Float­ing over Bhutan, in a hot-air bal­loon

There is a new way to ex­pe­ri­ence the ex­otic king­dom - in a hot-air bal­loon

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Martin Fletcher

It is dawn in a re­mote and ma­jes­tic val­ley in the tiny Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan.

As my daugh­ter Han­nah and I wait in a frosty field in the ear­ly­morn­ing chill, we are served cof­fee and tea in china mugs laid out on a linen-cov­ered ta­ble.

Fi­nally, just as the sun rises over the snowflecked moun­tains to the east, the prepa­ra­tions are com­pleted. Six of us climb some­what ap­pre­hen­sively into a large wicker bas­ket.

Then, with one last blast of flam­ing gas into the great red canopy above us, we be­gin to float up­wards.

Our team of young helpers cheer. The inau­gu­ral flight of the world’s high­est com­mer­cial hot-air bal­loon ser­vice is un­der way.

For the next hour, a light breeze pro­pels us gen­tly down the ma­jes­tic Phob­jika val­ley and, as the sun burns away the mist, we revel in the scenery un­fold­ing all around us.

On both sides, the val­ley’s forested flanks - the lair of leop­ards, bears and wild boar - rise steeply to the skyline.

To the north, the 400year-old, multi-tiered Gangtey Goenpa monastery stands on a ridge, dom­i­nat­ing the val­ley phys­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally.

We drift serenely south­wards, fol­low­ing the sil­ver rib­bon of the Nakey Chuu river as it snakes through bogs and wa­ter mead­ows.

We float over gol­droofed tem­ples and small white stu­pas, over clus­ters of colour­ful prayer flags and white-washed Bhutanese farm­houses with won­der­fully or­nate wooden win­dows, over the rich brown earth of freshly tilled potato fields.

We pass over horses, cows, the odd shaggy yak and a pack of feral dogs that bark fu­ri­ously at the huge translu­cent globe high in the sky above them. Knots of early-ris­ing school­child­ren and the odd peas­ant farmer stand and watch, amazed, the ap­pari­tion glid­ing over their heads.

The breeze picks up as the val­ley narrows, and so does our speed. Our pick-up truck is far be­hind, jolt­ing along the rut­ted track that is the val­ley’s only road.

Far be­low, our helpers are splash­ing through bogs, laugh­ing and pant­ing as they des­per­ately try to keep up. We progress so smoothly, so silently, that it seems the earth is mov­ing, not us.

Even­tu­ally, Mr Cary Crawley, a pro­fes­sional bal­loon pi­lot from Eng­land, brings us gen­tly down. The bas­ket bumps three times along a grassy meadow and ends up on its side.

Fu­ture pas­sen­gers will be greeted with cham­pagne and taken away on horses, but not us - this be­ing merely the ex­per­i­men­tal first flight.

No­body minds. We’re all ex­hil­a­rated - even the two of­fi­cials from Bhutan’s civil avi­a­tion depart­ment who have come to in­spect a form of trans­port they know noth­ing about. We climb out, shake hands, high- five and take pic­tures.

“I told you we’d do it - and we did,” Mr Brett Melzer de­clares tri­umphantly as he em­braces Ms Khin Omar Win, his wife and busi­ness part­ner.

Their ela­tion is en­tirely un­der­stand­able, for the flight is the cul­mi­na­tion of a decade-long ven­ture that can be de­scribed only as quixotic.

Ms Win, who was raised in Bri­tain, met Mr Melzer, the footloose son of an Aus­tralian oil­man based in Sin­ga­pore, af­ter she re­turned to her na­tive Myan­mar in 1997 to work for the UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme.

To­gether, they pi­o­neered bal­loon rides over Myan­mar’s fa­mous Ba­gan tem­ple com­plex.

As “Bal­loons over Ba­gan” flour­ished, they branched out, open­ing a lux­ury lodge in the jun­gle of north­ern Myan­mar that was ac­ces­si­ble only by air.

In 2009, the regime crony who owned the air­line that served Ma­likha Lodge, forced them to sell it to him by sus­pend­ing all flights.

Un­daunted, the pair res­ur­rected an idea they had shelved while build­ing the lodge - bal­loon­ing in Bhutan, another ex­otic and lit­tle-known coun­try that was just open­ing up to the world.

They em­ployed Mr Crawley to ex­plore the crum­pled king­dom of soar­ing moun­tains and plung­ing val­leys cre­ated when the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent col­lided with Eura­sia.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Bhutan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.