So you’re thinking of taking a hot air balloon ride in Old Bagan, Myanmar? Here’s what you need to know and why the experience was totally worth it.
I’ve been obsessed with The Wizard of Oz since I was a child, so naturally riding in a hot air balloon has always been on my bucket list. It’s an expensive experience, though, so I wanted to save it for when I was in a worthy location. Enter: Bagan, Myanmar.
Bagan, Myanmar, is considered one of the best places in the world for hot air balloon flights. The city is an archaeological zone where over 1,000 ancient pagodas are in the process of being restored. Western influence is slow to take hold of Myanmar, so you won’t find chain restaurants or tall, modern buildings in Bagan. The result is stunning: ancient pagodas of varying sizes and materials dot the land between lush trees and dirt roads.
The view of Bagan from a hot air balloon is truly unique. Where else can you find relics of a past world without the impediment of modern structures and technology?
Read on if you aren’t convinced.
My Bagan Hot Air Balloon Experience
After 2 nights of not sleeping (thank you, hacking cough and bumpy night bus) I woke up at 4.30 am for my hot air balloon ride with Oriental Ballooning. The night before they’d asked me to be ready for pick up at my hotel by 5:00 am, not the original 5:15-5:45, and it did not make me happy. At 5:35 I was still sitting in the cold early morning air; getting eaten by mosquitoes drawn to my hotel’s outdoor lights, hoping this sunrise ride will be worth my third night of little-to-no sleep.
The bus eventually came, and I understand why they were late: the balloon camp is practically in my hotel’s backyard. Heavy rain the night before changed the wind direction at the last minute, so the take-off point was relocated. At least I didn’t have to sit on the bus for long.
I was impressed when we arrived to see four clothed tables set with dinnerware and silver in Oriental Ballooning’s trademark dark green and white. A food truck behind the tables offered cereal, juice, coffee, tea, and muffins. A little bit of luxury goes a long way at 5:45 am.
The other 7 passengers from my van and I are instructed to sit at the table marked “Jonny”, indicating our hot air balloon pilot. We sit and begin to mingle once we realize we’ll be together for the rest of the morning. Our group seems to represent the whole world, and only one has ever been on a hot air balloon ride before.
As we eat one member shares a story of an elderly man me met on a different balloon trip who thought the balloons lifted and then came straight down. The man was scared when t started to travel, but ended up loving the trip. I say, “Well, if we don’t end up in Oz I’ll be disappointed.” Crickets. Is that an American thing?
Soon our group is startled to hear balloon engines roar to life, giant flaming sparklers taking place right behind us while the equipment is tested.
Way to up the drama, Oriental Ballooning.
Oriental Ballooning Pilots and Safety
Our operator, Jonny, greets us at our table for some vital information. He explains that they’re letting out test balloons to check the direction of the wind, and invites us to our balloon for a safety talk. I’m tempted to ask for his operating permit, but he has a clipboard so I decide to trust him.
Once at our balloon, Jonny not only gives us a brief itinerary and shows us the balloon and basket, he also clearly tells us not to smoke, not to drop things from the air, and not to climb out of the basket. I can’t help but wonder who climbed out of the basket, threw stuff down, and caught their balloon on fire to warrant such warnings.
You know what they say: you haven’t lived until someone gives a warning because of you.
I was surprised to see the gold and red balloons from Bagan’s other hot air balloon companies spring to life beside ours. Jonny explained that all three companies are in close contact and fly together every day. In fact, he has a walkie talkie dedicated to communicating with the other two companies. A second walkie talkie is to talk with other Oriental Ballooning pilots, and a third connects him to the local airport. I didn’t realize coordinating so many flying objects required such planning, but it makes sense and I’m grateful they’ve taken such care to be aware of one another.
Once I’ve gotten the courage to ask about his qualifications I realize Jonny is an expert among experts. He even grew up in the industry. His father owned a hot air balloon company in the U.K., and Jonny worked for a balloon manufacturer becoming a commercial pilot. It took him 2 years to get the necessary training, and has now logged over 1600 flight hours over a 19 year career.
Jonny splits his year between the flying seasons in Myanmar and the Serengeti, and I can’t help but bet jealous of his lifestyle. Yes, I’m travelling the world in search of the best adventures and most beautiful places, but he gets to fly in a balloon every day!
Flying Over Old Bagan
Jonny explains that before 2015 hot air balloon pilots were allowed to take off and land at their own discretion. There were no accidents of pilots flying too close to pagodas, but restrictions were put in place to protect the cultural significance of the area, anyway.
Translation: don’t expect to get right beside the pagoda stupas like the hot air balloons on post cards.
Once we were in the air I couldn’t imagine the experience any more beautiful, though. It was an absolutely breathtaking flight.
The ground was covered by thick, patchy mist due to recent rain. As our balloon rose in the air we saw temples covered by white mist. Eventually we floated over the city, golden Pagoda peaks glimmering in the sun. Cars, hotels, and roads were invisible as we hovered over the earth. Temples of Old Bagan shown through the mist patches, making us feel as though we really had stepped back in time.
The flight lasted for 90 minutes but felt like mere moments. I’m afraid of heights and expected to be scared once we reached cruising altitudes, but the ride was so smooth that I always felt secure. In fact, I was soon addicted to looking over the edge of our tall basket.
Jonny spouted off facts of the various points we were flying near, but I could hardly pay attention. My only fear became missing a single view of this incredible wonderland.
We shared a sparkling wine as we exited the basket in a field. Our pilot, the expert among experts, was the only one to reach our designated landing spot. Every other pilot had to radio in their back-up locations due to the heavy mist and low visibility. He asked everyone to wave as we took a picture as the solo balloon. I’m sure he earned free drinks at the bar that night!
Read: Staying in Old Bagan? Here are some great Bagan hotels!
Bagan Hot Air Balloon Ride Pictures
I’ve already written 2,000 words on the topic, but pictures really are worth more than words. Here’s visual proof of why a hot air balloon ride in Bagan, Myanmar, is totally worth it!
All About Oriental Ballooning
I chose Oriental Ballooning for my hot air balloon flight in Bagan, Myanmar, for a variety of reasons. They were so courteous when I e-mailed with questions, and their flights are limited to only 8-12 passengers. A hot air balloon flight is meant to be special, and I just can’t imagine it being as wonderful when crammed around 20 strangers. Sorry!
Oriental Ballooning Flight Inclusions
In case the incredible view isn’t good enough, here are some other things you can expect when you book with Oriental Ballooning:
- Pick up and drop off from any hotel in Bagan in a comfortable van
- Early morning breakfast of pastries, coffee, tea, juice, and cereal
- Official Oriental Balloon souvenir baseball cap
- Official Oriental Ballooning magnetic bottle opener
- Certificate of flight completion personalized and signed by your pilot
- Sparkling wine (or juice) and fruit celebration at the end of your flight
- Free pictures from your flight available within 24 hours
Preparing for your Hot Air Balloon Flight:
- Book in advance. Hot air balloon season in Bagan only lasts during the 5 winter months, and some dates book up fast! You definitely don’t want to lose the opportunity, so book your flight as early as possible.
- Children under 8 years old are not permitted. The basket walls are 4 feet high, and younger children may not be able to climb in or out or follow directions.
- Passengers over 300 lbs. will be required to pay double the price. This is because only 2 passengers are allowed in each section of the hot air balloon basket, and those two need to be able to climb in and out and sit and stand on command comfortably. The sections simply are not big enough for two people to be safe and comfortable, so passengers over 300 lbs. will have a section to themselves.
- Get a good night’s sleep! The bus picks up between 5:00 am and 5:45, and you want to be alert
- Wear pants. Believe me, I completely understand the urge to wear a pretty dress for stunning pictures beside a hot air balloon. The truth, however, is that you won’t have the opportunity. You must stay behind safety lines while the balloon is being filled, there are crew members everywhere, and you are surrounded by other passengers once on your flight. Not only that, but you also have to climb in and out of a 4′ tall basket, which is going to be difficult in a skirt!
- Wear a jacket. It is cold in the morning before the sun comes out, and it can be windy once you’re flying. Be prepared to combat the cold with a light jacket.
- Camera. Obviously. A camera phone, DSLR, or GoPro will all work to take great photos of your hot air balloon experience. If possible bring a telephoto lens to capture the distant pagodas. I didn’t and I wish I had!
- Bring a small backpack. You will want a bag to store your jacket and camera, but nothing too large. You, a partner, and your two bags will be in one small compartment and you’ll want all the space you can get.
- There will be gift vendors who approach you after your flight. Bring money if you’re interested in buying post cards, elephant pants, lacquered boxes, etc.
Oriental Ballooning Price
Oriental Ballooning costs $380 USD. This price seems high, so it’s important to keep in mind what it reflects.
Oriental Ballooning only hires the best pilots from around the world. They also purchase and maintain the safest imported equipment, which gets expensive! Aside from the pilot and the hot air balloon, there are several members of the local staff who help set up breakfast, drive you back and forth, and help set up, take down, and transport the hot air balloon and basket.
Believe me, if you’re hot air balloon company is too inexpensive that means they are probably cutting corners. And you do not want that.
Book your hot air balloon flight directly here
Planning a trip to Bagan? Pin this article on how to book a hot air balloon flight for later!