It was 5am, pitch black out, and freezing cold. We rubbed the sleep out of our eyes as we were led down the streets of Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar – a town we didn’t really know by two guys we didn’t know. We got to the water’s edge and they pointed out a small boat that we could barely see and told us to get in. This isn’t one of our stories about sketchy situations while traveling abroad, but instead the beginning of our first time hot air ballooning in an amazing place.
Inle Lake is a popular destination for travelers who want to see a place that is a bit off the beaten path, while still comfortable enough for anyone to visit. Many visitors, including us, trek 60km from a town called Kalaw to the lake in order to see the unique fishermen that paddle with their legs, visit the floating gardens, and more and more to ride a hot air balloon over the lake. The canals that take up almost half of the lake’s area make a stunning grid that is navigated with ease by the local people.
A few days prior to the start of our story we found ourselves at the waterfront of Nyaung Shwe, the town that most visitors to Inle Lake stay in, and visited the sales office for Balloons Over Inle. The company is well known due to its relation to Balloons Over Bagan, the world famous ballooning outfit in the ancient town nearby. While Balloons Over Bagan will often fly as many as 150+ people per day, Balloons Over Inle is a newer location and not as well known – yet. It’s common to only see one or two balloons flying over Inle Lake, which carry six people each in a typical basket. Our introduction in the sales office informed us that our flight would last 1-2 hours, which is significantly longer than any balloon ride option we had seen in Asia so far, and that we’d have a champagne breakfast upon landing. We signed up and were told to be ready to leave by 5am on the day we chose.
Just before we hopped into the traditional boat hiding under the cover of darkness, a friendly Englishman arrived and introduced himself to us. Ian turned out to be our balloon pilot for the day and spoke with us casually about his 12 years of living and piloting in Myanmar, and conversed back and forth in Burmese with our boat’s captain and the men that had picked us up at our hotel. We all jumped into the boat, wrapped blankets around ourselves, and off we went into the pitch black canals.
Ian had mentioned that the boat ride was the fun part, which struck me as a bit odd since the locals navigate the canals daily just as if you were driving to work. As we flew through the water I understood what he meant – our captain would shine a spotlight for a couple seconds every few minutes, but otherwise we only had the stars and an empty moon to light our way under bridges and past obstacles. Bamboo posts holding floating gardens and makeshift bridges in place came centimeters from hitting us, but our captain easily got us to the opposite side of the lake a half hour later after a surprisingly peaceful and enjoyable boat ride.
Once we got off the boat we were only steps from our balloon’s launching point, and the other visitors that we’d be flying with joined us. The crew from Balloons Over Inle served us coffee and tea, which was much appreciated at that hour. Ian gave us a briefing on how the balloon would be inflated, how to get into our landing positions when the time came, and handed out pretty awesome Balloons Over Inle hats! Ian shot off the burners from the balloon’s basket for a test and the crew fired up the nearby fans to inflate the balloon. When the balloon was full of air, Ian and crew fired the burners into the sideways balloon until the air inside heated up enough to lift it upright!
With the balloon standing upright it was time to climb into the basket and start our flight. The six of us hopped in and Ian fired the burners, which instantly took us up into the sky! While Sissy and I have flown in plenty of commercial flights, done our share of skydiving, and flown in helicopters, this was a completely different feeling. The ascent was quick and peaceful, and we were looking down on the network of canals below us in no time.
Bright green floating gardens wove through the glassy water below and the sun was just peaking out from over the mountains surrounding the lake. Ahead, Ian pointed out a boat with a platform attached to it. He said he planned to land us on the platform which was barely bigger than our basket, say hi to the Balloons Over Inle crew, and then take off again!
We dropped down gently onto the boat and were greeted by smiling faces and waves. After a minute we were back up in the sky and admiring gorgeous views once again. Ian told us that he will fly as high as 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) sometimes, and we promptly started gaining altitude as if to prove his point. We leveled off at 7,500 feet, which would be our maximum altitude for the flight, and cruised at 20 knots for quite a while, watching the tiny boats making their way across the lake and through the canals below us. A single other balloon was following below us, and Ian radioed instructions to them throughout the flight.
After cruising for a long time at altitude, we were told to prepare for a rapid descent so we could get a closer look at the villages below. We dropped at 1,500 feet per minute, with our ears popping just slightly on the way down. Although I could see we were coming down fast, I couldn’t hear any wind rushing or feel a falling sensation like a helicopter or small plane would cause. Soon we were floating just above a monastery that we had visited by boat a few days before and near a village that we had gone to by bicycle. In the fields ox drawn plows were cutting trenches in the dirt and fishermen were navigating the narrow canals.
Over an hour had gone by when Ian pointed out Nyaung Shwe and the Balloons Over Inle landing site. Realistically there is no set landing site for balloons, however Ian shot for this site because it was the pilot house for the company and the field was only meters from his personal home! A crew of a dozen people were waiting the field below and we gently set down after an amazing hour and fifteen minutes of flying over the beautiful Inle Lake. Children from the village ran to greet us with huge smiles on their faces and we saw the crew preparing the champagne breakfast just a stone’s throw away.
In the matter of a minute the balloon had been deflated and the champagne was poured. A french couple that was in the balloon with us asked if the champagne was indeed champagne (from France), and the crew member pouring revealed that it definitely was. This, along with the incredible croissants, delicious banana bread, and mound of cut up fruits, were the small details that Balloons Over Inle didn’t miss out on. Ian talked with us about living in Myanmar prior to the reopening to standard tourism, about the current lack of travelers compared to the years just after the reopening, and about the quality of Inle for ballooning compared with his other favorite sites in the world (Inle was his favorite).
After an adventurous and beautiful boat ride in the dark, the most incredible balloon ride over Inle Lake, and a delicious champagne breakfast with someone who knows Myanmar incredibly well, it was time for us to head back to our hotel. Ian dropped us off just before 9am and bid us a warm farewell. How do you continue your day after such an amazing morning? Well, we headed back to sleep for quite a while!
If you’re interested in ballooning over Inle Lake, visit www.balloonsoverbagan.com/balloonsoverinle