I’m not going to lie, I came to Bagan for the hot air ballooning.
I left being so glad that I came, despite the fact we didn’t fly, more details of what else I did in Bagan in a post to follow….
When I first saw a photo of dozens of balloons at dawn floating over misty fields with pagodas peeking through the greenery I thought “Wherever that is, I must go there and do that“.
My research established that the ‘ballooning season’ in Bagan is from October to March.
This coincided nicely with my planned jaunt to Asia in the first week of October.
I booked my trip in July, and it was during August that Myanmar came more and more under international scrutiny for what is happening internally. One of the best articles I’ve read recently about it was by Nat Geo and can be found here.
This did call into question the morals of going to the country and supporting the government (indirectly through tourism) however I made the decision that the majority of my funds should (hopefully) end up with local people/business owners in Bagan…plus selfishly I just REALLY wanted to go ballooning 🙈
Now from what I understand there are very specific conditions required in order to fly: not too little wind, not too much wind, not raining, wind in the correct direction, etc etc, sure it’s much more technical than that. And these are not met March – Oct.
During this time the pilots work elsewhere in the world, coming to Bagan for the flying season.
Given my booked date was 4th October I was aware this was optimistic, and carried a risk, since it was so early in the season. One of the ballooning companies does not even begin operating until mid-October, and Oriental Ballooning used to not start until November but the demand has grown so great that they’ve moved the start date forward.
First tip: if you want virtually ‘guaranteed’ ballooning then go in November. Apparently February is also good, they flew everyday in February last season.
Second tip: If you want to Balloon then you must book in advance.
Third tip: If you want to save money then book through an agency.
I had planned to book direct with Oriental Ballooning and the cost was about $420USD (very steep compared with Ballooning companies in say Cappadocia or the one I did in Australia for maybe $200USD). I imagine this is because:
a) they can only fly half the year (and actually not even every day then) but fixed costs ie the balloon are still the same as year round locations!
b) they employ tens if not hundreds of local staff. No folding away your own balloon here!
I did a bit of searching online and found an agency called ‘Myanmar Damsel’ who offered to book me a spot with Oriental Ballooning for $310USD. I was a little cautious at first as I couldn’t find many reviews of Myanmar Damsel online but after confirming with OB that they use them as an agent I took the plunge and I can’t recommend them enough. An agent ‘Ms. Thida’ kept in regular contact after I booked, and they delivered a cash refund back to my hotel in Bagan after we didn’t fly, despite the fact their office was actually closed for a festival holiday.
So what went wrong?
I’d been told to be ready for a 4.30am collection, not too painful as only slightly before our usual Sydney weekday wake up for cycling! I was raring and ready to go and the shuttle was bang on time.
We drove out to the golf course where the balloons launch, everyone was buzzing with excitement and upon arrival had a sit down breakfast (croissants, muffins etc) and some tea and juice whilst our pilots introduced themselves.
I overheard the pilot at the table next to ours say that they hadn’t flown the last 2 mornings due to rain, but that the weather looked promising for us and they just had to keep monitoring the conditions right up until launch time at 6am.
We were a group of 12, as were the other tables. I’d heard that OB did smaller groups (8 per balloon) but perhaps either due to higher demand this season, or due to the cancellations the days before, the groups were 12.
We made our way over to the balloon where Allie the pilot gave us a safety briefing and the balloons were inflated….all looking good so far 👌🏻
Allie warned us that whilst the conditions looked good the wind may be blowing in slightly the wrong direction….namely towards the GIANT Irrawaddy river.
In later months the river level goes down, meaning balloons can land on the banks if required. I went to see the river for sunset and can confirm there were zero banks at present.
In previous years, the balloons have been allowed to land in and around the temple area if needed, but this year the tourism authority have given them new restrictions.
So they are a bit between a rock and a hard place (or an airport, a river and ancient monuments to be more precise!)
I hadn’t really considered this before, because my only experience of ballooning was in Alice Springs, which is slap bang in the middle of the Australian outback, so you pretty much have your pick of landing spots!
Once the balloons were inflated (fill with cold air from fans, then put warm air from burners in to raise up) we all clambered in. At this point the final wind tests were carried out.
This literally consisted of releasing regular little party balloons and seeing which way they headed. Allie acknowledged it looked ‘unsophisticated’ but said it was ultimately more reliable than the U.K. met office (not sure that’s saying a huge amount though…)
We peered up into the sky (I lost sight within about 5 seconds) and it wasn’t looking good as they headed straight towards the direction of the river.
Not a positive sign when we saw the other company ‘Balloons over Bagan’ begin to deflate their balloons and all their customers got back in their buses and trundled past us (if i was them I would have been fuming at this point “but are THEY going to fly?!”
They tried one final test balloon, before making the decision it was too risky to launch.
I totally understand and respect that, and would rather not come down in the river (although I have been practicing my swimming of late!) but it was still so crushing to have to clamber back out of the basket.
You could tell the pilots genuinely felt so bad to send us all back to our hotels. Partly the fact the company will lose out on about $20k revenue for every day they don’t fly, but I also think they love flying and felt dreadful to see so many people so disappointed.
Allie also said that from her perspective as a pilot Bagan is one of the safest places in the world to balloon. She said the operators don’t take any risks and don’t put any pressure on the pilots to fly if it might be unsafe, despite the financial loss when they don’t. She had flown in locations where pilots had apparently been ‘shot’ for not taking off… 😳
The mood on the shuttle going home was more akin to that at a funeral than the buzzy excitement on the way out.
I called Myanmar Damsel to attempt to rebook for the next morning, with any of the companies, but they were all fully booked (as expected!)
I made the decision to make some lemonade from the lemons and at least go and watch sunrise from a high temple where I could see the balloons flying overhead, but when I woke up at 5.30am it was POURING with rain, so I crawled back into bed, spitefully slightly consoled by the knowledge that no-one would be flying today either…