Seeing Myanmar from A Different Angle: Hot Air Ballooning
SCUBA opportunities abound in one of the world’s last undiscovered paradises.
Awei Pila, an exclusive resort set on a remote tropical island, has opened a SCUBA diving center in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, offering Open Water courses and certification to first-time divers.
The Awei Pila Dive Center will provide all levels of PADI diving courses from DSD (Discover Scuba Diving) to DM (Dive Master), which can either be tackled at home by Internet ahead of traveling to the Mergui Archipelago or learned over three to four days at the resort, which lies on a pristine beach just a stone’s throw from hundreds of meters of live coral reefs.
Courses can be conducted in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German or Italian.
Once certified, guests may join experienced divers at 12 different dive sites with depths ranging from 12 to 30 meters, including two places that are rapidly becoming world-famous dive sites – Shark Cave, which is just 15 minutes by boat from the dive center, and Rocky Island.
“We go out in the morning for two dives, stop for lunch, then take one dive in the afternoon,” said Awei Pila’s resident marine biologist and SCUBA instructor Marcelo Guimaraes. “We also have night dives upon demand, where you’ll see squid, lobsters, turtles and an array of open corals.”
The Mergui Archipelago is known for its diversity and quantity of marine life. Guimaraes said divers can expect to see schools of fish so massive and so tightly packed that they often can’t see their buddy just a few meters away.
“Divers can swim among schools of barracudas, yellow snappers and fusiliers, and will be able to get up close and personal with nudibranches, sea horses and scorpion fish,” he said. “And at certain times of the year, we come across Manta rays and whale sharks.”
Awei Pila Dive Center employs a 27-foot RIB dive boat with capacity for six divers plus instructors. Brand new equipment at the facility includes Aqua Lung regulators & BCDs, and Bauer air compressors.
Guimaraes said his team aims to provide a “sustainable tourism experience” and will include a complimentary course in Coral Conservation to all advanced divers as part of their Green Fins initiative, a UN-backed program to encourage environmentally astute policies among divers and dive centers.
A DSD experience at Awei Pila costs US$120, while an Open Water Course costs $620, including four open water dives, training materials, equipment, and a globally recognized certification card.
Located some 50 miles from the mainland and nestled among an archipelago of 800 islands, atolls and reefs, travel to the island of Pila involves a 2.5-hour speedboat ride from the port of Kawthaung. The island boasts 40 mostly deserted beaches, three sources of freshwater, and one Moken “Sea Gypsy” settlement.
Owned by Yangon-based Memories Group, Awei Pila is the only resort on the island, opening its doors to guests on December 15, 2018. It has 24 air-conditioned tented villas, a spa, and a restaurant with 24-hour service. All-inclusive stays, including three gourmet meals per day, start at $750 per night for two persons.
New General Manager Steffen Kroehl describes the resort as “barefoot luxury”, while reiterating Memories’ goal of creating “minimum impact on a pristine environment.”
The Memories Group is an experience-driven company which owns and operates Memories Travel and several resorts and activities in Myanmar, including hotels, boutique lodges, hot-air balloon adventures, and sailing tours.
The morning air was brisk and smelled fresh as our group huddled around a small table with offerings of coffee, tea, and biscuits. The sky was still dim as the sun hadn’t fully awakened yet, with just enough light to watch as the ground crew prepared the massive envelope for inflation. We didn’t wait long before the captain fired up the burners, lighting up the area with mesmerizing flames. As the balloon slowly took shape and stood upright, we were in awe of its size.
After receiving appropriate instructions from Captain Mike, we climbed into the gondola (wicker basket holding the passengers). None of us had ever flown in a hot air balloon before, so we were naturally a little nervous. Nevertheless, we eagerly waited for liftoff. The very moment we left the ground, all our fears immediately vanished — into thin air you could say.
The balloon lifted off with an unexpected grace, and I was taken by surprise at how smooth, calming, and quiet the ride was.
You might think we were in Bagan, an area famous for ancient pagodas and hot air balloons, but you would be mistaken. Instead, we traveled 12 hours north of Yangon — 140 miles east of Bagan — to a lake famous for its fishermen that paddle with one-leg while balancing on the end of their canoe. There we meet up with our flight crew on Inle Lake in Shan State.
The balloon didn’t need to get very high before you get a birds eye view of the beautiful floating tomato fields, houses on stilts, and fishermen practicing their trade, all nestled in Nyaung Shwe Valley with mountains flanking both sides. The views were so beautiful, no one spoke, we simply tried to absorb every detail our eyes could see.
There have been many forms of transportation invented — airplanes (1903), automobile (1886), bicycle (1817), and steam powered locomotive (1804) — but the hot air balloon (1783) predates them all. Each of these modes of transportation is satisfying in their own way, but ballooning allows you to experience Myanmar like you’ve never seen before. If you’re planning a trip to Myanmar to see its ancient culture, and traditional way of life, why not do so in one of the oldest forms of transportation?
We took the 6 hour boat tour of Inle Lake the day before — and of course we recommend that — however, seeing the lake, the valley, and everything else from the balloon’s perspective was spectacular! Even at very low altitudes, you immediately get a different view of Myanmar that just isn’t possible any other way.
After returning to Yangon and talking to a few people about hot air balloons, it became apparent that there were two common statements that hold people back from taking a balloon ride. The first is fear of heights. I also wondered how I would feel during the trip, but no one from our group had an issue. In fact, it’s said that ballooning doesn’t usually affect people with fear of heights, because it travels with the wind, making the basket very stable in flight, and I would agree with that. As I mentioned above, it was a very smooth ride.
Cost was the other issue people cited. Ballooning is highly regulated in Myanmar with strict guidelines. We flew with Balloons over Inle, the same company that operates Balloons over Bagan. Their balloons are built to British aerospace standards and imported from the UK. Everyone working with their team — from the ground crew, to inspectors, and pilots — are professional. Captain Mike was no exception and provided a highly enjoyable experience. Knowing you are getting the best from an experienced company, is worth the peace of mind.