There's nothing like seeing the sunrise over the ancient temples of Bagan in a hot air balloon.
I try to never lose track of how fortunate I am to travel and I always remind myself how lucky I am that my work as a travel writer introduces me to extraordinary locations, experiences, and people. Never has this been more in focus than during my hot air balloon ride over the spectacular ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar. Without a doubt it stands alone as the most incredible, breathtaking travel experience of my life and I'm so happy to share my memories with you here.
There are over 2200 temples and pagodas on the plains of Bagan, most constructed between the 11th and 13th century, the final markers of what was once a thriving kingdom. The plains of Bagan are home to the largest concentration of religious buildings in the world and, in addition to the religious and spiritual significance, the region holds special meaning for archaeologists, historians, seismologists, architects, linguists, and artists. To say that there is truly nothing like it in the world would be an understatement. Bagan is the place where travel dreams come true.
Your sunrise hot air balloon ride actually begins several weeks, if not months, in advance. This is not an activity you want to leave to chance! Space books up very quickly, but last minute travelers need not despair. Standby tickets are often available at a slightly reduced rate 48 hours before departure. TheBalloons Over Bagan staff did a great job of responding to emails (a rarity in Myanmar) and they were very helpful.
We were given strict instructions to be ready for pick up at our hotel at 5:10 am and, true to their word, our bus arrived right on time - no small feat considering the state of some roads and the tardy habits of travelers. (In Bagan, we stayed at the Amazing Bagan Resort, which really WAS amazing! But don't take our word for it - you can see what everyone else thought about it on Trip Advisor, Expedia, and Hotels Combined.)The morning started off on an exciting note -it was no ordinary bus that picked us up, but rather something quite special!
Our Canadian built wooden bus was brought over in World War II for the purposes of transporting troops. At the end of the war, the cost of shipping all the buses back to Canada was prohibitive and so they were left behind. Today the fleet has been lovingly restored and they must be some of the most unique buses in the world!
After picking up some additional guests, we made our way to the launch field. While it was still dark out, there was no mistaking that smell - coffee!!! REAL coffee! Made in a French press! After drinking nothing but instant coffee for a long time, the steaming cups of French pressed coffee were wonderful. Tea and small shortbread biscuits were also on offer and we enjoyed taking the time to socialize with our fellow ballooners.
As we savored our coffee the pilots came over to introduce themselves and explain the basics of ballooning. They were warm, friendly, and funny and walked us through the process in an easy to understand, comprehensive way. They set my anti-adventurist nerves at ease!
The pilots divided us into different groups to balance out the baskets and gave us complimentary baseball hats. These were souvenirs with a practical purpose, as dust can enter the balloon while it is filling and later drop down on the passengers. (We never noticed any falling dust, but we were thrilled to have the souvenirs!) We had about 15 minutes of free time to watch the balloons being prepared. It was a fascinating site to see! From the yards upon yards of rippling silk to the roar of the fire, it was an incredibly intricate process to observe.
A few pointers for all the other anti-adventurist folks out there: There is no graceful way to get into a hot air balloon basket. There are little grooves for your toes in as you climb up the side but essentially you just tip in. Happily, there's no chance of tipping out! The basket went up to my chest and the walls of the basket had very sturdy grips for those who wanted extra support.
There is no chance of the basket swaying or shaking in the sky. The basket is huge, weighs nearly 1,000 lbs, and is divided into different compartments to distribute the weight. Even if there was a fool trying to jump up and down to move the basket they would be very unsuccessful! The basket is also very comfortable - inside each little compartment is a padded bench in case you wanted to sit down and the sides and edges are also padded.
Balloons Over Bagan has an outstanding safety record and we were able to witness this commitment first hand. Just before our launch, as pilot Graeme was doing his final checks and instructions, he noticed that a passenger was not well and seemed to be suffering from a panic attack. The decision was made that the man should not fly and the situation was handled with discretion and without any pressure - Graeme was a real pro.
Then, before I even realized what had happened, we were off the ground.
The earth just seemed to drop away from the hot air balloon. I honestly felt nothing when the ropes were released and we started to fly into the sky. Graeme reminded us to relax and release our iron grips (but not me! I was already in my element!) He then proceeded to point out some of the best sights and photo opportunities, starting with the sunrise.
Once the sun was up, the temples and pagodas were even more beautiful. Ranging from magnificent large complexes to tiny, crumbling structures, Graeme was keen to point out some of his personal favourites, as well as those buildings experiencing restoration work. Who knew that bamboo scaffolding could be so beautiful?
One of our most unique experiences was flying over a small pond so we could see our reflection in the water and take some special photos.
Graeme is one of the few pilots who will do a 360 degree spin for a full panoramic view. I was amazed by how deftly he maneuvered the balloon and the full spin provided absolutely spectacular views.
With the end of our flight approaching, Graeme pointed out some final sites to us, including a small village and farm area. He then reminded us of landing procedures and asked us to hold additional sightseeing questions while he concentrated on the landing. I really appreciated that he was so clear and focused on safety!
Our gentle landing went off without a hitch and we were soon back on solid land. A small group of souvenir sellers were on hand to greet us, but none were pushy. Clean, wet facecloths were handed around so we could refresh and remove dust. A circle of chairs was set up for us to enjoy a light breakfast, consisting of sparkling wine (or lemonade), delicious croissants, banana bread, and sliced fruit (banana and papaya).
As we enjoyed our breakfast we were offered complimentary Balloons Over Bagan postcards and certificates for completing the flight. USB keys containing photos from our flight (taken by a GoPro camera system attached to the balloon) were on sale for $20 US (including delivery of the key to your hotel later that afternoon).
As we watched the balloons being packed up and saw the crew work together to hoist the massive basket on the back of the truck, Graeme told us that the pilots didn't accept tips but anyone wishing to acknowledge the hard work of the local crew could leave a tip in the box on the bus. He said they were one of the best crews he ever worked with and, given their harmonized movements when packing up the balloon, I can certainly see them worthy of such high praise.
Before long, it was time to board the vintage buses and return to the hotel. It wasn't yet 9:30 am but I felt like I had already had a full day. Hot air balloon rides are an incredible travel experience and I cannot think of a more exhilarating location to enjoy them than in Bagan.
Hot air balloon rides definitely fall into the "splurge" category and those in Bagan are no exception. Prices start at $320 US per person, which is an average price for most markets. Without a doubt, this is the most worthy splurge I've ever come across. It would be well worth swapping a few nights in a hotel for a guesthouse or hostel in order to pay for a Balloons Over Bagan experience. It was the the most stunning travel experience of my life and has set the bar for all future travel experience.
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This is one of the most popular articles on the blog and we're SO excited that so many of you are traveling to Myanmar! We'd love to hear about your trip and, in particular, hear about your experience in Bagan.
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If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
Where to Stay in Bagan
Where To Eat In Bagan
Sailing The Irrawaddy - Traveling from Mandalay to Bagan by Boat.
Welcome to Mandalay - Day 9 of Our Round The World Trip.
Everything You Need to Know About the Mandalay Airport.
Besotted with Bagan: Day 10 &11 of Our Round The World Trip
At Long Last: Yangon. Day 12 &13 of Our Round The World Trip
Guest House Review:Yangon's Motherland Inn 2
The WORST Travel Experience of my Life: The Overnight Train from Bagan to Yangon
Balloons Over Bagan provided us with a media rate in exchange for a review. This compensation did not affect our experience and all opinions remain my own.