Flying in a Hot Air Balloon Over Bagan, Myanmar

I had never been in a hot air balloon, but if was going to I figured why not do it somewhere spectacular, and I am so glad I chose to do it in Bagan, Myanmar. The spectacular scenery combined with an almost guaranteed to be stunning sunrise combine to make it a truly special experience.  


There are three air ballon companies that operate in Bagan with the government imposing a strict maximum number of 21 balloons that can fly each day. Having read numerous reviews I chose Oriental Ballooning. My main reason for this was that they offered smaller baskets –  the majority of companies offer flights in baskets which hold 16 passengers however Oriental Balloning have a mix of 8 and 16 person baskets.  Baskets with 16 passengers looked quite cramped and if you were in one of the middle sections, you only really had a view out of one side (as opposed to the eight person baskets where pairs of passengers are in corner sections with views in two directions).

I contacted them though their website to get a quote, which I duly received via email the next day.  As I was happy with all the details in the quote I emailed back to confirm that I would like to go ahead with the booking and also requested that we be allocated a smaller basket if possible – as I was doing this two months before the flight time they were happy to oblige.  The next day I received an email with a payment link (to KBZ bank) with instructions on how to complete the payment, this was simple and a couple of days later I received an email saying the booking was completed and asked for some information about when we were arriving in Bagan, what hotel we were staying in and once we had checked in, our room number.  I couldn’t figure out why they need our room number but all became clear later. Oriental Balloning called the reception desk at our hotel the night before our flight to pass a message to our room (hence the request for a room number) to let us know the time we would be collected from reception.

If you are considering taking a similar flight it is essential you book in advance. There are only three companies (Golden Eagle, Balloons Over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning) allowed to operate in the area and they are limited in the number of balloons they can fly each day. On the day we flew, every single space in every single balloon was taken. I also overheard someone in our hotel trying to arrange a flight for their time in Bagan but they were unable to do so, despite having a few days of flexibility.

The Flight

Pre Departure Breakfast

At 5.30 in the morning we were collected from our hotel reception in a mini bus and driven to a field (after the driver got briefly lost by overshooting the unmarked entrance in the dark – understandable) where all the balloon companies appear to take of from.  When stepping out of the mini bus we were greeted by a very british voice welcoming us and asking us to take a seat at one of the empty picnic tables.  Once we were seated we were offered tea and coffee along with a selection of breakfast pastries. We sat here for about 20 minutes while the sun began to rise in the background. There is also a toilet available, although it’s an old, local squat style, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re desperate (bearing in mind you’re going to be without one for the next 90 minutes or so).

After all the passengers had arrived, been checked off the register and had their refreshments the pilots stood in front of the group and welcomed us all with introductions. We were given some simple instructions to follow and listened out for our pilot to call our names.  It was clear that all the pilots loved their job and their enthusiasm really came though. 

Once all the passengers found their pilots we were taken over to the balloon we would be flying in that morning.  We were given a thorough safety brief and then invited to watch (from safe distance) as the balloon was filled with hot air.  This was a bizarre experience. A previously flat, empty series of fields suddenly started to feel like a city as the balloons from all three companies started to rise around us.

As we climbed in to the basket we were handed a complimentary baseball cap to keep some of the heat off our heads. As we had been allocated an 8 person basket – it was divided into 4 compartments plus an area in the middle for the pilot – myself and my partner had a corner all to ourselves. There’s not a lot of room in the basket, but it was never uncomfortable. Having a corner helped to make sure no one in the basket missed out on a sight.

It was then time for take off, which is when the spectacular landscape came into view. I am not sure words can describe how amazing Bagan looks from the air especially in a slow moving air balloon at sunrise, so here are some pictures.

The pilot of our balloon was very informative, telling us all about our field of view. The mist that you can see in some photos is in fact smoke, the locals collect dried leaves every morning and evening and burn them. This elevates sunsets and sunrises in Bagan beyond anywhere else I’ve visited, the colours are unreal.

The precise path of your flight will vary depending on conditions on the day, your pilot, and the movements of other balloons. There are, though, some things you won’t want to miss on your flight.

The first, and relatively close to the take off area, is the Aureum Palace Hotel and it’s controversial viewing tower. The viewing tower is seen as an eye sore by many but does provide for some spectacular views, especially at sunrise and sunset. The hotel itself has been visited by a number of celebrities in recent years, including Beyonce and Jay-Z. We stayed in a villa at this hotel, and there’s a review coming soon.

The Aureum Palace

You should also be on the look out for Old Bagan town. The large white building in the image below is, I believe, the Archaeological Office of Bagan, should you ever doubt where your entrance fee is being spent. Old Bagan also has a concentration of temples and pagodas around it with them, generally, becoming more sparse the further from the town you travel. But as there are over 2200 of them, sparse is a relative term.

There are also thousands of temples and pagodas scattered throughout the Bagan area many of which look stunning from the air in the warm morning light, surrounded by smoke.

Towards the end of the flight we passed over a couple of small villages which afforded a unique view of some of Bagan’s local residents, who seemed keen to wave and take pictures of the low flying balloons.

Coming from Bristol in the UK we were interested to see that the the balloon itself was made by the Cameron balloon factory in our home town.  After about an 1 hour in our hot air balloon we descended into a field where we were treated with a glass of champagne, some fresh fruit and a certificate.  The locals took this ad an opportunity to try to sell us some of their wears whilst we were a captive audience (we didn’t know this would happen, so didn’t bring any money as everything was pre-paid). Afterwards a mini van took us back to  our hotel where we had a spot of breakfast and rounded off the morning with a quick nap before heading out to explore the delights of Bagan once more.

The flight cost about £300 each, which seems expensive but is understandable given the location, maintenance costs of the balloons, licensing costs to the government and having to hire specialist pilots. There was also a small army of support staff following the balloons along their flight path to ensure everything goes smoothly. In doing my research I had read that you could occasionally get a better price by using a local travel agent to book your flight but deemed this a risk not worth taking.  As I said above we booked our flight a few months before we did see a couple arriving at the hotel hoping to book a flight to only be told that all the flights were fully booked for the duration of their stay so if this is something you are considering I would strongly recommend you book this in advance.  This was one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar and something I will never forget.  If you have the budget I highly recommend taking in this experience.

What to wear in Myanmar

 The Longyi I bought
The Longyi I bought

If you intend to enter any temple, and let’s face it, you’re in Myanmar so of course your going to go into a temple or two, you need to think about what you are going to wear.  There are strict rules in place prohibiting footwear of any description when entering temples, including socks, so be prepared and wear footwear that you can walk around in for a long time but can also take off and put on easily. And don’t think you can get away with it because a temple appears to be deserted. Many of them, especially in the Bagan area, have family guardians who will enforce the rules. If you’re not used to this, it can be disconcerting walking around bare footed in an ancient temple that’s completely open to the elements, but you do get used to it quickly.

I ended up wearing either flip flops (thongs, jandels whatever you want to call them) and my old faithful converse trainers which got so wrecked I ended up binning them on the way home. Don’t even try to wear socks.  It’s especially important to choose your footwear carefully in Bagan if you’re planning on temple hopping. The two most popular forms of transport to move between the thousands of temples are bicycle and E-Bike (an electric scooter/moped). If you’re not comfortable riding these, you’re likely to put your feet down whilst travelling (and even if you are comfortable, the ground is extremely sandy and rough), and this can be dangerous if you’re not wearing footwear that provides sufficient protection.

There are equally strict, although somewhat more vague, rules about what you wear above the feet. Most temples will require both men and women to cover their knees and wear tops which at least have a small sleeve (i.e. a t-shirt).  My other half found that his knee length shorts were fine, however my above the knee shorts were not. Wearing trousers is an option but heat becomes an issue as South East Asia is hot and sticky especially when you are travelling from the rainy UK and not used to it. My thin, cotton, haream pants became my saviour on this trip (they also kept the mosquitoes off my legs), although on the hottest days I ended up wearing shorts.  The best thing to do is either buy a Longyi or carry a wide scarf in your back pack so that you can wrap it round like a skirt when needed.

Speaking of back packs, having one is handy if you don’t want to leave your shoes at the temple entrance (although bring a plastic bag in which to put your shoes so as not to get dirt in your back pack) and to carry water, which you’ll need (there are small markets located near the largest and most popular temples where water and other drinks can be purchased).  Some temples do have clothes you can loan whilst walking round if needed, there are also loads of locals selling ‘elephant pants’ this seemed to be a must have for any backpacker in South East Asia, I ended up buying a pair (even though I was not backpacking), and they were great.

Before going to Myanmar I was also concerned about offending the locals with my western clothing, particularly as a women in a fairly conservative country. I need not have worried, there were loads of people wearing shorts above the knee but not too short and vest tops, just don’t go too skimpy.

Flying Around Myanmar

 Check in at Yangon Domestic Terminal
Check in at Yangon Domestic Terminal

Travelling around Myanmar has become easier, and some would say safer, over the past few years as the number of tourists and domestic Airlines has grown.  We travelled exclusively on Air KBZ flights throughout Myanmar, mainly because I could book online, from overseas, for flights almost a year in advance.

Flights in Myanmar operate more like buses. They continuously run a certain route and you may have to stay on the plane for several “stops” before you reach your destination. Therefore, it’s important you board the correct plane, which may not be labelled with your destination (remember that the flight stops at several airports but the boarding signs will only note one, check the flight number carefully), and that you get off the plane at the right airport.

We took a fairly typical route around Myanmar. Starting in Yangon (RGN) we first flew to Nyaung-U (NYU, serving the Bagan area), then to HeHo (HEH, serving Lake Inle), on to Thandwe (SNW, serving Ngpali) before returning to Yangon for an international connection. This may look like an inefficient route on the map, but it’s well served by the airlines and direct flights are available regularly along the various legs (meaning you don’t have to remain on the plane whilst other passengers board and unboard, along with their luggage, at other airports). Using well served routes also gives you some contingency for when, inevitably, flights are delayed.

Having spent a few days in Yangon we headed to Yangon Airport (RGN) for our first domestic flight to Nyaung-U airport (NYU), which serves the Bagan area. 

 The Yangon Domestic Terminal CIP lounge.
Yangon CIP Lounge

At the time of flying, Yangon domestic terminal was housed in an older building next door to the brand new international terminal building. Check in was quick and efficient and it was the only flight for which we had printed board cards and seats allocated.  We were also given a sticker each as once you have cleared security there are no departure boards. Instead, when a flight is due to board a member of the airline will walk around the departure lounge with the flight number written on a board, this is your cue to line up for boarding. There were a couple of occasions where some passengers had missed the call to board, this is where the stickers come in handy as each sticker identifies which flight you are due to be on.  The ground crew simply walked around the departure lounge looking at the stickers to identify the tardy passenger.  It was also reassuring to see other passengers with the same sticker as you still in departures – if you’re the only one left with your colour sticker, you’ve probably missed your flight. We had quite the collection of stickers by the end of the trip.

The ground crew also manually transported checked bags to a small cart for loading on to the aircraft – no luggage belts here!  The flight was delayed by about 20 minutes which was not a huge issue but a bit of an annoyance and added to the sense of uncertainty surrounding boarding. 

 Yangon Domestic Terminal departures lounge
Yangon Domestic Terminal Departures

All of the planes were ATRs of various ages (propeller powered aircraft), but none were so old I was worried and all appeared well maintained. The crew were friendly,  efficient and spoke moderately good english. Even though the flight was only 1 hour 20 minutes we were served a meal, which was a tasty fish paste roll along with a boiled sweet for landing and a slice of cake. The aircraft are single class, all economy, and the ticket cost approximately £100 per person. 

Baggage collection in Bagan was basically a room to which some porters bought the baggage on trollies then put in the middle of the room for people to collect. When you exit the baggage claim area right next the the exit of the terminal is a desk where you are required to buy a Bagan Archaeological Zone pass for 25,000 Kyats per person.

The next flight we took was to HeHo (near Lake Inle) from Nyaung-U (NYU to HEH).  Check in here was again very efficient, this time the luggage is weighed on a scale and a tag placed on the bags which are then stacked together in front/next the the check in desk, it felt a bit weird to do this especially if you are used to belts whisking away your luggage, that said we never had an issues. Again you collect your sticker and boarding card – this time it’s a hand written card as seen in the picture.  The departure lounge in Nyaung-U is basic but air conditioned. There was little to no information available in the departures lounge and in fact our flight was 45 minutes late, with no communication from the airline to inform us of this. Once we were eventually up in the air we were again, despite the short flight time, provided a snack in the form of a a pastry. The cost of the flight was approximately £80 per person.

Heho is the nearest airport to Lake Inle, which deserves a separate post, so look out for it.  The drive from Heho to the hotel (Sanctum Inle) was about 1 hour and 15 minutes. We arranged transport through the hotel, which attracted a premium but took the hassle out of finding a taxi. On arrival we also had our first experience of immigration (even though this was a domestic flight) which was quick and efficient given the relatively small number of passengers.

After a few days in Lake Inle our next destination was Ngpali, a beach resort. We flew in to Thandwe Airport (SNW),  about a 15 to 20 minute drive from the beach where all the hotels are located.  Check in again was efficient and similar to that at Nyaung-U. Departure at HeHo was a little more chaotic, there were a number of airlines with flights departing within minutes of each other meaning the departures lounge was busy and overcrowded.  Our flight was delayed by about 30 minutes and again there was little information available.  Due to the number of flights leaving at the same time I found you had to be especially vigilant to ensure you didn’t miss the call to board.  You can see from the video how boarding works. 

The flight from Inle to Ngpali (HEH to SNW) cost approximately £95 per passenger.

Again despite the short flight time we were provided with a small snack, this time a pastry with some kind of egg cake.  Once we arrived in Thandwe we again had to go through immigration, this time with a longer queue.  Bagage collection in Thandwe was interesting and were it not for the driver our hotel provided I would never of guessed you have to leave the main building, turn left, walk 50 metres, and collect your bags from a gate next to the carpark. You can see in the below photo where luggage collection is – it’s not marked or sign posted in anyway so far as we could see.

 Thandwe baggage collection.
The location of luggage collection at Thandwe Airport

Our final Domestic flight in Myanmar was the one that caused me the most concern. We had an international flight connection to make in Yangon and given the accuracy of departure times I had experienced so far, I was worried we might miss it.  As such the day before we were due to fly I decided to move my flight an hour earlier, having no idea how well the KBZ customer service would be I chose to book the earlier flight using the website, then email to KBZ to cancel the original booking and get a refund.  KBZ customer service was very efficient and replied almost immediately to confirm the cancellation and the 75% refund (which arrived in my bank account 2 weeks later – a hit I was willing to take to ensure the international connection).    Thandwe airport is fairly new and there was building work still being carried out.  There is a two story departure area here with a balcony upstairs however most passenger stayed downstairs as this was where the call to board was made.  Again despite the short flight time we were provided with a snack this time a chicken sausage in a roll and a cake. This flight cost approximately £95 per person.

 Baggage collection Yangon domestic terminal
Baggage collection in Yangon Domestic terminal

The flight was again late in departing but my  new booking would now allow us 3.5 hours between landing in Yangon domestic terminal and departing to Bangkok from the international terminal.  When we arrived in Yangon airport late and waited what seemed like an age to collect our luggage I was glad we changed the flight time – I would recommend leaving more time than you would normally for connections due to the unreliability of the flights and inefficiencies in baggage collection in Myanmar. Once we had our luggage we then had to find the way to the correct part of the international terminal, a helpful taxi driver hoping to pick up some passengers knew exactly where we needed to go (out of the domestic arrivals building, turn left) and pointed it out to us.  It was a 2 minute walk and once you are on the path its pretty hard to get lost.

 Baggage collection Yangon Domestic Terminal.
Baggage collection in Yangon Domestic terminal

Overall my experience of domestic flights in Myanmar was a positive one, yeah you can pretty much guarantee every flight will be delayed by some amount of time (every single one of our flights was delayed) but it allowed us to travel great distances in a very short time meaning we made the most of the time we had available in the Country.  Do I think we missed out of seeing the world pass us by on a train or bus, maybe, but if you have the budget and are limited by the time you’re spending in the country, I would absolutely recommend flying.   

Money in Myanmar

Before travelling to Myanmar I had read that getting cash may be an issue, that the country was moving away from the US dollar and trying to increase the use of Kyats (pronounced similar to “chat”).  As we were travelling around South East Asia we took bunch of crisp US Dollars (USD) to both spend and exchange when we arrived in countries with closed currencies. On arrival at Yangon airport (international terminal) there is a row of currency exchangers right outside arrivals with various different rates on show in the windows relating to different currencies. I chose the one with the best and duly asked for the amount I wanted. Now this is the important bit if you have new (the ones with the blue strip down the middle), pristine, dollar bills of higher values (i.e. $100) you will get a better exchange rate. The exchange rate I got at the airport using my shiny new $100 bills was the best I saw in my entire time in the country.  I also took bunch of smaller bills which I didn’t exchange to use as well. 

So how much kyat do you need? Well we stayed in fairly good hotels which were all pre booked through Agoda. You can guarantee a booking without having to pay until a couple of days before your check in date and the cancellation policies are also pretty good if your plans change, which ours did. As these were all paid for through Agoda I didn’t have to worry about carrying the cash to pay for my accommodation. There were a couple of hotels I had booked direct and all of them took either VISA or Mastercard credit cards with a small fee (about 2-3%), as I said these were all fairly good hotels so I am not sure what others would be like.  The only thing I therefore needed cash for was local transport, food, souvenirs etc.  When I ate at the hotels or booked something though them they always wanted USD and weighted the exchange rate to Kyat to encourage the use of USD (anywhere from 10 to 30%), however when we were out and about at local restaurants, or in markets, the use of either Kyat or USD was accepted although I always got the impression the USD was preferred even by the locals.

Notwithstanding the above, most foreigners have to pay to enter temples or the reservations at Inle and Bagan and for these, Kyat was the currency of choice.  

Transport was cheap, with a taxi ride across Yangon costing around £2. Food varied depending on the sort of restaurants you frequent. You could easily pay £30+ for a meal for two in a decent hotel. Meals in local restaurants were a fraction of that and two people can easily eat and drink for less than £10. The usual warning apply to eating in, and booking things through, hotels. A car from the airport to the hotel cost roughly four times more than a local taxi in Yangon, but you might want to take this option when first arriving for the sake of convenience. 

I didn’t actually use all the cash I had with me but there were ATMs in almost every hotel I stayed in and there were a few dotted around in the bigger towns.  In terms of my credit card working in Myanmar, I tested all of mine which included MasterCard (with Lloyds Bank), VISA (with Barclay card), my other half also used his HSBC VISA with no issues. American Express was not accepted. 

If you do end up with some leftover Kyat when leaving Myanmar you can change it back to USD (at the slightly worse rate) at Yangon airport however you must do this before you go through security.  When you are air side there are no currency exchange booths the only way to get rid of it is to spend it in the remarkably well stocked duty free with an exchange rate weighted to discourage you.  I found myself in this exact position but luckily needed to replace my sunglasses so was only left with a few souvenir notes and enough for a bizarre Burger King.