If you’ve ever dreamed of flying in a hot air balloon, there are fewer places in the world more iconic than over the temples of Bagan at sunrise, while dozens of other air balloons sprinkle the sky. The experience is nothing short of breathtaking.
With Yonder Travel Insurance, I had the opportunity to make this dream a reality over Thanksgiving (this was definitely something to be thankful for).
Hot Air Ballooning in Bagan – Is it worth it?
In my opinion, a thousand times yes! This was the first time I had ever been in a hot air balloon, which is something I have always wanted to do. It is a bucket list item that does not disappoint. I actually teared up as the air balloon first drifted up into the sky because I was so happy.
Riding in a hot air balloon is the only way to truly get a grasp of the sheer magnitude (thousands) of diverse temples in Bagan in the first light of day.
If you don’t have the money for this expense in your travel budget ($300-450 USD), you can still experience the magic of a sunrise over the temples with the hot air balloons in Bagan from several other viewpoints on the ground, but I would highly recommend budgeting for a hot air balloon. It’s an experience you won’t regret and will never forget. I’ll share how to keep the experience to a budget
Now for everything you need to know…
Where is Bagan?
Bagan is located in the country of Myanmar (also previously known as Burma) in the Mandalay region. It is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known to have the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, estimated at over 10,000 temples where roughly 2,000+ remain.
Is Bagan safe? Is Bagan safe for solo female travelers?
Yes. Bagan is not considered a high-risk safety area in Myanmar and is not experiencing civil unrest or conflict. Bagan does not pose a risk of landmines.
From my personal experience as a solo female traveler in Bagan, I felt safe, even driving around on a scooter at night (after sunset) with other female travelers. I felt more safe in Bagan than I have in other major cities I have visited while traveling.
When should I travel to Bagan to experience the hot air balloons?
The balloons only fly from October to early April. This season, standard balloons fly from October 7, 2019 to April 10, 2020, while premium balloons only fly from October 20, 2019 to March 31, 2020. These specific dates are for the company Balloons over Bagan. The balloons do not fly during the hot and rainy season (late April through early October).
I visited in November and would highly recommend visiting then, it is just before the peak holiday season so it is not as crowded, you don’t get hit with holiday fees, and the weather is favorable.
If you want to save money, avoid visiting over the holiday season (December 25 through January 5) as air balloon rides increase by $20 at this time and accommodations are also more expensive.
How do I get to Bagan?
I flew from Thailand (Chiang Mai) to Myanmar (Mandalay). Mandalay is the closet major city to Bagan.
The front desk of your hostel/hotel will be able to arrange transport for you in Mandalay with pick up directly from your accommodation. You do not need to book this prior to arriving to Myanmar, but typically reservations need to be made at least the day/night before.
I stayed at The Mansion in Mandalay and spend two days there before traveling to Bagan. It is a great budget hostel option with a free breakfast served on the rooftop with a view overlooking the river and Grand Palace. My new friends stayed in Ostello Bello, so I spent most of my time there and would recommend Ostello Bello over Mansion if you are looking for a more social hostel.
From Mandalay, the most common, environmentally-friendly, and cost-effective way to get to Bagan is by mini-bus. I paid 9,500 kyat ($6.50 USD) for the 5 hour journey. It is advertised as 5-7 hours.
I took a minibus with friends who were staying at Ostello Bello so we all booked our minibus ticket there. I was picked up at my hostel separately, and at first by a different shuttle, so I was in a bit of a panic when I heard my friends were picked up directly by the mini-bus. Thankfully the shuttle ended up meeting the minibus (on the highway) after picking up a few more passengers. Our trip took just under 4.5 hours including a 20 minute rest at a pitstop for lunch.
From the bus station in Bagan, the taxi drivers are not typically willing to barter. I was with a group of friends and we each paid 4,000 kyat ($2.73 USD) for the taxi to our hostel – there were three of us in one taxi and four in another.
If you have more time and want to save a little money you can take the train. The journey will take 7+ hours and the cost depends on what class level you purchase your ticket in, starting at $4 or up to $14 with upper class seating.
Boats take the longest time to leave very early in the morning and take 8-12 hours to float down the Irrawaddy River and will cost anywhere from $25 – $60 depending on the company. The boats typically provide breakfast and lunch, but it is advised to bring snacks for the trip as the meals are light and the journey is long.
You can also take a private car, which will take around 3-4 hours and cost anywhere from $70 to $150 for a car (that can be split usually between three people).
I ended up taking a private car from Inle Lake back to Mandalay at the end of my trip to Myanmar (out of necessity because none of the other forms of travel would get me back to the city in time for my flight). Thankfully I was also able to split the cost with a friend to make it cheaper. I will say it was one of the scariest drives of my life (and I’ve been on many scary drives around the world) as the driver was driving at extreme speeds down winding and bumpy country roads. I’ve heard this is common. People have shared similar experiences in mini-buses but I didn’t find my bus rides as terrifying.
You can fly to Bagan Nyaung-U Airport from within Myanmar, (it is a domestic airport). This is the fastest but most expensive and least environmentally-friendly option. The 30 minute flights ranges from $57 to $107 USD.
Traveling from Yangon?
Many travelers come from Yangon, Myanmar’s capitol city. The distance is much farther and the journey will take longer and cost more but you can reach still Bagan via bus, train, private car, or plane from Yangon.
What is the Bagan Zone Ticket?
The Bagan Archaeological Zone Fee is a mandatory fee required by all foreigners visiting Bagan. It costs 25,000 kyat (roughly $19 USD) and is valid for 5 days. Upon entering Bagan, your taxi will be stopped and you will be required to pay it.
It is advised that you take a photo of it in case you lose it so you have a copy of it. You will be asked to show this ticket randomly at different sites around Bagan, particularly at popular sunrise spots. I was asked for it on two separate occasions at sunrise. A photo of it on your phone will suffice, as long as you have the brightness up to scan. One time, someone I met forgot his ticket and he was able to walk quickly by the man checking while he was checking another ticket since it was dark and we were in a large group.
If you are planning to stay in Bagan more than five days, you will need to purchase another ticket. Or as a budget tip, if you meet another traveler who is staying fewer than five days, you can ask to have their ticket before they leave to cover some of your remaining days.
As a heads up, you will need to pay a zone fee in every region in Myanmar you visit. Bagan had the most expensive zone fee I encountered.
I have read blogs about people aiming to skip the fee by either walking across the ticket zone (instead of taking a cab) or asking their taxi driver to not stop at the ticket point (perhaps by telling the driver they already have one?).
Where should I stay in Bagan?
There are three regions in Bagan, Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung-U, which is by the airport. I opted to stay in Old Bagan as it is in closer proximity to temples (you are literally among them) and there were more hostel options available.
For a backpacker budget option, I stayed in BaobaBed Hostel in Old Bagan, which I highly recommend. They have a fun social atmosphere with a rooftop pool where they serve a great breakfast buffet (included with the price of your dorm, which is pretty standard in Myanmar). They organize lots of activities, including daily sunrise and sunset trips free of cost, you just need to rent an E-Bike (an electric scooter) or hop on the back of someone else’s if you aren’t comfortable driving one on your own. More on that later…
Other recommended options are Ostello Bello Bagan and Ostello Bello Pool.
Hot Air Balloon Reservations – How do I pick my company? How far in advance do I book?
There are three main options for hot air balloon companies – Balloons Over Bagan, Oriental Ballooning, and Golden Eagle. After lots of research, I decided to go with Balloons over Bagan, which was the first company to begin flying in Myanmar as they seemed to be the most reputable.
I think regardless of the company you select, you are bound to have a great experience, but I am speaking from my personal experience. I had a wonderful experience with my flight and my captain Stephen Kinsey.
I booked my flight a couple weeks prior to the flight date (I feared that it would be sold out, especially since it was during Thanksgiving weekend which I figured would draw more tourists). You can check the availability of your desired flight dates on their booking website here. Some people advise booking a month or two in advance – my best advice is to watch the website to see availability left.
If you are on a budget, flexible, traveling solo, and not traveling during the holiday peak season, you might be able to book last minute for an even cheaper fair. My friend also wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride in Bagan so we decided to fly together. Although the date I previously booked showed up as sold out, she called the office and was still able to get on my same balloon after a few calls. She had to pay in cash but the company came to our hostel to coordinate the payment and booking the night before.
How much does it cost to hot air balloon in Bagan? What does it include?
The hot air balloon ride costs $350 USD for standard with Balloons over Bagan and $450 for premium. All companies have similar pricing.
- Pick up/drop off from your accommodation
- 16 person balloon, 4 people max per compartment
- Coffee/tea, biscuits on arrival to launch site
- Sparkling wine, fruit, and pastries post flight
- In flight photos
- Balloons over Bagan hat
- Everything from Standard, plus
- Private launch spot
- Smaller 8 person balloons where couples can have their own compartments
- Full breakfast with your sparkling wine post-flight
If you travel on a budget like I do, I don’t think it’s necessary to go with premium (I did the standard experience).
While researching again for this blog, I realized I could have likely got a cheaper rate as low as $315 by booking through a travel agent like MyanMarvels. My friend also paid $300 for her last-minute booking.
What should I bring in the hot air balloon?
Bring your phone and/or camera for photos, just don’t drop them! I would also bring a light jacket as it is a little chilly in the morning. Food and drinks will be provided before and after flight so snacks aren’t necessary, but you can bring a water bottle if you want. You won’t need anything else and there isn’t room for more in the balloon.
Hot Air Balloon Logistics
- Pick up between 5am and 6am from your hostel/hotel (you will be given a more exact time the night before)
- Breakfast of coffee or tea and biscuits is included at the launch site, customers are assigned to their balloons followed by a safety briefing in front of the balloon
- Flight plan varies daily by weather and wind conditions
- 45 minutes to 1 hour flight during sunrise
- Sparkling wine, fruit, and pastries are provided for a post-flight celebration at the landing site
- Drop off back at your accommodation before 9am
My personal hot air balloon experience
My friend Kira and I were picked up in the dark at 5:20am in a cool vintage bus. For us in Myanmar, it was “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) while our families back home were beginning their Thanksgiving celebrations. I was still a little sleepy but giddy with excitement and couldn’t feel more grateful for how I had chosen to spend the holiday abroad.
We arrived at the launch site where we were given the choice of coffee or tea along with breakfast biscuits. Crewmembers were busy preparing balloons for flight. Just before 6am we were assigned our balloon groups and then taken with our groups to do a safety briefing with flight instructions as passengers. I didn’t realize the real risk of the hot air balloon tipping over at landing and being dragged across the ground for meters, which made me a little nervous. At this moment I was especially grateful to have travel insurance and I figured if my balloon tipped at landing at least it would add another element of excitement and adventure to the day.
Daylight began to creep over the field, revealing dozens of other balloons surrounding us, all preparing to launch. My enthusiasm grew as the balloons began to inflate, the roar of the flames was loud and hot on my skin – I was suddenly wide awake. We snapped photos and once the balloon was inflated and standing upright, it was time to climb in.
Around 6:20am we sat for take off as instructed and held onto the hand rails in front of us. The balloon drifted off so smoothly I almost didn’t feel it. Shortly after we were airborne, we were advised to stand. The feeling of floating away from the ground was surreal, I looked down as the crew waved goodbye and the colors from the impending sunrise washed over the horizon. I felt myself tearing up, I was so grateful that I was in Myanmar, in Bagan, in this balloon, about to soar over temples. It was the elating feeling of one of my dreams coming true before my eyes and pride that I took it upon myself to make it happen. I looked over at Kira and told her I was crying, she warned me that I would make her cry too haha.
We enjoyed the flight, soaring over thousands of temples, fields, crops, homes, locals, cows. We took tons of photos, the views 360 degrees were incredible. We could see the Irrawaddy river the west, the temple on Mount Popa in the distance, and the sunrise to the east. The horizon was sprinkled with floating balloons around us. Being up in the air is really the only way to get a grasp at just how many temples are in Bagan and the diversity of them.
I wished we could have flown forever, others echoed the same sentiment when the flight time came to an end. The landing seemed a little hectic and fast, as we were all loudly instructed to sit back down and hold onto the hand rails over the roar of the fire above us. Crew members were running across the field and ready to grab onto the ropes and balloons. The landing didn’t feel as peaceful as takeoff but overall it was smooth (no tipping over!). We landed around 7:20am for almost an hour flight (the average flight is 45 minutes). I would ask for Stephen Kinsey if possible as he was excellent and goes the extra distance, literally.
Crew members greeted us with glasses of prosecco waiting for our post flight celebration! We had fresh fruit (papaya and banana) and croissants. Locals who watched the landing had run over to set up little shops in hopes that flight goers would purchase a souvenir of handmade artwork.
Another vintage bus was waiting for our return and we piled back in, this bus had limo style seats facing each other. We drove past local homes, ox carts, and even a parade of some sort for a local celebration. We arrived back at our hostel a little after 8am, in time for more food at our hostel’s breakfast. I was on such a high from the experience. I Facetimed my family, who was just finishing up their Thanksgiving dinner back at home to share my excitement with them.
Is hot air ballooning safe?
Yes. Here is what Balloons Over Bagan had to say about safety: “Hot air ballooning is an extremely safe activity which is highly regulated in Myanmar with strict safety guidelines. We are licensed by the Department of Civil Aviation and all of our pilots hold full commercial pilot’s licences. Our balloons are built to the highest standards of the British aerospace industry in the UK and imported to Myanmar. We operate under an aviation maintenance organization with in-house engineers and inspectors who were all qualified in the UK. All of our ground crew regularly receive first aid and fire fighting training by UK and Myanmar Public Transport Inspectors.”
Of course any time you get in any type of vehicle, there is a small risk associated. But I didn’t find any records of hot air balloon related fatalities in Bagan.
Should I get travel insurance?
Yes. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that I think you should only get travel insurance if you choose to go hot air ballooning. I’m a big advocate for always getting travel insurance in general (I’ve had my fair share of misadventures on the road, like a travel partner getting stitches on two different continents).
I partnered with Yonder, which is a travel insurance comparison site that compares policy options from different providers in one place. Yonder helped me find the best deal for the coverage I needed (adventure sport travel with medical insurance and also coverage for the expensive camera gear I travel with).
With each policy sold, Yonder provides a week’s worth of food to a child refugee. So not only can you feel secure in your own travels, but also that you are giving back to others in need.
What kind of travel insurance should I get?
Find a plan that meets your needs. Does your medical insurance at home cover trips abroad? Do you travel with expensive items that may not already be under warranty or insured? Will you be participating in adventure sport activities? Make sure whatever you need is included in your coverage.
Here’s a list of the adventure sport activities my plan covered:
Abseiling; BMX; bobsledding; bungee jumping; canyoning; caving; hot air ballooning; jungle zip lining; parachuting; paragliding; parascending; rappelling; skydiving; spelunking; wildlife safaris; and windsurfing.
I would definitely recommend travel insurance for visiting Myanmar and participating in any kind of adventure activity. Statistically it is much more likely you’ll get in an accident on a motorbike or E-Bike, which I learned how to drive in Bagan.
Bagan sunrise from the ground – take an E-Bike (scooter)
Even if you take a hot air balloon, I highly recommend viewing at least one sunrise from the ground (via a hill or temple that you are allowed to climb). The experience is different from sunrise in a hot air balloon and also magical. Each sunrise is different and it is definitely work waking up early for.
If you’re looking to great photos, I found it easier to get better photos from the ground than in the air balloon, as you have limited space in the balloon, it is filled with other people, and it is constantly moving.
My hostel BaobaBed Hostel hosted free sunrise and sunset tours to different locations each day, you just have to have your own E-bike rental or go on the back of someone else’s. You can rent an E-bike across the street from BaobaBed and venture off on your own for sunrise if you don’t want to join the tour.
I believed an E-bike would be an electric bicycle but it is actually an electric scooter and appears to look just like a motorbike (it is much more quiet). Since I had only briefly learned how to drive a scooter in Thailand (just up and down a road), I knew I had to properly learn to go on my own for a sunrise mission in the dark and often on dirt and sand roads. I went out in the afternoon with someone who could teach me how to ride properly and then also on my own before I took the longer ride for sunrise (and then sunset). Always wear a helmet!
Overall, I would highly recommend taking a hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan at sunrise. It is an unforgettable experience and an unparalleled way to grasp just how many temples are in Bagan, as well as watch Bagan wake up as you fly over local neighborhoods and farmlands.
Have you ever flown in a hot air balloon? Is hot air ballooning in Bagan on your bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!
*In full transparency to my readers, I partnered with Yonder for this blog post. All opinions are my own. I only collaborate with companies I love and hope you’ll love too!