Myanmar in focus: Oriental Ballooning Inle, one of Myanmar’s greatest adventures
When you think of balloon flights in Myanmar, most people will automatically default to the ones that operate over Bagan’s ancient, temple strewn plains (and rightly so!). There is no denying that this is one of the greatest travel experiences Myanmar has to offer and if you haven’t done so already, be sure to pencil it into your bucket list.
At the time of writing, four companies had permission to operate over Bagan, totalling a number of 19 balloons. Over the next 12 months this number is surely set to increase and it will need to if Bagan is going to successfully facilitate the growing demand for this popular excursion. For photographers, this is also ideal as it means there will be more chance to capture unique shots of the balloons as the rise up above the temples.
But what if, like me, you are keen to escape the crowds and experience something a bit more off the beaten track? Well, look no further. Oriental Ballooning have recently launched a morning flight over Inle Lake, which aims to provide passengers with a unique perspective of the area, whilst offering an unrivalled sense of adventure. On a recent inspection trip to the area, Tour Mandalay were keen to test out the flight for ourselves. Does it really live up to the hype? Surely it can’t compare to the more popular Bagan flight? Hopefully this first-hand account will go a little way in terms of addressing that.
After spending the evening at one of our favourite properties, the Inle Princess Resort, we made our way to the jetty early in time for a 06:20 pick-up. The cold morning ensured a thick layer of mist covered the lake, making the arrival of our transfer seem all the more dramatic. As the boat poked its nose out from the final layer of mist, we noticed an Intha ‘one-legged’ rower guiding the boat towards us with ease – the Inle Princess Resort prohibits motor boats from operating within a certain radius of their chalets, so it’s important to stress that your transfer will vary depending on where you stay.
One of the best ways to explore Inle Lake is at the crack of dawn, just before the first rays of sunlight shine through. Depending on the temperature, there’s a good chance the surface of the lake will be misted over and it’s also, in our opinion, one of the best times to watch the local fisherman at work.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the entrance of a monastery where we were greeted by our pilot for the day, Mr Bill Mackinnon. After a warm welcome, Oriental Ballooning escorted us just behind the monastery to a large patch of grassy land – here’s where we caught our first glimpse of the balloon as it lay waiting to be inflated. Whilst Bill and his team went about getting the balloon ready, we were provided with a selection of tea, coffee and basic breakfast snacks.
It wasn’t long before the balloon was fully inflated and we were ready to lift off in our four person basket (five if you include Bill). After a quick safety briefing from the man himself, we held on tight in our instructed take off position and up we went!
The first 10-15 minutes of our journey saw us slowly drift above the nearby tarpaulin rooftops. It was clear to see that this was a great spectacle for the locals, some of whom, had never seen a hot air balloon in their life. Children were jumping up with excitement whilst their parents filmed us on their recently acquired mobile phones. Others greeted us in union from their shuttered windows shouting, “Mingalabar, Mingalabar!!!” at the top of their voices.
Now, at this point I think it’s important to add that the route of the flight is completely determined by the course of the wind. Seeing as we were drifting away from the lake, Bill decided to take the balloon higher until we found the required gust to send us in the right direction. A quick ascent saw us reach 8000 feet above sea level providing us with a breath-taking view of the lake and its surroundings.
The gust of wind we needed to send us in the direction of the lake never came, but this didn’t matter, as we were now on course for Indein, a village particularly famous for its small group of Buddhist pagodas.
If anything, the scenery along the new route was even more diverse and it was made all the more picturesque as a result of the lingering mist.
After flying over perfectly patched rice fields and rows of floating gardens, the sun eventually shone through in full force causing the mist to burn up into the atmosphere. This caused for a huge shadow of our balloon to project out onto the landscape below, which we must admit looked incredible from the comfort of our wicker basket.
Bill’s team called through in the walkie-talkie to confirm that they could see him – it’s a bit like cat and mouse for them as there’s no guarantee where the balloon will land – sometimes it’s on the lake (don’t worry, they have a specially designed landing pad!), other times it’s in fields and if Bill’s lucky, sometimes he will conclude the journey by the side of a road. The latter is ideal as it provides his crew with easy access to the balloon before it deflates.
Bill eventually spotted the Oriental Ballooning team’s vehicle on a nearby road, but it looked like the wind wasn’t going to provide us with enough power to make it. This gave us no choice but to land in a nearby field. As soon as Bill had eyed up a suitable spot, we gently started to descend whilst holding onto the basket in our landing position. After a gentle plonk, the basket landed in a grassy area, providing just enough space for the team to deflate the balloon. As you can imagine, the locals were thrilled at the sight and before we knew it, the balloon was surrounded by 20-30 curious onlookers.
As Bill’s team went about packing up the balloon, we were treated to a bottle of champagne and some fruit to celebrate the landing of our inaugural Inle flight. I had to pinch myself, were we really drinking this in a field in the middle of nowhere? It’s likely that we were the first non-Burmese travellers to have ever set foot on this soil. Hats off to them, it was extremely well organised!
We ended up spending just over one hour and fifteen minutes in the air, but occasionally they can last much longer. For those who are interested, the gas cylinders on-board the balloon have the capacity to keep the balloon up in the air for three hours, but it is unlikely it will last this long unless the balloon veers wildly off course.
This unpredictability is what we love most about Oriental Ballooning’s latest offering, you simply don’t know where you’ll end up. Hopefully this won’t put you off as the Oriental Ballooning team are very experienced at tracking the balloon, so no matter where you land, there will always be someone there within minutes. Then there’s the fact it’s only you. With the Bagan flight you will be sharing that experience with up-to 19 balloons (some of which carry 16 people), whereas the Inle flight is usually just the one – this helps to provide passengers with a complete sense of solitude. Special mention needs to go to our pilot, Mr Bill Mackinnon. His calm demeanour and smooth narration of the journey’s progress ensured everyone remained relaxed throughout. If he is anything to go by, then we can only assume that Oriental Ballooning handpick the finest pilots.
To conclude, if you have the time and budget permits, book your place now! We can’t stress this enough, but it really is one of Myanmar’s greatest adventures.
IMPORTANT – Please note that the flight only operates from mid-October to the end of March and the flight will only go ahead if weather conditions permit.