Taking to the skies in a hot-air balloon as the sun slowly breaks above the horizon is a pretty exciting, ‘tick-it-off-the-bucket-list’ experience many of us would love to have… But riding in a balloon over Bagan, or Inle Lake, two of Myanmar’s top tourist sites – that’s the kind of thing that makes your trip to Myanmar truly unforgettable! With Balloons Over Bagan, Myanmar’s largest ballooning company, having over 20 years of expertise, treating yourself to a sunrise ride is very easy and something you should definitely consider for that ultimate travel experience! While the most common site is in Bagan, this particular company also run a few flights over Inle Lake.
My alarm sprung to life unusually early at 4:45 AM, but I had already been restless for half an hour, too excited to get much sleep anyway. A bus whizzes around collecting everyone from their hotels, and dropping them at the launch site; it picked me up right on time. At Inle Lake, the bus merely took me to the harbour, from where a 30 minute boat ride was required to reach the launch site, an amazing experience in itself, as we sliced through the water, unable to see much other than the stars above, and the inky silhouettes of banana trees in the moon’s half-light.
At the launch sites, a seating area was prepared with tea, coffee, and biscuits, and a chance to meet your fellow flying companions. At Bagan, this was a huge scale operation; there would be 21 balloons flying that day, and my balloon would have 16 people plus the pilot. The excitement was tangible, with most people flying for the first time. Inle Lake was a more intimate affair with only one other balloon taking to the skies, and my balloon carrying only 4 other people!
Getting Ready For the Hot Air Balloon Ride in Myanmar
Following an informative safety briefing, it was time to inflate the balloons which were sprawled lifeless on the grass. This was especially impressive at Bagan where, as if on cue, and with an enormous roar, 21 burners simultaneously came to life like fire-breathing dragons, illuminating the still-dark morning. Balloons swelled with hot air all around, making for an impressive panorama everywhere I looked. I had never been so close to a hot air balloon before and was surprised by the size, suddenly feeling very small in comparison.
We climbed, or maybe I should say ‘fell’ into the basket; it was a challenge to get into the high basket, but that also meant it was difficult to get out, which is reassuring when you are preparing to go 1000’s of feet in the air! From the basket, the burner was deafening, and the heat hits you like a wave when you open the oven. Luckily, everyone was presented with a gift of a baseball cap to help keep the heat from our face. The smiling Burmese ground crew from Balloons Over Bagan weighted the basket from outside keeping us grounded until suddenly they all jumped back. Instantly, the ground fell away beneath us and we began to rise. The ground crew beamed vast and genuine Burmese grins towards us, waving and wishing us a good flight!
Editor’s Note: Traveling the country? Check out our list of the Best Places to Stay in Myanmar
Hot Air Balloon Over Bagan
Bagan, once the capital of a wealthy empire, boasts thousands of religious monuments on its plains. Witnessing the sheer number and the impressive architectural remains of these stupas, temples, and monasteries is one of the biggest attraction of riding a hot air balloon in Bagan.
In the cool early morning thick clouds of fog roll in from the nearby Irrawaddy River, weaving itself between the ruins. The sun rises from the east beside the silhouette of distant hills, casting the scene below in a tranquil golden hue. The balloon on this flight tends to stay relatively low, reaching a high of only about 1,000 feet; it sounds a lot, but it is close enough to absorb the fine details in the temples which appear close enough for you to lean out and touch them.
The pilot expertly rotates the balloon throughout the flight, ensuring everyone has the same view wherever they are positioned. This, combined with the slow pace of the balloon gliding in the wind, offers a perfect pace from which to absorb the ever-changing scene below, revolving as if on a conveyor belt. The view shifts every few seconds with new temples appearing and others fading away.
The other spectacle to witness at Bagan is the number of other balloons in the sky alongside you. My balloon was the last to take off, displaying a stunning 3D view ahead. Some balloons were close, appearing to be massive, while others were distant and seemed tiny. Some were high in the sky, watching everything unfold below them, while others appeared to be brushing the tops of the temples. Every balloon had its own pace and trajectory, which Robert, our pilot explained was because the wind blew differently at various altitudes. This ensures each flight is a unique and unpredictable adventure, and even the pilot cannot say exactly where we will land, or which way we will go.
After just over an hour, we began to come down to land. We passed over local farmers working in their fields, and traveling in oxcarts. 21 balloons flying just overhead and coming to land in the neighboring field was a common enough site that they didn’t even look up from their work.
Safely back down, welcomed by the smiling ground crew, a seating area was quickly recreated, flutes of champagne were passed around, and we were toasting with the pilot to a flight experience that none of us will forget anytime soon. We enjoyed a light breakfast before being shuttled back to out hotel, having had the most exciting start to our day imaginable.
Hot Air Balloon Ride Over Lake Inle
Flying over Lake Inle was a different kind of experience altogether. With such a small group in the basket (4 other people + Ian, the pilot), and only one other balloon in the sky, the atmosphere was very relaxed, and we were able to chat with Ian and ask lots of questions. This balloon flight also climbs much higher than at Bagan, and we peaked at about 6,000 feet. Except for when the burners were fired up, there was silence, and a sense of peace and solitude, alone, drifting high in the sky. Below, fishermen were at work early crawling along the lake in their narrow boats like ants, cars sped along the road, and the villages slowly awoke.
The ground crew followed below us in two boats joined by a plank of wood scarcely wider than the basket itself. In an emergency, we would be able to land on this ‘raft’ and get carried safely to shore. We were all dubious that it was possible to land on such a small moving platform, but Ian was happy to demonstrate. Our balloon glided down to the lake until we were just meters above the surface. I couldn’t see the raft below us, but I could hear the reassuring ‘put-put’ noise from its twin engines so I knew it was there, standing between us and a wet landing! Expert skill and communication skills from Ian and the ground crew brought the balloon to a very soft landing on the raft, in the middle of Inle Lake. Everyone was suitably impressed. We paused for just a moment before a roar of the burners and we were back in the sky, looking down on the raft where we had just been, and maybe even feeling a little bit safer!
Lake Inle, nestled in a valley and surround by formidable mountains, is beautiful. Especially at sunrise. But it was the human element of the people that live on, and survive from, the lake that amazed me most. Houses, monasteries, shops, schools, – entire villages – are built on stilts in the lake, and the people who live there travel between them by boat. The edges of the lake are covered with floating gardens – long, straight rows of vegetation and soil are clumped together to produce an organic floating platform upon which other crops such as tomatoes are grown. These floating gardens form a beautiful pattern of art from above, and amazingly represent a very unique way of life with humans living harmoniously with nature.
Unlike at Bagan, a balloon flying overhead remains a novelty for the locals who live in these villages, and they would dart from their houses to wave, shout min-ga-la-ba (hello) and take a selfie. When we landed in a sugar cane field (harvested), we were instantly surrounded by a whole village who had come out to admire the balloon and say hello to us. We interacted and took photos of them, while they took photos of us, and then, once again, it was time for a champagne toast with the pilot to another successful flight.
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How Much Does a Hot Air Balloon Ride Cost?
Generally speaking, the cost of riding hot air balloons are quite pricey. However, after doing them myself, it is something definitely worth splurging on. Balloons over Bagan have been operating for since 1999 so you know that you can trust their level of service.
Price List as of 2017:
Classic Balloon Flight:
1st October 2016 to 31st March 2017 (excluding Xmas & New Year period) USD 330 per person 20th December 2016 to 5th January 2017 (Xmas & New Year period) USD 340 per person
Premium Balloon Flight:
1st October 2016 to 31st March 2017 (excluding Xmas & New Year period) USD 390 per person 20th December 2016 to 5th January 2017 (Xmas & New Year period) USD 400 per person
Apart from the balloon flight itself, the price also includes all transport, and a light champagne breakfast- which in my opinion, really takes the whole experience to another level.
For up to date prices and information, head on over to the website of Balloons Over Bagan
I think it is also important to write briefly about what Balloons Over Bagan calls its ‘corporate social responsibility’, as they are heavily invested in developing the local area, donating money to help build schools, support flood victims, and a variety of other projects. Also, the local ground crew staff are employed for a full 12 months, despite the ballooning season being only 6-months long. The remaining 6 months they work on community-based projects. Flying with a company like Balloons Over Bagan promotes sustainable tourism, and helps give something to the local community.
Soaring above the floating gardens and the villages on stilts of Lake Inle, or hovering over the temple-strewn plains of Bagan are not cheap, however, they are incredibly worthwhile experiences which I have no doubt will make your trip to Myanmar truly unforgettable. If you have the money to treat yourself, there can be no better way than booking a flight with Balloons Over Bagan. The only dilemma is whether you want to fly over Bagan or Inle! I personally would recommend both as they offer different and unique experiences.
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