Bagan is famous for hot air ballooning, Lake Inle less so, but both are quite magical experiences. Most people take balloon rides if they can in Bagan (you often need to book months in advance), with Lake Inle a fall back option if they are unsuccessful. Not many people seem to have done both, but after my first hot air balloon ride in Bagan I was keen for a repeat before I left Myanmar.
I’ve written about both trips separately but here’s a comparison.
The most important thing, and one that is hard to compare. They’re both sunrise flights, but Bagan is over a dry and dusty temple filled landscape, while Inle is over villages built literally on a large lake surrounded by mountains. They’re both wonderful in different ways.
I did find that most of the best views over Bagan were from one side of the balloon though, as it passed by the archaeological zone, though it depends on the wind direction. The Lake Inle views were more 360 degree, with something of interest in every direction.
There are height restrictions at Bagan which mean you don’t get that close to the temples, whereas at Lake Inle you can pretty much hover right above the houses below.
The Lake Inle flight also goes a lot higher, which is a mixed blessing. The panoramic views as the sun rose were stunning but it did feel a bit like a flight in a plane, with haze obscuring the detail below.
There are many more balloons flying at Bagan which creates some beautiful photo opportunities not possible at Lake Inle.
I found the Lake Inle flight more relaxing, thanks to the longer duration and being in a 6 person basket rather than the 16 person baskets at Bagan. Both are a photo fest but I had time over Lake Inle to just enjoy the view, while Bagan was all about trying to capture it.
The journey to get to the balloon is far more memorable at Lake Inle, involving a half hour boat ride in the dark across the lake, reflecting the star filled sky above, passing fishermen using lights to attract fish. Bagan is just a bus ride to the launch site, though you do get (depending on where you’re staying) longer in bed, with a 5.45am pickup compared to a 5am start at Lake Inle.
Both flights are the same price, though I got a discount for doing both with Balloons Over Bagan / Inle. They’ve been operating the longest and have a 100% safety record.
It varies based on the wind but my Bagan flight was 50 minutes long and Lake Inle 1 hour 20 minutes long, which are typical flight lengths. Lake Inle flights can be up to two hours if there isn’t much wind.
Popularity and availability
Bagan is far more popular, served by 3-4 operators and more than 30 balloons, with bookings required well in advance. At Lake Inle Balloons over Inle and Oriental Ballooning have two balloons each, and you don’t typically need to book as far in advance.
Take warm clothes but it’s the same temperature in the air as on the ground, and it can get quite warm under the burners. Book Bagan as soon as you’re able as spaces fill up months in advance, though you may get lucky as I did if there are late notice cancellations. If don’t like heights still do a balloon ride, it’s safe with the basket coming up to your chest, no chance of falling out. The trick I suggested to a couple of friends who were with me was just to focus on taking photos, which they found distracted from any sense of vertigo.
A few things I learnt about ballooning
A balloon costs ~USD100,000, and the fabric is good for ~500 hours in the air. The balloon is inspected every six months or 100 hours. The balloon is made mainly of nylon, but the lower part is neoprene, a fire resistant form of cotton used for racing driver suits. The most popular place in the world for tourist ballooning is Cappadocia, in Turkey, with over 100 balloons, and apparently half of all tourist balloon flights globally.
In summary they’re both great. Bagan is the classic one for a reason but I enjoyed the Lake Inle experience more in many ways. If you can afford it, and if there is availability, I’d recommend doing both, but if you can’t then either one will be a memorable experience.