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Once in a lifetime experience: hot air baloon over Chiang Mai.

My husband and I have shared many adventures together down the years, but when he suggested a surprise, pre-dawn breakfast treat that would prove to be "an uplifting experience," I simply could not resist. When our alarm went off at around five a.m., however, I admit to having second thoughts.

We piled into our car and set off in the dark for Doi Saket; about a fifteen minute journey from the city. Despite my constant grilling from the previous evening, all my husband would reveal was, "Make sure we have film in both the digital and video cameras. Oh, and just wear something smart, but casual. I suggest you bring along a sweater or jacket, dear," he said. Adding, "And wear those flat shoes you always say are best for driving or shopping trips."

Before I could hazard a guess at what he had in store for us, my husband pulled up into an open field where we were met by a smiling young lady who invited us for a steaming cup of coffee, which, in the cool of the early morning, was most welcome. A massive hot-air balloon was being inflated in an adjacent field to the accompaniment of roars from gas cylinders.

The baht had almost dropped when we were approached by a charming gentleman who, after introducing himself as our captain, proceeded to deliver a preflight briefing for what he promised would be "A once in a lifetime experience."

I lifted my coffee cup from the saucer, lest the rattling should awake the neighborhood; it was, after all, just a little after six in the morning. Let me say that I've flown in several types of aircraft, in all kinds of weather, and I am not considered to be a nervous passenger. Nor do I suffer from vertigo (a fear of heights). But suddenly what I had first thought to be a large wicker basket now looked ever so small, as the great envelope of our balloon began to fill and ever so slowly rise from the ground.

Captain Wout calmly explained how hot-air balloons functioned, the safety and enjoyment of balloon flight and our probable flight path that morning, given the current wind direction. "There's no magic to it," he smiled. "Hot air from this propane fuelled burner in the basket fills the balloon, or what we call, the envelope. And as everyone knows, hot air rises." As though to prove his point, the giant balloon filled up and we were invited to climb in the basket. With the intermittent roar from the burner, and a gentle creaking of the wicker basket we lifted ever so softly from the ground as the first rays of sunlight speared across the fields below.

Looking up into the giant balloon, it was comforting to remember the preflight briefing, during which our pilot explained that the balloon itself was made of ultra-strong, but lightweight rip stop nylon, attached to the basket by stout webbing and tough flying wires. He had also explained the necessity of the very early take off time. Apparently, it's at this hour, before the earth begins to heat up, that cool and stable conditions are perfect for ballooning. Later in the day, when thermal activity gets underway, flying conditions are less stable, while nevertheless perfectly safe.

As we rose with the sun, I loosened my grip, allowing the circulation to return to my husband's hand and, holding onto the edge of the basket peered down at the beautiful landscape passing by far below us in the morning light. The clarity of the terrain was surprising, and I found myself tugging my husband's sleeve to point out some well-known landmark, or a friend's home.

The red-tiled roofs of wats, the sun reflecting from the golden chedi on distant Doi Saket, the patchwork quilt of rice paddies, and the agriculture canals snaking through the awakening city below combined to create the most breathtaking view of the place I've called home for more than two decades.

The basket adjusted to a gentle turn to the east, and reminded me that while the pilot can change altitude by altering the amount of hot air produced, balloons are steered by the wind. I can think of no more pleasant way to relax and just," Go with the flow."

I noticed that were heading in the direction of San Kamphaeng, and were slowly making our descent. It was at this point the captain pointed out our recovery vehicle on a grey strip of road far below. The recovery team follow the flight of the balloon, which can be tricky at times in changing wind conditions, but in the many years of the company's operations, both in Europe and here in Thailand, they have never once missed a landing.

Since the Montgolfier brothers invented balloon flight in France, back in the 18th century, millions of people throughout the world have taken to the skies in these magnificent flying machines. Legend has it that 18th century French peasant farmers would attack the balloons with pitchforks as they landed, fearing them to be flying monsters. This problem was solved by offering the terrified farmers a glass of champagne as they approached the basket. Chiang Mai farmers, on the other hand, are happy to allow Once in a Lifetime Balloon Flights to land in their fields by prior arrangement.

The offering of champagne nowadays is to the balloon's passengers, who are treated to a champagne breakfast by the recovery team at the landing site. We touched down in a dirty road in the village of Baan Palaan, roughly midway between Doi Saket and San Kamphaeng. According to the proclamation of Louis XVI, Captain Wout sprinkled champagne over the heads of my husband and me, and declared us to be the Duke and Duchess of Baan Palaan; and we have a certificate to prove it!

"Once in a Lifetime Balloon Flights" offer this unique experience to anyone over the age of twelve. The package comprises transportation to and from your hotel in Chiang Mai. Coffee or tea upon arrival at the launch site. A balloon flight of approximately one hour. An after balloon champagne breakfast at the landing site. A flight certificate, and passenger insurance.

Reserve today, fly tomorrow. Phone ONCE IN A LIFETIME, (Sales) 04-611-4128. Passengers are picked up at their lodging and returned after the flight.


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