10 best destinations to take a hot air balloon ride

hot air balloon When traveling, it’s always fun to explore a city from a new perspective. And, what better point of view than from the sky? These ten air balloon destinations will not only immerse you in beautiful scenery, but will also give you access to hidden treasures you may not have seen from the ground.

The Pyrenees, Spain

The Pyrenees is a mountain range that forms a divider between Spain and France. Crossing the Pyrenees in general is an unforgettable experience, and making this journey by hot air balloon will make it that more memorable. Watch as Catalonian buildings begin to resemble a Monopoloy game board. Lush greenery fills your view as you get the chance to see Santa Margarita, an enormous, well-preserved volcano crater, from an aerial point of view. In the winter, the snow capped mountains give the relaxing ride a magical ambiance.

One great tour group to go through for this ride is Vol de Coloms, especially since they serve Cava, a Spanish sparkling-wine, and sweet bread during the flight.Gatineau, Quebec

While the scenery in the region is picturesque, with 51 skyscrapers over 246 feet, serene rivers like the Ottawa River and the Gattineay River, and bountiful flora, the real reason to visit Gatineau is to ride a hot air balloon during the annual Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. Not only are there several dozen hot air balloons marking up the sky, but they come in an array of shapes, sizes, and characters, adding a fun element to the scene. Climb into a space shuttle, a giant birthday cake, or a sad-faced court jester as the thousands of attendees, amusement park rides, craft stalls, and car show automobiles become ants in the landscape. Click here for more information.

turkey hot air balloons Cappadocia, Turkey

If you want to ride a hot air balloon in a place with truly unique landscape, then Cappadocia in Turkey is the perfect spot. As you float high up into the clouds you will be looking down upon sandy desert and pointy limestone rock mountains that almost look like something out of a surreal fairytale. A natural brown landscape textured with steep valleys and red canyons and dotted with green olive groves will make you feel like you’ve left planet Earth (which, I guess, you have). Click here for more information.

Temecula Valley, California

Where better to vacation that wine country? Immersed in ripening grape vines and neatly plotted fields, the feeling is a mixture of rural living and luxury, especially since you know you will be tasting flavorful reds and whites during your trip. Exploring a wine region from the air is just as fun, if not more, as the you get to see the vineyards and fields from a bird’s-eye view. In Temecula Valley, your view of rolling hills will also be complemented by the beautiful Lake Skinner and a backdrop of mountains. Moreover, the annual Balloon and Wine Festival is held in this region, which mixes the joy of wine with the adventure of flying. Click here for more information.

colorado air ballooning Rocky Mountains, Colorado

The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range that stretches for over 3,000 miles in western North America. With dramatic peaks and valleys that have been sculpted into the mountains, this is a destination favorite for travelers. But while many people explore the Rockies by foot, why not traverse them in a unique way, like hot air ballooning? Watch as Mount Elbert in Colorado, the highest peak in the mountain range, gets smaller and smaller, until it fades into a scene that looks like a real life Bob Ross masterpiece. If you’re in the mood for an event, Colorado Springs hosts their Colorado Balloon Classic every Labor Day weekend. Concession stands, entertainment, contests, and, best of all, dozens of colorful hot air balloons, are all part of the fun. Click here for more informaton.

The Outback, Australia

Your sense of nature will really be ignited with a hot air balloon ride through the Outback of Australia. Flying in the sky you will look down on remote desert featuring only a few bush paths. Famous rock formation landmarks such as Ayers Rock and Mount Olga can be seen from one vantage point along with sparkling springs, waterholes, and rock caves. It is a very organic and undisturbed landscape to take in, and a must-see for hot air balloon enthusiasts. Click here for more information.

angkor wat Angkor War, Cambodia

Located less than a mile west of Angkor Wat, there is the chance to go up in a hot air balloon that will allow you to see the many religious landmarks of Cambodia, such as the famous Angkor Wat, the largest religious building in the world, and the myriad temples surrounding the areas of Siem Reap and the Barays. The basket is in the shape of a donut, giving access to convenient 360 degree views. While floating 656 feet in the air, try to pick out the different temples by name, thinking to yourself how lucky you are to not have to fight off the hourdes of tourists to get a cultural lesson in local religion. No need to be nervous, either, as this is one of the less frightening rides due to the fact that the balloon is always tied down to the ground below, and it only lasts about fifteen minutes.

San Carlos, Costa Rica

Costa Rica has quite a diverse landscape, and taking a hot air balloon ride over the country while floating over rainforests, volcanos, and mountain villages can help you take it all in. Riders will also interact with nature, skimming the monkey-inhabited treetops and dipping down into flowing rivers. When there is a break in the clouds, a clear view of Arenal Volcano, which is still active, can be seen. Click here for more information.

swiss alpsChâteau d’Oex, Switzerland

The Swiss Alps is one of those places that cannot be described with words or even understood through pictures, but must be experienced first hand to really understand its beauty. Float through the air while admiring the picturesque mountains, some bright with green, some sparkling and snow capped, as well as views of Mont-Blanc, the Matterhorn, and Lake Geneva. The best time to visit is the last week in January, when the town holds their annual International Hot Air Balloon Week. Click here for more information.

Maasai Mara, Kenya

Riding a hot air balloon over the Maasai Mara is not only a unique experience because of the landscape, which encompasses woodlands, grasslands, rivers, open plains, rivers, and a dramatic plateau, but also because of the game viewing. The Maasai Mara National Reserve located in southwestern Kenya, is home to one of the greatest events in the world, the Great Migration. From July through October, millions of gazelles, zebras, and wildebeests travel through Maasai Mara, making this a prime time to take a hot air balloon ride in the region. Think of the ride as a hot air balloon safari. Click here for more information.

Siem Reap – 3 days in Cambodia

Siem Reap is an ancient place. It is well-worn with character written like wise creases on an old face. At its apogee, the Khmer empire built some of the most extraordinary temples in the world, ruling a kingdom covering parts of current day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. This was the Rome of Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat, the crown jewel in the Cambodian crown, is laid out to mirror the universe – this ambition rivaled only by its beauty. When I stood before the pyramids of Giza, I was impressed. When I came upon Angkor Wat, I was in love.

Flying to Cambodia is easy, as routes fly nonstop from many Southeast Asian hubs. The cheapest flight into Siem Reap is on Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur for roughly $120 round-trip. Flights from Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh are closer to $300 round-trip. If you are just aching to part with your dough, Silk Air offers a flight from Singapore that hovers around a grand. You can also take a bus into Siem Reap from Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Cambodia issues a visa on arrival so there is no need to obtain one beforehand. The process is quick and easy.


Day 1 – ATVs and Ta Prohm
Start the day with a tour of rural Cambodia on an all-terrain vehicle. Quad Adventures Cambodia provides an exhilarating trip through rice paddies and simple villages on red dirt roads. The expedition affords a glimpse into rural Cambodian life and stops by Chres Village School and Orphanage. The school is filled with Cambodian orphans, and they will give you a heartwarming tour of the premises. If you plan on being in Siem Reap for two weeks or longer, then you can volunteer at the school as a teacher.

After your cruise through the countryside of Siem Reap, head to the Angkor complex to buy a 3 day temple pass. The pass is required for visiting the ancient temples and costs $40. Check out the jungle temple of Ta Prohm in the late afternoon. Ta Prohm has a “taken back by nature” aesthetic with gnarly tree roots covering the temple walls like silly string. Visiting this temple is a fantastic way to get in the Angkor spirit. Follow it with sunset at Phnom Bakheng – a high temple on a hill overlooking the Angkor complex and dense jungle.

For the evening, head over to pub street. Pub Street has many bars and restaurants with food offerings ranging from local food such as Amok (fish wrapped in banana leaf) to pizza. The restaurant Le Tigre de Papier is a great spot and has a local cooking class. After dinner, check out the Angkor night market and “splurge” for a $3 foot massage.

For accommodation, a wide range of options exist. Le Meridien Angkor possesses an unbelievable pool and looks like a Bondian bad guy lair, but it is slightly on the expensive side. Kool Hotel is a great hotel at a great price. They provide complimentary breakfast, wifi, and have a pleasant pool.

Day 2 – Angkor Wat Sunrise and Tone Sap

Awake at 4:30am and begin your journey to the temple of Angkor Wat. Stumbling into the temple complex under moonlight and watching the sun slowly light up this otherworldly place is one of the world’s most memorable travel experiences.

After sunrise, tour the storied halls inside massive Angkor Wat and visit nearby Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom houses the photogenic Bayon temple, famous for its bas reliefs and gigantic stone faces. In the late morning, arrange a car or tuk tuk to Tonle Sap Lake – the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Many Cambodians call this lake home. They live in simple stilt houses, and it is not uncommon to see a child paddle by in what appears to be a salad bowl, perhaps on his way to a floating market. The most authentic lake experience is at the village of Kompong Phluk, but visiting the more touristy location near Siem Reap is still mind-blowing.

After your day at the lake, treat yourself to a fantastic Khmer-French fusion dinner at either Meric, Abacus, or AHA Wine Bar.

Day 3 – Banteay Srei, Land Mine Museum, and a Cambodian Carnival

Start your day with some fresh fruit juice and breakfast at your guesthouse and head out by tuk tuk through the countryside to Banteay Srei. The red sandstone carvings at Banteay Srei are the most meticulously detailed in Cambodia. Built in the 10th century, Banteay Srei served as an elaborate temple and library. Due to its slight remoteness, many visitors pass on this temple, but those that visit are rewarded with one of Angkor’s top sights.

The land-mining of Cambodia was a great tragedy. Many Cambodians have been disfigured and even killed in mining accidents. A stop by the Landmine Museum is necessary to put the damage into perspective. Learning about the founder’s life story is especially interesting. Museum founder Aki Ra fought as a child soldier, and some of his childhood narratives will leave a deep impression. Today he defuses land-mines and educates the public about their destructiveness. A movie was made about his life titled A Perfect Soldier, and he was named a CNN hero of 2010.

Late in the afternoon, visit the local carnival grounds on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Many games and local foods are there to sample. If you are feeling adventurous, try the delectable fried cricket. Several of the games, like “pop a balloon with a dart,” have prizes. You can win ice-cold Coca Cola and other beverages. The sodas are a welcome respite from the Cambodian heat.

The more local you get, the less people harass you. Walking through this foreign fairground, I felt like an American ghost. Watching Cambodian society undisturbed was an extraordinary experience.

Spend your last night at a traditional Cambodian barbecue spot. Touich Restaurant provides a tasty tour of this fiery cuisine style known as phnom pleung or “hill of fire.” Be sure to arrange reservations to guarantee a seat.

Extras – Bang Melea is a temple that has been left to the elements and is about an hour or two from Siem Reap. Roughly the size of Angkor Wat, you will feel like Indiana Jones exploring the unkempt ruins. On my visit, it was completely devoid of tourists. Some local kids gave me an impromptu tour of the dilapidated temple, and we climbed trees and explored dark hallways.

All photography by Justin Delaney

South by Southeast: Top 10 Southeast Asia

There’s a lot to see in Southeast Asia. Over the past five months, as I’ve traveled through this amazing region, it’s something I’ve experienced firsthand. From mind-blowing jungle ruins to outstanding food and world class beaches, there’s a never-ending wealth of curiosities for visitors. But with so much to see and do, it’s hard to know what to prioritize. Is Angkor Wat really as awesome as you’ve heard? Where should you go in Vietnam? Is it safe to eat the street food?

If you’ve been thinking about that dream trip to Southeast Asia but didn’t know where to start, today’s post is for you. We’re going to run through ten of Southeast Asia’s most amazing attractions, from the outstanding food to the best adventures and most awe-inspiring sights. Expect to find a few of the Southeast Asia’s most famous spots, along with my favorite “off-the-beaten path” Southeast Asian destinations from more than five months on the road. Ready to visit one of the world’s most fascinating regions? Keep reading below for our top ten picks…#10 – Bangkok’s Khao San Road
You simply can’t make a top 10 list on Southeast Asia without mentioning Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Love it or hate it, it’s the standard first stop for most Southeast Asian itineraries. The sheer volume of travelers, sizzling street food and range of shady characters ensure there’s always a good time and a story waiting to happen.

#9 – Street food in Ho Chi Minh City
The variety, quality and value of eating in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is beyond compare. From the freshest ingredients to crispy French baguettes to the most extreme culinary adventures, the food scene in Saigon is sure to amaze and delight. Check out Gadling’s “South by Southeast” investigation of eating in Saigon if you want to learn more.

#8 – Thailand’s Tarutao National Marine Park
It’s really hard to pick a favorite island in Thailand. There’s literally hundreds of them. But when we saw the secluded beauties that make up the Tarutao National Marine Park in Southern Thailand, we were hooked. This chain of wild, jungle islands offers beach camping, peace and quiet and some amazing snorkeling. Though Ko Lipe has gotten rather busy, Ko Adang, Ko Tarutao and Ko Rawi remain delightfully undeveloped.

#7 – Exploring Angkor Wat
With almost two million visitors a year, it’s clear that Angkor Wat is one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist attractions. When you first set eyes on the stone giant that is Angkor’s main temple, you’ll understand why. The intricate carvings and sheer size of this ancient archaeological marvel are simply mind-blowing. If you’re heading to Cambodia for a visit make sure to check out our 5 Angkor Wat tips.

#6 – Burma’s Taunggyi Balloon Festival
Burma (Myanmar), is the forgotten country of Southeast Asia. Visitors stay away because of the country’s hard-line military government. But those who make the trip inside this cloistered country come away awestruck by the sights and humbled by the friendly, welcoming citizens. This is particularly true at the annual Balloon Festival at Taunggyi, where hundreds of giant hot air balloons are launched into the sky over an eight day event. Make sure you read up on responsible travel to Burma if you want to go.

#5 – Wandering Luang Prabang
Is Luang Prabang the world’s most beautiful city? Achingly beautiful colonial French architecture, serene Buddhist temples and elegant palaces make this former royal capital of Laos a must on any Southeast Asia itinerary. Make sure to enjoy the town’s top-notch eating at spots like Tamarind and enjoy Luang Prabang’s buzzing night market.

#4 – Motorbiking the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle, a remote region bordering Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma, just might be one of Southeast Asia’s last great exotic destinations. The area’s curvy mountain roads and remote villages make it haven for motorcycle trips. Increasingly popular routes, reliable maps and cheap bike rentals make it easy for even novice cyclists to grab a helmet and hit the open road. Check out our guide to motorcycle trekking to get started.

#3 – The Gibbon Experience in Laos
Want to feel like a kid again? Try sleeping in a tree house and flying around on zip lines in the jungles of Northern Laos, home to the legendary Gibbon Experience. This one-of-a-kind eco park is pioneering a new model of forest conservation and sustainable tourism. Not to mention you might get to see some wildlife and it’s a crazy good time too.

#2 – Trekking in Luang Namtha
Chiang Mai has Southeast Asia’s most popular treks, but they are often overcrowded and disappointing. Instead, head to Luang Namtha in Northern Laos, an increasingly popular base for hikers looking to visit remote hill tribe villages. Imagine waking to the sound of roosters, bathing in a river and drinking moonshine with a village chief.

#1 – The ruins of Bagan
Move over Angkor Wat. There’s a new champion in town. The ruins of Bagan, a stunning complex of over 2,000 deserted temples in Myanmar, is quite possibly the world’s most amazing sight. Spend your days exploring the ghostly structures by horse cart or bike, discovering ancient Buddhist murals and climbing hidden staircases to gorgeous 360 degree views. If you want to read more about Myanmar, check out our guide to ethically visiting this fascinating country.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann spent the last five months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Photo of the Day (3.14.2010)

I’ve seen plenty of bland photos of Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat temple complex. Enough to know today’s choice, by Flickr user mick62, is anything but. The close-up details of the exotic dancer, the wonderful sense of movement and grainy “reportage” quality to the image combine to create a photo that is both visually interesting and authentic. I’m also wondering if the the grainy quality of the image is from Photoshop? Or is this simply taken in low light? Anybody know?

Have any great photos you’d like to submit for Gadling’s Photo of the Day? Submit your best shots here.

South by Southeast: 5 tips for Angkor Wat

I was alone, deep in the Cambodian jungle, flanked by the scattered ruins of ancient Khmer temples. My ears tickled with the cackle distant bird calls and buzzing cicadas. My shirt clung to my skin with a thick layer of sweat and ocher-hued dust. Suddenly, I heard movement to my right behind a wall. What was it? An ancient spirit of temples? A fearsome jungle cat waiting to pounce? My muscles tensed and I stood waiting for the apparition to appear – until a flag-waving tour group emerged from around the corner. It turns out I wasn’t as alone in the jungle as I previously thought.

Angkor Wat is less a place than an idea burned in our subconscious. These famous ruins float in our dreams like Indiana Jones fantasy, cloaked in thick layers of vines and overgrown jungle trees. Yet the reality of this ancient wonder of the world doesn’t always align with our visions. Angkor Wat today is among the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia, with nearly two million visitors annually. The abandoned ruins of your dreams are positively overrun with tour groups, brandishing their gigantic SLR’s like a camera-toting guerilla army. Yet despite its enduring popularity, a visit through Angkor can still be thoroughly enjoyable – you just need to know the right way to do it.

To truly enjoy the wonders of Angkor, you need to come armed with a few simple strategies. Ready to make your own adventure through Angkor Wat? Keep reading below for our five tips.Tip #1 – Do Your Research
Before arriving in Angkor, I had assumed the site was just one big temple – it’s not. In reality it’s a series of massive complexes including Angkor Thom and the Roluos Temples, covering more than 3000 square kilometers and 72 major temples, many of which were built during different eras of the Khmer Empire. It pays to come to Angkor with at least some idea of what you want to see. Otherwise it’s easy to get lost and overwhelmed.

There’s some easy ways to arm yourself with the right information. Consider grabbing an Angkor-specific guide like this book by Dawn Rooney, which will provide historical background, itinerary plans and descriptions of key architectural features. The tech-savvy should also check out the Angkor iPhone app by the Asia travel experts at Travelfish. Need even more? Consider hiring a guide.

Tip #2 – Leave Enough Time
Tip two falls right in line with tip one. Considering the immense size of Angkor, you want to leave enough time to explore the site’s many ruins. Though individual interest in the ruins varies, many travelers recommend at least three days for a proper visit. This ensures you can check out all the main sights while also leaving time for some of the lesser-known gems, many of which are far less crowded than the “biggies” like Angkor Wat. Any less than this and you’re likely to spend a lot of time queuing behind other tourists at the big ruins. And if you’re really into archeology, consider grabbing a week-long pass.

Tip #3 – Beat the Heat
Even during the cooler winter months, Cambodia is positively sweltering. Daytime temperatures hover anywhere from the 80’s to over 100 degrees. Spending all day walking around in the baking heat is a bad idea. Plan a mid-day break for lunch into your itinerary if you’re doing it on your own.

Another great way to escape the crazy temperatures is a side trip out to Kbal Spean, a series of riverbed carvings with a refreshing waterfall pool at the end. And wherever you go, make sure to bring lots of water. Enterprising kids sell bottles outside most temples for next to nothing.

Tip #4 – Explore the Lesser-Known
No matter when you visit, expect Angkor Wat to be busy. But despite all the moaning about the crowds, there are still plenty of places you can find yourself all alone. Temples like Preah Kahn, the Banteay Srei/Kbal Spean combo and the Roluos Group, especially when visited early/late in the day, can make for delightfully deserted experiences. For the ultimate do-it-yourself experience, consider renting a bike to explore. You’ll find you can linger more easily at sites once the tour buses have departed.

Tip #5 – Choose Your Sun Carefully
Before my trip to Angkor, people kept raving about the sunsets. With considerable anticipation, I climbed to the top of Phnom Bakheng on my first day, ready to be wowed by the awesome sight of the sun setting over the temple complexes. Except it wasn’t that great. It was wildly crowded and gave very little view of the surrounding temples. Every “sunset spot” I visited during my three day tour was similarly poor. I’m sure there are good sunsets/sunrise to be had in Angkor, but they don’t come easy. If you’re dead-set on seeing the sunset or sunrise, don’t expect to be alone and make sure to get there early.

Yes, there are lots of visitors at Angkor. But with a little preparation and planning, there’s still plenty of adventure to be had. You just have to look a little harder to find it.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.