6 Dec

Oriental Ballooning Ngapali

We’re excited to announce that Tour Mandalay have just returned from Ngapali after being the first destination management company to test out Oriental Ballooning’s soon to be launched flight. Here’s a personal take on it from our General Manager, Alex Shaw.

Thought a trip here was all about sun, sea and sand? Well think again. This new flight is a real game changer and I can confidently say it knocks the socks anything I’ve personally experienced in Myanmar thus far.

Just before coming to Myanmar, I watched an interesting three-part documentary called Wild Burma filmed by the BBC (if you haven’t already, be sure to check it out). One thing I’ve never been able forget is the short film footage that captured the 1000km long, untouched Rakhine jungle, with its rugged green canopy layer and exotic bird species flying from tree to tree. Having now explored the majority of Myanmar’s accessible ‘off the beaten track’ destinations, I’m still yet to experience anything like this, which has led me to question as to whether or not this wild and remote side even exists. Of course it does exist, but unless you manage to obtain special government permits, or are prepared to sleep overnight in leach and snake infested jungles, it’s likely you will never truly experience this side as a tourist. Even in the relatively unexplored areas of Chin State, Kyaingtong and Putao, you are still restricted to tried and tested trails and it’s not possible to venture any further due to a distinct lack of accommodation, internal conflict, or local government travel restrictions. With tourist numbers estimated to increase to 7.5 – 10 million before 2020, what was once considered remote will now start to feel like it’s well and truly opened up \ and this may lead to some travellers coming back disappointed.

Thanks to the help of aviation, we now have a solution to this. After carrying out two test flights with Oriental Ballooning, I’m pleased to say that I finally managed to catch a glimpse of what I came looking for and here’s Tour Mandalay’s take on it.

In order to best guarantee a glimpse of the mountains shrouded in a light layer of morning mist, it’s necessary to depart the hotel at approximately 05:00 – 05:30. The landing site you take off from will depend on the direction of the wind, but most transfers will take approximately 30-40 minutes and you will be escorted in Oriental Ballooning’s own spacious vehicle. Depending on the hotel you stay at, the first few minutes of the journey is relatively smooth, then it’s necessary to turn off onto local roads that are more often bumpy than not.

We managed to check out two landing sites during our time; a football pitch and a small field. Oriental Ballooning are still searching for new sites as we speak, but if the small field launch site was anything to go by, your clients are in for a treat.  As you can see from the photograph below, the crew still managed to set-up a small table (complete with a velvet table cloth) and serve a selection of baked goods along with tea and coffee.

Tour Mandalay's team patiently wait for the balloon to inflate

Tour Mandalay’s team patiently wait for the balloon to inflate

Needless to say, the inflation of the balloon’s envelope is greeted with huge intrigue and many local passersby stop just to observe the spectacle. For many, this will be the first time they have ever laid eyes on a hot air balloon and it’s understandably emotional. In fact, I still remember how I felt when I was a kid.

Once the safety briefing had been completed by our pilot Allie (a superwoman in every sense of the word), we patiently waited for the balloon to stand upright and hopped into the plush 4 man (5 if you include the pilot) wicker basket. Within seconds we ascended to the sky waving goodbye to the happy locals and the OB vehicles parked in the distance.

Tour Mandalay wave goodbye to vehicles as we take to the skies

Tour Mandalay wave goodbye to vehicles as we take to the skies

Then a couple of minutes later our eyes were treated to this…​

The scenery was so picturesque it looked like a painting

The scenery was so picturesque it looked like a paintings

Then this…​

One of the areas' three hilltop temples overlooks the thick layer of mist

One of the areas’ three hilltop temples overlooks the thick layer of mist

Then this…

The sun lights up the mist as we exceed 1000 ft.

The sun lights up the mist as we exceed 1000 ft.

Then this…

As the sun rises the mist starts to clear giving way to a breath-taking sight

As the sun rises the mist starts to clear giving way to a breath-taking sight

As you can see from the photographs above, the focus of this ride is not necessarily the coast, but more the surrounding landscape. It’s dotted with quaint temples, misty mountain ranges, luscious jungle, meandering rivers and best of all, the area is home to some extremely rare species of wildlife.

As with any balloon flight, the duration is determined by many factors such as the wind direction and its speed. The first flight for example saw wind speeds of over 12 knots and the direction was aimed at the coast. This saw us fly for only 40 minutes. The wind speed on our second flight however was approximately 3 knots and thanks to a favourable wind direction, we were able to fly for just over one hour. This gave us plenty of time to marvel at the vast jungle, which was made to look even more picturesque thanks to the sun’s rays cutting through the mist.

The sun's rays cut through the jungle mist

The sun’s rays cut through the jungle mist

As we dropped down towards the jungle’s canopy layer, we managed to spot a small number of tropical birds and were immediately mesmerised by the hypnotic sounds echoing out from deep within. In fact, for a moment it felt as though we had been whisked away to the Amazon rainforest.

The tropical sounds echoing from the jungle were hypnotic

The tropical sounds echoing from the jungle were hypnotic

We then flew over a bit more jungle, until we reached a clearing which eventually gave way to colourful patchwork fields.

The shadow of our balloon drifts over the patchwork fields

The shadow of our balloon drifts over the patchwork fields

It was around here where we landed, only to be chased down by a group of excited children. For me, this was also a highlight of the experience as it provided the chance to interact with people who are extremely appreciative to have you in their presence. The balloon definitely had something to do with this, but at least as tourists it felt like we were giving something back.

Children run across harvested fields to greet us

Children run across harvested fields to greet us

After the balloon had deflated, we then sat back and watched the OB crew pack up the balloon’s envelope. We took this opportunity to further mingle and take a few obligatory photographs of the locals.

Local children jostle for the best photo position

Local children jostle for the best photo position

Allie then cracked open a customary bottle of champagne as local children gathered patiently nearby to catch the cork.

Allie pops open a customary bottle of champagne to the children's delight

Allie pops open a customary bottle of champagne to the children’s delight

Ngapali is of course not a destination most people would consider remote, but due to this unique flight route, you will gain access to a completely new area never explored before by tourists. If you’re looking to spend 3-4 nights here, there is a very good chance you will start to get a bit restless by the end and the inclusion of this will be sure to fix that. It will also help to challenge perceptions of what Myanmar’s about. Sure I’ve seen similar things to what’s mentioned above, but I doubt anything will come close to rivalling the wild scenery on display here (well, at least until it’s possible to develop safari treks or fly hot air balloons over currently inaccessible areas).

As I write, Oriental Ballooning are still waiting on Myanmar’s civil aviation authority to grant them permission to operate commercial flights over this area. All being well this should happen at some point this month (December 2015), or almost certainly by the start of January 2016. At a similar price to the Inle Lake flight, it’s certainly not cheap, but we can guarantee it’s worth every penny. It’s also important to mention that the flight will only operate from November to mid-March.

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