Updated March 2016
Seeing hot-air balloons flying over Bagan is one of the iconic images of Myanmar / Burma. The massive scale of the over 3000 temples on the Bagan plain mean that you can only truly witness the scale of it all from the air, and a slowly floating over is the best way of doing it.
For years, there has been only one company providing the experience. Balloons Over Bagan and their red balloons can be seen in any number of a photo, including a bunch in my house. However, in 2013, Oriental Ballooning began flying their balloons as well, bringing some much needed competition to the space. I've flown with both, and I'll give you my take on them.
First though, a little bit about ballooning in Bagan.
All of the pilots with both Balloons Over Bagan and Oriental Ballooning are trained overseas, with most of the pilots coming from the UK. It's common in the balloon pilot scene to work the season here, then move to another part of the world for their high season. Shake, repeat. Many of the pilots I spoke with told me that they have been coming back here for several years.
The ballooning season is short in Bagan, typically running from mid October through mid-March, when the winds are calmer and the air is cooler. There is a chance that your flight may be cancelled the morning of, or even the last minute, so be aware that a booking does not guarantee a flight. If the weather conditions are poor, the balloons will be grounded. In the event that the flight is canceled, your money will be refunded.
The vast majority of the flights are at sunrise, meaning that you're going to have to be up bright and early for your pickup, often before 6am. You'll be back at your hotel around 9am or so.
How Much Does It Cost For A Hot Air Balloon Ride in Bagan?
Let's just start by saying that it's expensive. Prices for ballooning vary around the world, but my flight over Wadi Rum in Jordan was nearly 1/2 of the price of a flight in Bagan.
Balloons Over Bagan
$320-$330 USD / person (classic service / 12-16 passenger balloon)
$380-$390 USD / person (premium service / 8 passenger balloon)
(~$330 through an agent)
$380 USD / person in a 4, 8 or 12 person balloon
(~$320 through an agent)
Here are a couple of agents I found online with lower rates posted on their website:
Included in the cost is a pickup from your hotel, a light breakfast at the launch site, a glass of champagne when you land, and a dorky hat you'll almost certainly never wear. They even give out signed certificates afterward, so you can show your friends proof that you flew here, without having to show them your soiled shorts / high-flying selfies.
Hot air ballooning in very popular these days, with up to 20 balloons taking off every morning. Book early to avoid disappointment. For the highest season (around xmas / new years), it's recommended that you book a month in advance, or more.
Book through an agent and potentially save some cash.
It's worth mentioning that booking through a travel agent instead of directly through the company could save you some money. I would definitely make a few calls or send a few e-mails, as I saved a reasonable amount for one of my flights this way ($50-$100). If you're thinking of going last minute and the company is fully booked, you can contact the company directly and ask to be put down on the "standby" list. You can potentially save a couple bucks as well.
What's the Experience Like?
The experience of flying in a hot air balloon can be magical. It's nothing like flying in a plane, and more like floating in the breeze. There are essentially no sounds, other than the odd blast from the burners, or the clicking of camera shutters.
As the balloon lifts off from the ground, you'll be asked to sit down for the launch, and shortly after you'll be given the OK to stand. The winds are fairly predictable, and your flight will last about 45 min or so. The basket is very stable, and doesn't sway at all.
Floating through the air, with only the sound coming from the camera shutter.
It's worth mentioning that the pilot cannot control the weather, and is at the mercy of the winds when it comes to the longevity of your flight. When the flight is coming to an end, the pilot will again ask you to sit down and hold on during the landing. It's important to stay seated until he (or she) gives the OK. Don't hop out until they tell you to.
Those afraid of heights need not fear, at least in my experience. My Mom, whom I was a little concerned might freak out at the heights had an absolutely amazing time. The basket comes up quite high, and you would have to try really hard to fall / jump out. The basket does not sway.
I flew once in late November, and once in late January. The light wasn't as nice in November, which I believe had something to do with the remnants of a cyclone during the week prior. On the other hand, the light was AMAZING for the January flight. I can't know about the weather patterns in the region when you're planning on going, this was just my experience. Generally though, mid Dec through mid Jan will offer the best experience.
Balloons Over Bagan or Oriental Ballooning: Which To Choose?
My personal experience with Oriental Ballooning was much better than with Balloons Over Bagan. The staff were friendlier with the other (local) staff and the clients. It also felt more personal and less like we were just a bunch of cattle as they raked in the cash, which I thought important given that you're paying a lot for this very short experience.
Choose a smaller balloon. It's worth the extra money.
Besides that, the real defining factor was that Oriental Ballooning had a much smaller basket, holding 8 people vs 16 for Balloons Over Bagan. Looking back at my notes, the words "magnitudes better" is how I described the difference. Each basket has 4 compartments, so the difference is that you're sharing your corner with one person instead of three. Whenever you have the opportunity to fly in a hot air balloon, you want to be in the smallest basket possible, regardless of where you are ballooning. This is absolutely worth the extra money.
A hot air balloon ride is not a budget friendly experience, but most people consider it a once in a lifetime opportunity. So if you're here in the right season, and you have the means, it's certainly something worth considering. It might just be the cherry on the top of your Bagan visit.