate 27 trees from the site to a different area of the park,  after which 13 trees died, and the company was forced to pay K5.2 million in compensation.

Mingalar Balloon also raised the ire of some local lawmakers, who questioned the lack of transparency in the regional government’s signing off on the project with the June 9 ribbon cutting ceremony taking some by surprise.

Nevertheless, hearing that the staff had received a solid two months training I decided to get on board.  

When the balloon started moving, I firmly gripped the basket. As soon we became airborne, cool air began to rush over us. Here we were, flying over Yangon.

The further we went up, the fresher the air got. Who would have thought that it could be so cold up here?

Slowly the the 360 degree view over my beloved city became more breathtaking. Below us we could see the emerald green Kandawgyi Lake and the normally towering Shwedagon Pagoda perched atop Singattura Hill behind it to the east. To the south were the high-rise buildings of downtown, while to the west we could see the snaking profile of the Yangon river.  

The higher you go, the more unstable the balloon becomes. As if to break us from our trances the staff gently reminded us to keep in position as to not create imbalances. The risk? Well, tilting the balloon.

When we reached 200 feet we were asked whether we would like to take it higher, we obliged.

After what seemed like only a moment on the roof of Yangon, the pilot gave instructions to the control centre on the ground and we started our descent.

The experience lasts for 15 minutes and getting high will cost you K10,000,  US$25 for foreigners.

Even though I would have liked the experience to last a little longer, I thought it was worth a try and worth the fright.

Translation by Zar Zar Soe, Wiin Thaw Tar, Kyaw Soe Htet and Khine Thazin Han


The balloon goes up and down 15 times a day during public holidays and 5 to 6 times a day on weekdays. Mingalarbar Balloon is open everyday from 10am - 5pm.