Bagan. The very first images that come to my mind when I picture this incredible UNESCO site are not only of ancient pagodas. Blame Instagram if you may, but I cannot seem to imagine Bagan without the dozens of hot air balloons that fly over its historic horizon and millennium-old pagodas at the crack of dawn, each winter morning.
Being something that still lightens my eyes when I talk about it months later, I totally get why they say it’s a must add experience to any bucket list. I mean, I clearly remember how the excitement of going flying kept me awake all night and how surreal the entire adventure of soaring above temples of all kinds felt, from start to finish.
Wanting to relive all the magical stories of hot air balloons in Bagan that I had heard of, I knew in an instant that I wanted to go with a company that first introduced this adventure to Myanmar. Starting with a single hot air balloon and a handful of crew 20 years ago, to becoming an iconic image of Myanmar today; Balloons over Bagan is the pioneer of commercial hot air ballooning in the region and has become one of my favourite success stories of all time.
Disclaimer: I was kindly invited by Balloons over Bagan to fly with them, but as always, all opinion here are my own. This post also contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase using any of those links, I may get a small commission. Thank you for your continued support!
When do the hot air balloons in Bagan operate?
The hot air balloons in Bagan usually operate from the beginning of October to the middle of April, depending on how the weather is each morning. Having travelled around late January this year, I found it to be the perfect time to be visiting Bagan as we got clear skies throughout our stay and were able to witness the hot air balloons take off every single sunrise.
There are four different companies that do commercial hot air ballooning in the area and most of them offer sunrise flights only. I personally felt that there is no better time to float over ancient stupas than this. Not only does morning light make your photos look absolutely incredible, but the experience of witnessing the rising sun from hundreds of metres above the sea level is incomparable, to say the least.
The ride itself lasts anywhere around 45-60 minutes and booking way in advance is always recommended. Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays are usually when the peak in demand happens, so if you can, I would advise you to avoid those dates. The reason being, if your balloon flight unfortunately gets cancelled due to bad weather, you are more likely to find an empty spot to try again when they are not fully booked.
CG’s tip: Make sure to spend more than a night or two in Bagan and book your flight for one of the first sunrises there. Since all the balloon companies happily accommodate you on the next available date at no additional costs (for weather-related cancellations), it is always good to have another opportunity handy.
And in case you get to go on the first day itself, you can always spend your spare mornings chasing the balloons from the ground or even go for another ride like I did.
What to expect when going on a hot air balloon in Bagan?
My hot air balloon in Bagan experience began as soon as I first set foot in the airport and saw incredible images of giant red balloons floating above a panorama of temples and foliage in the arrival lounge. Instantly rushing to my friend, I pointed at the ceiling talking about how excited I was to see it all unfold the following morning.
Thrilled about going on a hot air balloon at sunrise, we quickly checked into our hotel and headed to the sales office of Balloons over Bagan (which was just 3 minutes away by foot) to get all the necessary instructions. You see, not only do the hot air balloon companies take you flying above pagodas, but also pick you up from your hotel and drop you back after the ride.
So, after getting briefed about our pick-up time (can vary depending on when sunrise is and where you are staying), clothing requirements and dreaming a little; we left to have dinner and call it a night in preparation for our 4 am alarm clock.
After barely getting any sleep due to an irresistible excitement, I found myself waiting for our transport at the hotel reception, way too early. Not knowing what to expect, I was amazed to see a vintage bus with Balloons over Bagan written on either side of it pull up in the driveway.
With eyes filled with sparks (and sleep) and heart with wanderlust, we sat in the centuries old bus that spoke volumes about Myanmar’s heritage with its teakwood interiors. And although wonderfully restored to provide utmost comfort, I loved how it still resembled the eras gone by and looked so photogenic at the same time.
Soon after a very short ride (we were the last ones to be picked up), we arrived in a dark open field and were shown to a smaller area adjacent to our bus that was nicely lit with torches to form a little circle. With a table full of hot beverages and cookies, we were then welcomed to help ourselves and find a seat next to it.
Whilst waiting for everyone to be seated, I curiously glanced at the open field in front of me and noticed tons of other torches lighting up various small circles that were scattered around the ground. Shortly after, I heard a voice of one of the pilots introducing himself and explaining how the morning would go on. Dividing everyone into two groups of 16 each by a roll call, he introduced a second pilot and off we headed to the balloon basket.
The thrill before taking off
An overwhelming emotion engulfed me as soon as Pilot Clive gathered us around our giant deflated red balloon on the ground and began a short safety briefing. Having already been on a hot air balloon in another part of the world a few years ago, I could somewhat anticipate the once in a lifetime experience that this was going to be.
After becoming familiar with the rules and safety features of the balloon, we were then introduced to our take-off and landing positions for the flight. In case you were wondering, all the instructions were given in English and also translated to a native language for those who weren’t comfortable with it. Once everyone understood what was expected out of them, we were then asked to step back a little and let the ground crew get our ride ready.
Standing next to our photogenic bus with fans blowing up the balloon and the sun beginning to rise behind it, I found myself already amazed with the sight in front of me. You see, the huge dark field filled with nothing but small torches had now instantly blossomed into a majestic open ground full of hot air balloons and excited passengers in the blink of an eye.
I remember beaming about all the days that I had spent admiring pictures of hot air balloons in Bagan and wanting to pinch myself to realise how it had now become a reality, and yet a very dreamy one at that. With balloons all around us in the field, we got into our basket one-by-one and patiently waited for our turn to finally take the skies.
Time for the awaited hot air balloon in Bagan flight
Now, what followed after was exactly what you would imagine a hot air balloon in Bagan experience to be like. Standing in the corner of our basket, I heard the sound of hot air blowing in the balloon and just like that, we rose smoothly into the air and waved goodbye to the ground crew.
Moments later, our gentle take-off uncovered a bird’s eye view of over 2,200 temples and it was then that I realised how I had never seen anything quite like this before. With a magical golden sun rising in the distance and dozens of balloons hanging in the air like ornaments on a Christmas tree, I admired how my surroundings lifted in unison.
Flowing with the air currents, we started hovering over Old Bagan as Pilot Clive explained how ballooning works and offered a guided look into the years of history beneath us. Since most of the pilots at Balloons over Bagan have been working with the company for many years now, I absolutely loved how knowledgeable they were about Myanmar and its culture (especially since they’re not locals).
In their attempt of making sure that everyone gets an undisrupted view of this unique landscape of pagodas and peanut farms, I valued how the pilots took a 360 degree turn every time there was a sight not to be missed on either side. Thanks to the GoPro that is mounted on all the hot air balloons, I absolutely loved how our pilot took many photos of us in the sky and uploaded them on their website for a lifetime access to our memories.
CG’s tip: Make sure to wear layers for your balloon ride because even though it will be cold early in the morning, there are chances that you can feel hot when the burner in the balloon gets going (I know, I did).
Regardless of how badly I didn’t want this dreamlike ride to come to an end, I began to notice some balloons around us going closer to the ground and realised that our 60 minutes were up too. I guess, time really does fly when you are having fun.
Getting nearer to our landing spot, I was surprised to see the ground crew of our balloon following us along with the vintage bus to take us all back. You see, depending on the air currents, the landing zone could be different for all the balloons flying and pilots usually have to look for a suitable one with flat terrains and as few obstacles as possible.
Coordinating with the pilots, the crew makes sure to reach the said landing zone of their assigned balloons in order to help the passengers out and deflate the balloon securely (amongst other things). After taking in a last good look at Bagan from the sky, we disembarked to an open field, took our landing positions and touched the ground rather smoothly.
After leaving the basket one-by-one with the help of the crew, we were then greeted with a glass of champagne and a board of croissants in true aeronautical tradition. Talking about the ride with the other passengers and our pilot Clive, we indulged in the deliciousness served until it was time for us to head back.
Aboard on the vintage bus, we then received certificates of our successful hot air balloon flight and said goodbye to everyone as our respective hotels arrived.
The premium flight surprise
Happiness has a funny way of finding you when you least expect it. What was supposed to be just an evening of chatting and getting to know the wonderful people working at Balloons over Bagan – quickly turned into an invitation for a premium hot air balloon experience that I will always be grateful for.
I mean, I was still having jitters from our flight the other day when Nobby, the Chief Pilot of Balloons over Bagan, dropped an invite for a premium flight for the following morning. And even though we had been on a flight just a day ago, the reason that the balloons do not have a set route was enough to convince me to go again. Oh, and the breakfast from one of my favourite places in Bagan that comes with this premium package certainly helped too.
The possibility of seeing an entirely different angle of Bagan and its picturesque pagodas in a more intimate setting was a green signal as well, if I am being honest. So, after a few hours, we disembarked on a vintage bus yet again and reached another side of the same ground and got ready for our ride. We were riding with Pilot Moses this time and I cannot recommend flying with him enough. I mean, not only is he an experienced pilot and a great guide but I admired how patient he was with our photoshoot throughout the ride.
And aside from it being the most picturesque sixty minutes of my life, I appreciated how everyone was free to ask the pilots anything they wished. I mean, Pilot Moses even helped us find a temple to go for a sunrise shoot the following morning.
Why should you fly in a premium hot air balloon in Bagan?
Somewhere between taking my hundredth picture of the sky and listening to Pilot Moses yak about his incredible office view (boy, was I jealous!); I realised how I was living one of my dreams, in that very moment. I immediately put my camera away and started to gaze into the horizon to fully feel and capture this unique landscape that was bestowed in front of me, yet again.
After being on two incredible hot air balloon rides in Bagan, you may ask what the difference between the two is? To begin with, there are only 8 passengers in the premium flight (compared to 16 in standard), meaning you will only be sharing your compartment with one more person. And since it’s only the two of you in one compartment, you’ll most likely feel closer to the pilot and have a better time in terms of conversations.
The ride itself is similar (although this one lasted longer for us) but what seals the deal for the premium package is that breakfast I mentioned earlier. Freshly made on hot stations at your landing spot for the day, a team from Sharky’s set up an entire breakfast table with delicious spread consisting of hummus, croissants, fruits, eggs and what not.
What I loved about the premium flight
I don’t know about you, but I have never landed in a hot air balloon and had a breakfast set up waiting for me on the field itself. And apart from the food that I dearly crave right now, I loved how it also was an opportunity to sit down with the other passengers and Pilot Moses and exchange travel stories.
The flight certificates that you get on a premium flight are also more customised. With your name handwritten by your pilot, it is a wonderful personalised souvenir that I will cherish for years to come.
CG’s tip: In terms of which one to choose, I would definitely recommend going for the premium package (especially for special occasions). With a hundred dollars price difference than the standard ticket (USD 350 and 250, respectively), I really felt that it was worth not having to share a compartment and get to devour a delicious meal.
Is riding in a hot air balloon in Bagan scary?
This is a question that I have been asked a lot since I first put stories of my hot air balloon ride in Bagan. And if I had to answer it in just a few words then no, it is not scary at all. In fact, I personally found that the beauty of Bagan’s impeccable view is so captivating that it would most likely command your undivided attention and make you forget about everything else.
And since the balloons move leisurely with the air currents, you’ll not even feel something as much as a strong wind even. I mean, I, for one, felt calmer up there in the basket than I do in a car sometimes and I am not a big fan of heights at all. The basket carrying us was surprisingly so firm that I felt like I was just comfortably flying in the sky without a trace of fear on my face.
If you are still unsure, then know that all the pilots at Balloons over Bagan hold international licenses and undergo regular first-aid and fire-safety training, every few years. All the commercial ballooning companies in Myanmar also abide by international aeronautical standards and only use balloons built by British corporations that are renowned for their quality.
Know that ballooning is addictive. I mean, I remember when I first went flying in Cappadocia many years ago, all I ever wanted was to do it again. And now, three incredible hot air ballooning experiences later, I still find myself yearning for more.
With views as majestic as this, I am sure you can empathise with me when I say that hot air balloons in Bagan are a must splurge on activity when visiting Myanmar. Should you have any questions about my ride or want to share your own experience from one, please feel free to leave a comment below or message me on Instagram.
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