The temples of Bagan are pretty awesome.
Climbing them is certainly fun and zooming around on an e-bike is tough to beat.
But arguably the best way to experience Bagan? Floating over the temple zone in a hot air balloon!
Surprised? I was too. If you have never been up in a balloon, Bagan is a rather impressive place to give it a try. Trust me.
Balloon trips over Bagan are expensive, on par with prices in the developed world. Myanmar is basically a third world country, but don’t expect substantial discounts!
Note — as of 2018 authorities have banned temple climbing in Bagan, so hot air balloons are now your best bet to survey one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in Asia
4:40 am — Alarm goes off. Myanmar, like the rest of Southeast Asia, is a nation of early risers. Getting up early is imperative to enjoying a holiday in this corner of the world. Embrace it!
5:00 am — Minibus pulls up outside the guesthouse. I’m a morning person, ready and raring to go! Those already inside the bus are markedly less enthused about being anywhere other than bed.
5:45 am — After a couple more pickups, the bus pulls up next to a dirt field somewhere northeast of Bagan. The horizon is brightening. Eighteen balloons are in various stages of setup across the field.
6:00 am — The staff has laid out quite a nice continental breakfast. Muffins, pastries, juice, tea. Not a bad spread considering the location. They divide us into groups, then send us off to meet our pilots. The ground crew are exclusively local, however the pilots are virtually all foreign.
6:15 am — Safety briefing ensues. I sign my life away.
Tip — try to be the last guest into the balloon.
Each basket is divided up into smaller interior compartments. The pilot mans the far end and blocks access to the edge of the basket, so you’d rather not be adjacent to him or her. Being the last one in ensures you get a corner view, the best of both worlds. No matter your spot, be a courteous traveler and occasionally rotate places with those nearby. It’s good karma.
Everyone has to duck down and lean up against the basket for takeoff. A few extended firings of the burner top off the balloon and we’re away!
Once safely airborne the pilot gives the all clear — stand up, peek over the edge and watch the scrubby desert receding below.
Save for the occasional firing of the burner, the silence is complete.
Speaking of the burner, it is HOT. Shocking, right? If you bundled up for the early morning darkness you will roast up here. Layers are key.
Locals in the small settlements down below wave as we float over their streets.
Then what we’ve all been waiting for — the temple zone.
Read about the best way to experience a Bagan temple sunrise from the ground
Seeing things from above really gives you a sense of perspective. Bagan is HUGE.
We say goodbye to the temple zone as the balloon floats over the Irrawaddy River.
March is the end of the dry season, so low river levels mean plenty of exposed sandy banks where we can make a nice, cushy touch down.
The pilot has us in the brace position again as the balloon skims the sand. Just one more slight bounce and I feel us skid to a stop. A true professional!
The chase crews are on their way, so we sit tight for a while. My balloon was among the first to take off. For this reason we have the opportunity to watch everyone else land. Some balloons touch down beautifully, others a bit roughly. One basket tips up on its edge, nearly dumping its passengers out onto the sand.
Our ground crew arrives, breaks down the gear and leads us across the sand to a waiting boat. Before jumping in I snap one of my favorite photos. Ever.
After twenty minutes of sputtering down the Irrawaddy we arrive at the dock. A transfer into our ground transportation ensues, then we’re quickly on our way back to reality, a morning in the tropics well spent.
DO IT YOURSELF
Three companies are licensed to operate hot air balloon flights over Bagan. Flights operate daily, October 1st through April 10th. Website rates as noted —
Classic – $340 USD per person in a 16-passenger basket
Standard – $450 USD per person in an 8-passenger basket
Standard – $330 USD per person in a 12-passenger basket
Premium – $390 USD per person in an 8- or 4-passenger basket
Premium – $399 USD per person in a 12- or 8-passenger basket
What’s the difference between companies?
I’ve only been up with one, but logos aside, everything looked precisely the same. Oriental dropped their “Standard” service over the summer of 2017. I originally booked Oriental’s standard, but on flight day they sent me up in a Golden Eagle balloon. Something to do with capacity and booking numbers.
Booking with a local agent will probably save you some cash. Myanmar Private Holidays is a good bet for the smaller baskets with fewer passengers while Myanmar Tourism YTT offers a rack rate of US$300/person for Oriental.
Do keep in mind these sunrise trips are very popular. Unless you are a solo traveler with a flexible schedule, you should probably book ahead. Expecting to roll into Bagan and immediately book a sunrise trip for two during peak season is setting yourself up for disappointment. To be safe on all fronts, just book in advance.
Flight time generally lasts 45 minutes to an hour. The fine print says any trip greater than 25 minutes indicates a successful excursion. Everything depends on the prevailing winds. My flight time was just shy of one hour.
Pick up time occurs between 5:00 and 6:00 am, varying based on sunrise time. You will be back at your accommodation between 8:30 and 9:30 am.
Take off and landing spots depend, to no surprise, on the winds. Who cares, really? The company will drive you there and back. It was pretty cool to land on the banks of the Irrawaddy, however there are no guarantees. Other balloons landed out of sight, some behind trees.
In recent years, authorities have become much more rigorous in terms of policing rules, standards and procedures around Bagan. The days of landing balloons on temple grounds, for instance, are over.
For the long-term health of the temples themselves and Myanmar’s tourist sights in general, this development is a very good thing. By all means enjoy your visit — rent an e-bike, catch a balloon ride, have a little Indiana Jones experience, but treat this giant, but fragile, religious sight with the care and respect it deserves.