Up in the air! Hot air ballooning Sri Lanka
There are many ways to experience Sri Lanka’s magnificent Cultural Triangle. But why do it on the ground, driving or walking from place to place, when you can soar up in the air for an unforgettable aerial view? I didn’t think this was actually possible until I heard about the tempting hot air ballooning tours operating in the area. At first, I didn’t think it would be much different from the aerial views you get through the small windows on planes. Boy, was I wrong.
I had a ballooning tour booked from Colombo before I departed for Dambulla, the heart of the Cultural Triangle. I found that prices ranged somewhere between 160 to 200 USD per adult, depending on the company you choose. Dambulla is hardly the only place hot air ballooning is offered. I found that many companies are now offering tours in Galle, Ahungalle and even from the famous Udawalawe National Park, where you can see elephants from up in the air. Though the hot air ballooning phenomenon is relatively new to the island, companies operate with state-of-the-art equipment handled by experienced pilots licensed with the country’s Civil Aviation Authority.
The typical flight takes off early in the morning to be on time for the sunrise. Also, there are no thermal air waves in the morning, making the trip more pleasant. I was instructed to be dressed comfortably by 5 a.m., when the balloon company came to pick me up from my hotel. We drove to an open field with a multi-colored envelope of a balloon laid on the ground, like a fallen rainbow. Workers were busy alongside the envelope with giant fans partially inflating it. Soon they had the burners lit up and the balloon envelope steadily inflated like a giant awaking from slumber. I got into its huge wicker basket with 6 or 7 other people, and after a safety briefing, the ropes were loosened and we were ascending.
The ascent was gentle. As we rose higher in the air, I felt an indescribable sensation of weightlessness. All was quiet except for the blaze in the burner over our heads. We rose past the morning mist into a world of golden yellow. The sun was rising behind the mountains casting brilliant shades of bright yellow, red and pink all around us. I had never experienced sunrise like this. It was almost like Nirvana.
We rose higher, almost brushing the highest braches of the tallest trees and past storks on their way to morning breakfast. Down below, I could see verdant paddy fields, where mini-farmers were plowing with mini-water buffaloes. Mini vehicles rushed along a thin strip of a road. The trees from this height looked like little Lego bushes. It was an exhilarating feeling to soar at the mercy of the wind. Our balloon changed direction and our pilot pointed out the Sigiriya rock fortress down below. From above, I could see the ruins of the ancient palace at the top of the rock, like a messy painting. A little bit further, the magnificent Dambulla Buddha statue stood out like a miniature figurine.
Our balloon was airborne for about an hour before we began to descend with the wind. The world below had woken up while we were soaring, and little kids in white school uniforms screamed at us from below vigorously waving their hands. We landed on terra firma with a thud and some minor dragging as if to jolt us awake from our transcendent stupor.
Once we landed and our feet were firmly on the ground, the balloon company treated us to fresh fruit and flutes of champagne. It was definitely a champagne-worthy moment everyone must try at least once.