Myanmar in Focus: Updated thoughts on hot air ballooning in Bagan

In October 2015, Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture tightened the limitations operators must follow when flying over Bagan’s pagodas. This means that balloons must now fly between altitudes of 90m and 600m. They must also land in a strictly designated landing space, which means there’s an increased likelihood of a flight finishing early, especially if you start in New Bagan and fly towards the ancient capital’s historic core.

In order to provide our travellers with an honest take on the experience, Tour Mandalay took to Bagan’s skies on the 10th March and here’s our thoughts.

Regardless of which operator you choose to fly with, it was made immediately apparent that the experience is more mainstream. Although Oriental Ballooning’s organisation and service was impeccable, we arrived at the launch site to find 32 people spread across eight tables – this was a massive contrast compared to the Inle Lake and Ngapali experience, where there was only one table and no more than four passengers present. It is wise to bear this in mind, especially if you are looking for something ultra exclusive.

Oriental Ballooning Bagan

Passengers patiently wait for the hot air balloons to be prepared in Bagan

Pre flight with Oriental Ballooning Ngapali

Tour Mandalay’s staff sip on a cup of tea as the balloon’s canopy inflates

As with any balloon flight, the direction of the wind dictates the balloon’s course and also the point of take off. For this journey, we started in New Bagan and slowly drifted towards the ancient capital’s historic core. For most this would be ideal, as you’re literally saving the best and most historic sights until last. For budding photographers however, this direction might not be so ideal seeing at the lighting will be a little more harsh, there’s less chance of mist and the sun’s well and truly risen by the time you get to the most photogenic area. It’s also important to note that the later you travel and the warmer the weather, there is going to be an increased chance of haze. Again, for general sightseers this is unlikely to present a problem, but perhaps it will for those looking to take shots of the temples as they appear in most brochures.

Oriental Ballooning in New Bagan

Oriental Ballooning’s hot air balloon shortly after take-off

Oriental Ballooning in Old Bagan

Hazy conditions made it more difficult to photograph the temples as we neared Old Bagan

In the case you are a photographer looking to capture brochure worthy shots, I think this information is worth bearing in mind. As per above, ideally you’d want to take off from Old Bagan to stand the best chances, but this will ultimately depend on the direction of the wind on the day. Furthermore, the window for taking a quality shot in Bagan is much more limited because after you’ve flown out of Old Bagan, it’s mostly desert-like landscape, the land’s flat and the temples are more spread out. You won’t get this problem with Ngapali and Inle Lake however, seeing as the natural vistas are more impressive and ever-changing.

Oriental Ballooning in Inle Lake

​The view of Inle Lake and its surroundings shortly after take-off

Oriental Ballooning in Ngapali

​The view of Ngapali and its surroundings shortly after take-off

Oriental Ballooning in Bagan

​The view of New Bagan shortly after take-off

Although we briefly talked about the Bagan experience feeling less exclusive than the Inle Lake and Ngapali experiences, it is still the most exclusive way to view the temples. Now that the government is restricting the climbing of temples (currently, only five are accessible for these purposes; Shwesandaw, Pyathetgyi, Taung Gu Ni, Myauk Gu Ni and Thitsarwadi), to get a similar view of what you can see from the balloons, will involve you squashing up against thousands of tourists at sunset or sunrise. Not ideal for anyone looking to invest lots of money into a tailor-made trip.

To give you an idea of how close a temple looks at 90m (the lowest distance the balloons are permitted to fly over the archaeological zone), please make reference to the photograph below.

Oriental Ballooning above Dhammayangyi Temple in Bagan

​View of Dhammayangyi Temple from approximately 90m above

As we hope you’ll agree, the view is rather impressive and unless you’ve experienced a hot air balloon flight over Bagan before, you would not know any different. We guess the only real downside about this ruling is when it comes to landing. The designated landing space is now so strictly controlled that the pilots are notably nervous when it comes to landing (that’s assuming they’re approaching the archaeological zone of course!). If they land in the wrong spot, it will most likely lead to a heavy fine and revocation of their Myanmar pilot’s license. From the photograph below, you can see that our pilot landed well away from the temple in the background, yet he was still told off by an official on a bike shortly after the balloon’s canopy was deflated. It’s unlikely the average tourist would have suspected anything however, so this shouldn’t really be cause for concern.

Oriental Ballooning complete flight over Bagan

​Oriental Ballooning’s staff prepare the basket for packing

We’d like to conclude this article with some feedback from a client whom recently flew with Oriental Ballooning in March 2016.

“The hot air balloon trip in Bagan was a fantastic experience. Oriental Ballooning were supremely efficient and professional throughout the whole experience. In the morning we were all picked up before dawn and driven to the launch site (only about a 15 minute drive). When you arrive it is still dark and you are shown to a table for tea or coffee along with croissants and buns. To your right hand side you can see the baskets and balloons laid out on the ground with a crew of 8-10 men per balloon busy working, which racks up the excitement. The area where all the balloons are launched is so vast that it is hard to count the balloons, but in our general area there were six balloons and respectively six pilots out of a total of about 21 balloons on that day. Before dawn our pilot stood up in front of us and blew a car horn to signal the adventure was about to begin. Our pilot talked us through exactly what to expect in an informal presentation but also made it very clear what the rules were, giving us enormous confidence. Anyone can admit, having never been on a hot air balloon before, there is always a little anxiety but the professionalism of Oriental Ballooning and our pilots soon helped to remove all nervousness. In fact, one member of our group had a major fear of heights but to her credit she got into the basket, sat down for take-off, and as soon as she was able to stand up enjoyed every minute of it – which was a major personal achievement for her. As the balloons gently rose into the air it was just the most magical sensation. The flight was extraordinarily gentle, very secure, and as you gradually drifted and wafted upwards daylight began to break just before sunrise and the whole plains of Bagan opened up in front of you and below you. During the flight you also had masses of time to soak up the moment and although the pilot was busy flying it, he still had time to point out particular temples and have a general chit chat to discuss how the balloon was flying. Visually, seeing the plains of Bagan from a few 100 feet, and spending an hour drifting down breeze, was quite magical. To top it all off when you reach the ground you all take photos and congratulate each other with a glass of champagne. In my opinion, I see no reason not to take the balloon trip, but a thousand reasons to do so!”

We guess this only highlights that in spite of the recent flight restrictions, Myanmar’s most iconic excursion has not yet lost its appeal.

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