Thailand International Balloon Festival

I recently attended the Thailand International Balloon and Adventure Sports Festival 2010 which this year was being held in Nakhon Nayok. This is the fourth time that the Balloon Festival has been held in Thailand. The first two years it took place in the area of the Khao Yai National Park. Then last year it was held at the historical park in Ayutthaya. We don’t know where they will hold the Balloon Festival in 2011, but I suspect after the success of this years activities that they will hold it in Nakhon Nayok again. I certainly want to come back and explore this province more. It is only about 90 minutes from Bangkok but this was the first time that I had been here.

The opening ceremony of the festival took place on Thursday 2nd December 2010. Guest of honour was Mrs. Pensuda Priaram, the Deputy Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). During her opening address, she commented that that the balloon festival not only gives Thailand a new kind of event but it also showcases the area where it takes place each year. She said that Nakhon Nayok has a “rich natural and cultural heritage which people can come to appreciate and enjoy by taking part in the many outdoor activities that the province offers”. This is the first time that they have added Adventure Sports which is rather apt as Nakyon Nayok is often seen as a province where outdoor activities such as white water rafting and hiking in forests are the most popular.

Also at the opening ceremony was Mr. Yut Wanichanond, who is widely regarded as the first hot air balloon pilot in Thailand. He has been flying in Thailand and around the world for about 20 years. He recently collaborated on a book called “Balloon Over Thailand” which has some excellent photographs of different regions of the Kingdom. He certainly has many experience to talk about as when I met him he quickly told me one story after another. He said one thing about flying a balloon is that you don’t always have control of where you land. He said that one time they were nearing a jungle and had to quickly find a safe place to land. The only open space that they could find big enough was on an island in a lake. There were no roads but they were fortunate that nearby villagers all came out to help them and row them back to the mainland.

During his opening address, Mr. Yut Wanichanond said that “Thailand will witness the international balloon fleet from eight countries: Austria, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Thailand”. In all there were 20 balloons taking part in the festival. There were also 30 types of outdoor and extreme sports. The main event took place at the foot of Khundan Prakanchon Dam. Here they did their daily “Balloon Night Glow” at dusk throughout the five day festival. For this they used special burners to light the interior of the balloons like you can see in my first photograph. Some lucky members of the public were also able to go on tethered balloon flights.

The highlight for many people was the “Mass Launch” which took place early each day just after dawn. This is apparently the best time for flying. They also moved the location away from the Dam which is surrounded by hills to a less windy area around the Nakhon Nayok Football Stadium. This is surrounded by flat lands and rice fields. A lot of people went to the stadium at 6:30 a.m. to watch the launch. However, ballooning is never a guaranteed event. If there is no wind at all then it can only go up and down. If there is too much wind then the balloon could be blown into trees or power lines. I was grateful to be given the opportunity to go up in one of the balloons on Friday. However, due to the strong winds, many of the pilots wisely decided not to go up.

The launch itself is not really a problem. It is the landing. The rice fields are not that big and the wind could do a lot of damage to the basket and balloon if it is dragged along the field. I was of course very disappointed but I knew the pilots were right in deciding not to go up. It wouldn’t be an enjoyable flight if we were being constantly pushed around by the wind. However, I was really fortunate to be invited back again the next day for a second attempt. When I woke up at 5 a.m. I could see that the trees outside my hotel room were blowing around quite a bit but by the time we reached the football stadium an hour later the wind had died down. Everyone was now saying that it was near perfect conditions for ballooning.

This is the first picture that I took as my balloon quickly ascended into the sky. I was very surprised how quickly it went up and we were soon looking down onto the football pitch. Some balloons were already higher up in the sky and were moving fast away from us on a slipstream. Other pilots were still blowing up their balloons with powerful fans and then a gas burner. It is a wonderful feeling to be flying in a contraption that has no engine. It is very quiet apart from every time the pilot turned on the burner to help us go up in order to find a better wind. I am really glad that I went on this trip as ballooning is such an amazing outdoor activity.

I have always loved studying the satellite images on Google Earth. Ballooning is much the same though you are closer to the earth. Unlike an airplane, you are also moving much slower so there is more time to take everything in from the vast expanse of rice fields to the small communities where people were going about their normal morning activities. Though I think the sight of up to twenty hot air balloons flying over their house must have been the highlight of their week. Many people stopped what they were doing to look up in amazement. Everyone was so friendly and waved at us as we passed over them. Others didn’t spot us at first as we crept quietly up to them. I am sure they were shocked to see so many balloons in the sky. It is something you don’t often see in Thailand.

Our average height for the flight was about 65 feet. Some balloons went much higher but we were slightly overloaded. At one point we dropped quickly into this very wet rice field but then bounced straight back up. However, as the basket is not exactly waterproof we did get a little muddy. But, at least I got some good reflections from the balloons as we descended again. I think I am just as scared of heights as the next person, but I never really thought about it at all during the flight. I was in such awe and wonder for the entire one hour flight. As we were overloaded we were getting through the gas quite quickly and it wasn’t long before our pilot started to look for a safe place to land.

I think we were lucky that we had a skilled pilot. He found a rice field that was both dry and also not far from the road. Our landing was really soft. The co-pilot jumped out and helped push the hovering balloon closer to the road. Somehow the support team, that had been following us in the pick-up truck, soon caught up with us and were there on hand to help deflate the balloon. But, before they did that, the pilot even managed to fly the balloon’s basket onto the back of the pick-up truck. Such an amazing experience and something that I would love to do again if I ever get the opportunity. Hopefully I will be able to go again for the next festival which should be around December 2011. In the meantime, I think I will be heading back to Nakhon Nayok to explore this province a bit more.

Many thanks to the TAT for taking me on this media trip and also to the event organizers for being such kind hosts.

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