I love a great viewpoint, that’s one of my favourite things to do on a trip – find the highest point somewhere and pretend I’m a bird, taking in the view. It’s a pattern that’s emerged in my recent birthdays where I treat myself to something cool – last year I flew above the Nazca Lines in Peru and the year before that I hung out on top of the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo. This year, I treated myself to my first-ever hot air balloon ride in Bagan, flying over the iconic temples in central Myanmar.
Read on for more about my experience and what you need to know if you plan to do this for yourself, whether I think it is worth it (by golly it is EXPENSIVE), or check out the article I wrote for Yahoo Travel Inspirations about Ballooning in Bagan.
Deciding whether to fly
I had flown up to Myanmar at the invitation of Pan Pacific Yangon – read more about what I did in my time in Yangon – but I made some time to take my own detour to one other major spot in the country, and I decided on Bagan as I had heard and read so much about taking a hot air balloon over plains filled with over countless stupas, pagodas and temples, and I wanted to treat myself to something epic for my birthday.
And the first thing I found was yes, ballooning in Bagan would be an epic experience, but it would also be epically expensive (see details in the cost section below). I’m the sort of person who’s usually happy to splurge a little on experiences, but consider it’s over US$330 for me to take an hour-long hot air balloon flight over Bagan – I could buy a round trip ticket on a budget airline to somewhere as far as Taiwan for that price.
Also, opinions from friends were firmly split down the middle. Some said it was once in a lifetime, others counselled that I could do it cheaper in other places (more on alternative locations you can ride a hot air balloon in Asia below) but the Bagan landscape is pretty special – there aren’t many other places that are covered with temples like Bagan – so I decided that YOLO and treated myself to this extravagance.
Which company to fly with?
Currently there are 3 companies operating hot air balloons in Bagan with different packages and offerings (as of Jul 2018):
- Oriental Ballooning (Green)
- US$399 (12pax, +photos, +souvenir)
- Golden Eagle Ballooning (Yellow)
- Standard Flight: US$330 (12pax)
- Premium Flight: US$390 (4-8pax, +photos/video, +souvenir)
- Balloons Over Bagan (Red)
- Standard Flight: US$350 (+photo, +$20 surcharge during Dec/Jan peak)
- Premium Flight: US$450 (8 pax, +photos, +interactive guided tour from inflation to take off, +full continental breakfast after landing, + souvenir)
I had a contact who helped me negotiate a small discount with Oriental Ballooning in exchange for some shots on Facebook and Instagram, which helped ease my pain a little. So as a disclaimer – I had a good experience overall with Oriental Ballooning, but this isn’t a sponsored post though I did get a discount for my own balloon ride for producing social content for them.
That said, my experience with Oriental Ballooning was quite positive and I would recommend them. They aren’t the cheapest though – that goes to Golden Eagle’s Standard Flight though it doesn’t seem to include photos.
What ballooning day is like
Here’s what a morning spent hot air ballooning is like. I spent my first morning in Bagan watching the balloons from below, and the second morning actually in the air myself.
A super early start
Call time for ballooning is around 4-5am depending on where you are in the pickup schedule. The ballooning company picks you up in a little bus and takes you to the starting point. It isn’t the same all the time as it depends on the wind and weather conditions for the day. My take off field was somewhere near the Nyaung U Golf Club.
There were several tables and chairs laid out, each labelled with a different name, that turned out to be the name of our pilot for the day. Our pilot Rick greeted us, and we helped ourselves to a small breakfast spread in the dark. All the while, you can hear sharp blasts nearby as the crew prep and check the balloons and apparatus.
As it started to get brighter, Rick gathered us together for a bit of a safety briefing that covered what to expect, how to get in and out of the balloon. The crew started blowing fans into the balloons to help them inflate, and all of a sudden it was time for us to get going. Rick called for us and we clambered into the basket quickly – it’s split into quarters and he had pre-split us into groups so that we would balance the basket. I sat myself down on seats so low that all I could see around me was wicker basket, tucked my hand into the wrist straps just in case as we prepared for take off.
The balloon flight
And… liftoff! The weights were removed from the basket and we started to rise steadily. There were 3 other Oriental Ballooning balloons that day but we were the first ones in the air.
You realise that other than all the exclamations and conversation made by the people around you, it’s really quiet up in the air at dawn. You would think it would be hard to see things happening below, but you can actually make out a surprising amount of detail. I could see something rat-sized rustling its way through a field, dogs wandering around the dirt paths, scooters zipping around trying to find the best sunrise spots.
Landing and the end
The ride itself lasted about an hour, and after that initial moment of exhilaration and incessant photo taking has passed, it was nice to just enjoy the stillness in the air for a bit. But soon enough it was almost over and we were headed for the landing spot with the rest of the balloons.
Our landing was pretty bumpy, and Rick had us sit down and brace ourself as we landed with a bit of a thump. The OB helpers on the ground rushed into to help steady the basket as the wind pulled the balloon forward and we tipped over a very precarious angle, almost on the verge of tossing us all onto the ground (yes it happens!).
But luckily for us they managed to get it upright soon enough, and we all hopped out safely and sat down in some field chair for a mini post-flight celebration.
Post-flight refreshments include a nice cold wet towel, some drinks and of course a glass of champagne because why not? Because it was my birthday, I got to keep the champagne cork at the end! In addition, we were also presented with a little certificate, as well as a fridge magnet souvenir to take home in a mini paper bag.
The shuttle bus picked us up and I got dropped back at my hostel. The time now is just about 8am and breakfast had just begun. It’s hard to believe that I had an amazing adventure all before some people had even gotten up, and I still had a whole day left ahead of me. I desperately needed a nap at that point though, and only emerged again closer to lunch time.
Would I do go hot air ballooning in Bagan again? I would definitely love to but the price is a big sticking point – I just can’t afford to at this point. There are plenty of other locations that offer hot air ballooning that I do want to check out, including the famous Cappadocia in Turkey as well as Taitung on Taiwan’s east coast.
Hot air ballooning in South East Asia
Bagan is by far the most famous spot to go hot air ballooning in Myanmar, though that success is likely why the prices are so insane. But note that balloon flights in Bagan generally only operate from mid October to mid April during the cooler months.
Other spots in Myanmar
Oriental Ballooning also offers flights over Inle Lake, Mandalay and Ngapali Beach.
Balloons over Bagan offers flights over Inle Lake and a 2-day private ballooning tour that covers Inle and Pindaya.
Siem Reap is perhaps your next best option if you want to ride over temples with Angkor Ballooning providing 30 minute sunrise and sunset rides from December to March. It is much cheaper at US$125 as compared to Bagan though it doesn’t seem like there are as many temples as in Bagan, and from what I’ve seen on Tripadvisor, one of the highlights is apparently getting to rain sweets down for children in the villages you pass over.
Vang Vieng has supposedly the cheapest hot air balloon rides at just US$90 per pax for a 30-minute ride with Balloons over Vang Vieng. You get to ride over the natural limestone rocks and rural villages in Vang Vieng, and while I couldn’t quite find an actual website for clarification, but you can check out this page at VLT Tours for more.
Chiang Mai is another hot air ballooning spot to check out where Balloon Adventure Thailand takes you on a 50 minute ride over . Priced at 8,800 THB (S$360), it’s not particularly cheap though! If you love hot air balloons, you can also check out the Singha Park Chiang Rai Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, an international hot air ballooning competition that usually takes place in February.
Putrajaya near Kuala Lumpur is home to MyBalloon Adventure where you get a 45-minute ride over the city of Putrajaya and its lake – a flight package typically costs 1,000 RM or about S$340, though you can get last minute packages for a little bit cheaper at 900 RM. They have hosted the Putrajaya International Ballooning Festival now known as MyBalloon Fiesta since 2009 and there is another festival that takes place in Penang as well.
Where to stay in Bagan
Ostello Bello [affiliate link] is one of the more prominent hostels in Bagan, but I stayed at the newer Ostello Bello Bagan Pool [affiliate link] as it was pretty hot and just having access to a swimming pool was such a welcome treat. I stayed in the 4-bed female dorm which was very spacious and had its own attached toilet for just US$16/S$22 per night.
One thing to note – there is air conditioning in the room but apparently rolling electrical black outs happen throughout the night because of an over demand for electricity in Bagan, so you might wake up in the middle of the night sweating.