Many people have “take a hot air balloon ride” scrawled on their bucket list but, sadly, that is often outside the average traveller’s budget.
I have long been desperate to take one, despite the fear of plummeting to my death in a flimsy wicker basket. I was fortunate enough to take a hot air balloon ride after arriving in Vang Vieng, Laos. This small town, which has been transformed into an adventure destination spot for backpackers, is home to one of the cheapest hot air balloon rides in the world.
The small town is populated almost exclusively by hostels, bars and restaurants built to accommodate tourists passing through the town on their way to Luang Prabang or the capital of Vientiane. Surrounded by unreal scenery, it’s the perfect spot for an airborne adventure.
When you arrive into town, countless vendors litter the streets, offering adventures ranging from ziplining to kayaking and, most notably, hot air balloon rides. After securing some recommendations from my hostel reception, I trawled the streets trying to find the best price.
Quotes varied from $125 to $85, which increased for smaller groups. As a group of four, we were able to secure a ride for just $85 per person. Travelling as a group also ensured that we would be taken up together and not crammed in with some strangers for the duration of the ride.
You can pay extra for a private ride, but it could cost up to $200. We opted for the budget option and booked our ride, which included pick up and drop off at our hostel. Like most of the tourist vendors in Laos, the seller did not accept cards so we paid in cash.
Thanks to the fast-paced nature of Southeast Asian tourism, we were able to book a trip for the same day just before sunset. To make the most of the panoramic landscapes, the balloons launch at dawn and dusk.
Our group taxi collected us at 4pm. We were crammed into a tight open-door car with eight other tourists and led on a bumpy ride to an open field. When we arrived, we were separated into two groups: our four and another eight people.
Two balloons were spread out on the floor surrounded by a dozen workers. Our balloon had a smaller basket and a larger basket sat beneath the bigger balloon across the field. With the sun burning above us, I hid in the back of the car waiting for the balloon to be pumped full of air.
Now that we had arrived, the workers filled the balloon using gas-powered fans to cold inflate it. The process took a while and my group passed the time giddily snapping photos in front of it and then, in a matter of seconds, it was ready to lift off. Our team called us over and loaded us into the basket one-by-one.
It felt as though we were rising into the air before the door could even shut. A hot air balloon does not look like it moves quickly from the ground but in the air, it feels like a helicopter rapidly taking to the skies. Or, perhaps, the immediate fear and hyper-awareness of being lifted into the air made it feel far faster.
With four of us and the pilot, the basket felt cosy but not uncomfortable. We had space to spread out and could change spots, as long as we carefully coordinated and switched with someone in an opposite corner. Soon, the field beneath us disappeared and we began our soaring journey into the skies.
For the first few minutes, I could not tear my eyes away from the ground, lost in the ridiculousness of what we were doing. Why are we so obsessed with finding new ways to risk our lives for a spike of adrenaline? As the people below us shrunk into pea-sized humans, I wondered if I should have researched the health and safety precautions of such a venture, but thrills have no time for precautions.
Once I lifted my gaze to the horizon, I found that we were already hovering more than 500 feet above the ground, floating gracefully through the valley and towards the setting sun. I tried to drink in every bit of scenery we passed, desperate to remember every second of this once in a lifetime experience.
The mountains surrounding the small town silhouetted starkly against the orange sun, their majesty only interrupted by the vibrant balloons of our flying companions. More than a dozen hot air balloons were catered throughout the sky, flying above the sprawling town below. Before we rose even higher, I spotted dozens of kids and adults below waving at the passing balloons.
Only the blasting heat from the burner system interrupted the serenity of the experience. Hot air balloons look peaceful as they float through the air, but the heat and noise of the burner is explosive. As it’s above its passengers, the heat permeates the air quickly and every pump feels like being slapped in the face. But, when you can see the world around you from a bird’s eye view, a little heat and discomfort is a worthwhile price. Though, I may not have coped as well if the balloon’s basket was more crowded.
As we rose even higher, I snapped dozens of photos, trying to commemorate every floating mile. However, after a while, I put my phone away and enjoyed the magic. Bizarrely, I felt totally alone in these quiet moments. Despite being surrounded by four other people in a basket barely bigger than four feet across, I felt eerily peaceful in my thoughts and body. Perhaps it was the pure elation at living a bucket list moment.
Later, I noticed many of the balloons were flying significantly lower than ours. Our pilot—otherwise known as an aeronaut—informed us that every pilot has a different style of flying, which explained why our taxi-mates’ balloon was floating close to the ground and following a winding river instead of aiming for the skies.
While you can pay extra to reach the peaks of the mountains surrounding Vang Vieng, there is no guarantee that you will reach a certain height, especially when booking a standard trip. I lucked out with a skilled aeronaut who felt at ease lifting us higher and higher above the ground, closer to the clouds with every flame-fueled burst of power.
Forty-five minutes later, we began our gradual descent. Riding a hot air balloon is not a speedy experience and coming back down to earth felt significantly slower than our ascent. Our pilot expertly navigated our basket between trees and houses and landed us on solid ground with nothing more than a little bump. It was over.
Stepping out of the basket and walking on solid ground felt surreal, like the whole experience had been a dream. As we walked away, I watched them fold our balloon back into a flat mess and wondered: how can something so flimsy defy gravity? I’ll never understand the science but I do know I’ll never forget this unmatched experience.
About the Author
Hannah Shewan Stevens is a writer, editor and campaigner. As a disabled, chronically ill queer woman, she specialises in covering the intersection of health, travel, sexuality and LGBTQ+ issues. She is also training to be a sex educator and hopes to use her work to help people confront difficult topics openly and with compassion.
Images courtesy of the author.