The short answer is yes, yes, and yes again. The steep price of hot air ballooning in Bagan, Myanmar can be discouraging, but I promise it’s worth it. Riding in a hot air balloon made my bucket list for things I’d like to do before turning 30, so taking a ride over temples at sunrise felt like a great way to check it off, until I saw the price tag. The cheapest price I found was $330 per person for a one hour ride with Balloons over Bagan. When you’re working with a $30 a day budget, clearly this doesn’t fit in. Luckily, I have a separate “splurge” budget for once in a lifetime opportunities. Those rarely cost under $30. After running into a few people who described it as, “their favorite thing they did in Myanmar” I decided to take the plunge and book it.
I woke to the rustling of bags and a door slamming. I looked at my phone and saw it was 3:00am. The most annoying thing about budget travel is sharing a room with someone who doesn’t care if you’re sleeping. I rolled over and saw a girl packing her bags… at 3am. Why? Seriously why? Most people have the common courtesy to pack the night before, but not this girl. I tried to roll back over to go to sleep but she continued to make an unconscionable amount of noise until 4:30am. I started to doze off when the vibrating of my phone alarm rustled violently under my pillow. It was 5:00am. I unwillingly rolled out of bed, quietly grabbing my belongings, and heading to the bathroom to get ready. Today was the day.
I walked downstairs, grabbed an extra large cup of half decent coffee. I looked around the room at the sleepy crowd all trying to wake up for sunrise. It could easily be mistaken as a scene from The Walking Dead with people mumbling and unknowingly bumping into each other. A bus pulled up which looked a bit like a shaggin’ wagon with the logo “Balloons Over Bagan” written on the side in a deep red font. Two other people from my hostel were going as well (Kerstin from Germany and Rafa from Brazil). We sat together in the old bus with a wood paneled ceiling and chatted until we arrived in a giant field.
We were ushered over to a large circle of chairs and notified that we were not allowed to leave for any reason. Over 170 people would be flying that morning and getting lost in the field was not an option. We stayed put until two older Aussi men came over with a list. “If I mispronounce your name, it’s because it’s spelled wrong” one of them jested. “If it sounds like you, it’s probably you, so just shout out that you’re here.” He read the first name and someone raised their hand. “Ok great, so that was a hand raise. We’re looking for some kind of noise because it’s dark and no one can see you.” We all laughed. The other Aussi asked if anyone was Welsh. The crowd was silent and he said, “Too bad because we whipped them at rugby yesterday!”
Clearly these men enjoyed their jobs, despite the early wake up time. We were directed to follow Clive (the rugby commenter) as he would be our pilot. We listened to a safety briefing which included a few rules for our “landing position.” If everything goes right, you’ll hear the boys doing a lot of yelling. Don’t worry, that’s a good thing.” Someone in the crowd asked the obvious, “What if there’s no yelling?” The answer to this was that we landed in the wrong field and no one would be there to help bring us in, but “We’ll just drop it in ourselves” he said nonchalantly. Simple as that. We’ll just drop it in.
We were each handed baseball caps. I was so excited that I literally squealed and exclaimed “This hat is literally the only reason I came today,” which got a laugh out of our group of twelve and the pilot. Soon the sleepy morning seemed like a lifetime away because I was far too excited to feel tired. Our balloon inflated among the other twenty(ish) balloons present and soon we were getting in. The basket was huge. Like seriously huge. It came up to my chest and I was in a section for four people including Kerstin. It held twelve people total in four separate compartments plus the pilot who had his own section in the center.
We were instructed to look at a GoPro hanging from the balloon for pictures. “Unfortunately, we do charge $20 for these, but they are really worth it.” I took out my GoPro and took a picture of the group on my side promising (sarcastically) to only charge $5. Then, it was time for take off. We slowly began to rise and it was so smooth that it felt like we were in a room moving through the sky. I’m terrified of heights and didn’t even feel a tinge of fear. The flight started off low just above the trees. Clive asked if everyone was ok, and when we all acknowledged that we were more than ok, he brought the balloon higher. “Welcome to my office!” he exclaimed with an arm wave similar to Vanna Whites. “Not a bad view,” I quipped.
We were one of the first balloons in the air and soon we could hear the radio chiming in from one of the balloons on the ground which was experiencing problems. We saw them deflating the balloon after the safety check and starting over. Kerstin and I both looked at each other relieved that we weren’t in that balloon. We looked behind us to see all of the other balloons rising slowly in the distance. It was an incredible sight.
Kerstin was given a very special job before lift off. It was her job to scream “sunrise” as soon as she saw it. “I think I can handle it,” she said. “Don’t mess up,” Clive said with a smile. About 10 minutes into the ride someone on the other side of the balloon screamed “Sunrise!” and Kerstin and I cracked up as she had messed up her only job for the day. We turned behind us to see the sun breaking free over the mountains in the distance.
I wish I could say that the view was breath taking or that it was so beautiful it left me speechless, but that wouldn’t be true. In fact, I had a lot to say. I was pointing in every direction and smiling like a fool. It was not one of those ethereal moments that you can’t put into words. Of course it was beautiful, but the part that made it so enjoyable was the reactions we all had. Everyone was giddy and sharing in laughter as we pointed at every single thing we saw. Cows pulled plows through the fields below us. A village was blasting music way too loud for 7am. Birds soared through the trees. It was all sort of surreal. “I feel like we’re in a 3D movie,” Kerstin stated and she was totally right. If you leaned forward it felt like a 3D movie coming toward you.
“Clive are you the lead balloon?” came in over the radio. “No, there’s one in front of me.” he responded. “Which one are you?” asked the same voice. We all threw our hands up and waved to the balloons that were probably a mile behind us. Another voice broke onto the radio suppressing a laugh, “He’s waving at you.” Clearly not the best way to show who we are. After some silence our pilot informed him we were second on the left.
After flying over the temples and getting some historical information from our pilot, we began our descent. We saw a balloon behind us land and thought maybe they had crashed. Clive explained that each balloon lands in a different field and that we would be landing in “two trees field” which got it’s name for the very obvious reason of having only two trees.
We had gained a little too much speed and accidentally flew over our landing space. “We’ll just pick another one” Clive said unconcerned until the next one was full of crops. “Hmm, yeah they don’t like it if we land in the crops. We’ll try to make it to the next one.” We could see the staff sprinting ahead of us after they realized we wouldn’t be landing in the right place. Their little red t-shirts flew across the field trying to race us to the new landing zone.
We got pretty close to hitting the crops and were headed straight for a tree when Clive turned up the gas releasing a blazing fire into the balloon. Slowly, we began to rise. We all gasped and held on as our basket skimmed the top of the tree. The basket barely shook and we all laughed. There ahead of us were the boys waiting to grab the ropes hanging down. We flew in slowly as they jumped to grab them and pulled us down. Then, we had to taxi in a place where the balloon could deflate safely. This involved about six young men pulling ropes across the field with all their might to move us about ten feet to the left. I felt like we should get out and help, but we were told to remain seated.
After a lot of hard work from the team our captain said “Ok boys, that looks good. Is everyone happy?” and all of the workers smiled. “I’m happy, you’re happy, but Moto looks unhappy.” We all turned to see Moto on the ground looking very displeased. As the head of the ground crew he insisted they move one more foot to the left. The team then sprinted in the other direction and grabbed a rope that must have been on top of the balloon. Screaming from a few hundred feet away they said “We are ready sir” with giant smiles. The balloon began to deflate and they pulled it as far in the opposite direction as they could, making sure it was laying flat.
We debarked the balloon and our shaggin’ wagon reappeared in the field. A crew started to set up a table with pastries and champagne. We all laughed and toasted our good flight. Suddenly about 8 street vendors showed up. In the middle of a field. In the middle of nowhere. It was kind of hilarious that they knew to sell goods to the people who just landed in a hot air balloon. You’re in such a good mood that it’s hard to say no to kids selling their homemade artwork. It’s not the kind of artwork I made when I was a kid. It looks professional. On top of that, you can’t walk away since you are in a field until the group leaves.
I made eye contact with a little boy who was pushing sand art his brother made. Clive came over and helped his little friend out by explaining that he has known him since he was four years old and that he’s a good kid. The money goes to their family so they can buy food. Of course my heart melted and I bought a piece of art for $13. As soon as my wallet came out everyone ran over and tried to sell me whatever they had. I ended up purchasing a very small jewelry box from one girl for $3. I decided to stop making eye contact before I ran out of all my money.
Two little boys walked up to me patting their head. I couldn’t understand them and one finally muttered the word “Hat.” I looked him in the eyes and couldn’t bring myself to say no. I felt sad that I wouldn’t get to keep the hat that I was so excited to receive. It took me a minute to remember that part of Buddhism is not getting attached to things. Impermanence is inevitable. The hat is a nice reminder of my balloon ride, but I have pictures and memories. I pointed to the boy and my camera and said “photo for the hat?” He nodded his head and I took his photo. I handed him the hat and he held it to his chest. I pointed to his head and he put it on and I took another photo of him wearing it. He was smiling.
Is it worth paying for a hot air balloon ride in Bagan? The long answer is still yes. Balloons Over Bagan is the largest employer in Bagan with over 160 employees. You can tell that the people who work there absolutely love their jobs. Not only that, but they support the locals. The company recently helped a village get electricity. They even tell the families where they will be landing to help them sell a few trinkets a day (enough to feed their family and pay rent). I felt like the experience was well worth the money, but I also left feeling like the company I chose to fly with was helping employ people who might otherwise have a hard time getting by. I would 100% recommend Balloons Over Bagan and hot air ballooning in general.
Would you try a hot air balloon? If you already have, where did you do it?
I would like to note that I did not receive any compensation or discount for writing this post. I visited on my own accord and truly enjoyed my experience.
This post originally appeared on www.fulltimeexplorer.com