I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures. A glorious sunrise over the plains of Bagan with balloons dotted over the horizon. You want to be the person in the balloon! And then you look up the price… shock and horror flood through your mind. You were promised a cheap holiday in South East Asia!
Ballooning was far and away the most expensive thing we did in our week in Myanmar. We took domestic flights and stayed in beautiful hotels. It definitely wasn’t a budget trip and the balloon flight was still 25% of our total trip cost.
Was it worth it? ABSOLUTELY!!!
Waiting to be picked up at 5.30am I was filled with anticipation and just a touch of anxiety. Was it going to live up to the expectations? Were we getting value for money? Was I going to regret the decision? Could I have had the same experience from the ground watching the sunrise? All these questions were quickly put to rest.
We arrived in the pitch black to little field with tables and chairs set up with tea, coffee and some pastries. As the sky started get the first hint of grey we enjoyed our breakie and waited for the remaining guests to arrive.
Occasionally a burst of flame would shoot up as the balloons were prepared for take off.
Once everyone had arrived it was time for the safety brief. The six balloon pilots were introduced and we were quickly sorted into our groups.
The anticipation built as the balloons were inflated around us. In the next field balloons start to take off and before long we heard “all aboard” and it was our turn.
Part of the magic of ballooning in Bagan is the number of balloons around you. The flight itself was incredible with phenomenal views over the plains of ancient temples, but for me, having the experience with twenty other balloons drifting across the horizon was the real highlight.
Before long we had passed the temples and were off in the countryside. As we passed villages the locals would race outside to wave in fascination as we passed. We were close enough to see their cattle, herds of goats and the fields of peanuts, chickpeas and rice paddies.
In no time at all we were landing. Ours was a gentle touch down near our landing crew who were waiting with champagne to celebrate a fabulous morning.
Where does your money go?
All the balloon pilots were westerners. As they introduced themselves we heard British, Australian and German accents. We had the lovely Allie who had bucket loads of experience and is a senior balloon trainer back in the UK. After the flight we heard about the trip she is taking with her husband to go ballooning over Mongolia. In short, you need this level of experience to operate in a country like this, where weather forecasts cannot be relied on. At the end of the day experience costs money.
Like the pilots all the equipment was imported. Everything from the baskets to the ropes to the actual balloon.
For each balloon there had to have been about ten locals helping with pick ups, serving the coffee, launching the balloon and driving to the landing site. It was quite the production! I learned later that the balloon industry in Bagan employs over 400 locals.
Everything else. Did a travel agent book your flight? There would be a commission there. How did you find out about ballooning? That’s the marketing budget. I imagine the public liability insurance for an operation like this would by huge. Plus the usual overheads that come with running a business.
To be honest I’d be worried if ballooning didn’t cost this much!
Can you get the same experience from the ground?
At our first sunset the topic of the cost of ballooning came up and we listened in. Certainly for a backpacker spending months in SE Asia the flight is the equivalent to about a week of travel. Quite a few people justified that it was better from the ground anyway because you want a photo looking up at the balloons.
The following day we headed to a nearby temple to watch the sunrise and see for ourselves. It was fantastic and made for some unbelievable photos. However there was something extra special knowing that yesterday I was one of the lucky ones up there in the sky.
Other things to consider
Some times of year are better than others. The balloon season in Bagan runs October-May. We travelled in January in the height of the high season and the time that has the most stable weather conditions. Safety will always come first and at other times of year flights may be cancelled for days on end. If this is a bucket list adventure for you make sure you time it right.