UPDATE: Here’s the Phnom Penh Post report.
I am slightly claustrophobic – demanding to be let off a Boeing 777 three hours into a flight from London to LA was a particularly memorable episode in the history of my phobia – so a flight in a hot air balloon has never appealed. However, many people are strangely drawn to the prospect of being trapped in a willow basket on an aimless trajectory, dangling beneath a gas-filled envelope – that is its official name – and find the eerie silence and cool air of an early morning at altitude utterly irresistible.
In fairness, in Siem Reap the early morning is the only time of day you can hope to feel anything approaching cool, and seeing the sunrise over the temples of Angkor from a great height with a limited number of people invading your personal space does have a certain appeal.
Until recently there was really only one option if you wanted a bird’s eye view of the Angkor Archaeological Park without actually having to board a plane at nearby Siem Reap International or charter a helicopter: the famous Sokimex tethered hot air balloon.
This German-built, helium-filled yellow globe has been taking passengers up and down on its long leash for years. It runs during daylight hours every day -– weather permitting – and costs $15 per person for the “flight” which lasts 10 to 15 minutes.
Reviews seem to depend largely on levels of expectation but if you are stuck for time, don’t want to splash out in excess of $100 and value the security of being attached to the ground at all times, it’s the perfect solution. Ask at your hotel or guesthouse to book you a tuk tuk at your preferred time and just turn up.
There’s no booking system and I am reliably informed that you only have to wait if there are not enough people to make it worth the effort. Minimum number required is 10, but if you pay extra they may fly with fewer.
If you are looking for a proper balloon that actually leaves terra firma, its route dictated largely by the strength and direction of the wind, then you could be in luck. Cambodia Travel Partner is the official agent for a new company which is currently offering 40-minute flights twice a day for the special price of $125 per adult (normal price $170) and $65 for children. Prices include pick up from your hotel at 05:30 or 15:30 and drop off at the Old Market in town.
Siem Reap residents had even become quite excited at the prospect of a reasonably priced balloon trip over town until the emergence of the new player was eclipsed by rumours, like a balloon floating cross the sun, of various crash landings by a large hot air balloon around town. As luck would have it one such landing occurred right outside my apartment as I stepped onto the balcony to enjoy the fresh air of a bright early morning.
My initial investigations into whether said balloon is in fact the same balloon hoping to carry fare-paying passengers have resulted in little more than nervous laughter from interviewees, although a local newspaper journalist reported (see link now added above) that it is the same balloon, but that the landings were supposedly of the “controlled” rather than the “crash” variety.
All I can say with 100 percent certainty is that if you go to board a hot air balloon flight and it looks like the craft pictured, one very similar definitely landed in the trees outside my apartment earlier this week.
By Simon Hare.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.