Floating by Angkor Wat at sunset in a hot air balloon promised to be a romantic way to spend Valentine’s Day, but it became extremely memorable because the balloon crash-landed in the middle of a busy main road during evening rush hour.
The 40-minute Cambodian Flight Holiday International Travel flight was my introduction to ballooning. With nine of us squashed into the basket which was designed for six, and the burner flame warming the back of my neck, it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of journeys.
But the views soon made up for it. We drifted peacefully, bar the intermittent roaring of the burner, over fields, pagodas and lotus-flower ponds with the outline of Angkor Wat looming in the distance, and Tonlé Sap on the horizon.
Then, for no apparent reason, the pilot decided to let us drop alarmingly low at various points. I’d like to think it was all part of the ‘scream if you want to go faster’ – or lower – fairground-style experience, enabling us to have the unusual impression of being able to touch a building or grab a coconut off a nearby tree. One local quite understandably came out of his warehouse to check we weren’t going to graze his roof.
Everywhere we went children raced yelling and screaming across fields, all eager to wave at us. Cyclists nearly swerved off-road craning their necks to catch a glimpse. A lady watering her crops even stopped to give us a wave. The only ones not enjoying our aerial journey were the cows and water buffalo who scattered crazily below us.
All too quickly the flight was over. As we neared what was clearly the intended landing point, we overshot the mark and had an ‘unscheduled stop’ smack bang in the middle of a busy road, the ground crew frantically pulling on ropes and being dragged along.
Thankfully, the hordes of motos on the road appeared to have already stopped to make way for us – clearly having realised before we did what was about to happen. What ensued next was a sort of bumbling chaos, as my fellow passengers and I stumbled out amid the curious stares of approximately 50 Khmers on their way home, some of them already pulling out iPhones to film the spectacle.
Giggling with relief, we stood around like lemons until someone noticed that, although on terra firma, we were now directly underneath the billowing, yellow balloon which was slowly but surely descending upon us.
Cue more chaos as we scattered in all directions, narrowly avoiding the motos that were now starting to drive by, disaster averted. As if nothing remotely out of the ordinary had happened, a man calmly started handing out small bottles of water.
“I think I need a stiff drink actually,” muttered one of my fellow balloonists, Debbie Nugent, a TV producer from London. It, too, was her first flight. I’m not sure if she will be keen to repeat it.
As fate would have it, among our party was a British lady who turned out to be an avid balloon enthusiast, having done numerous flights and been a regular attendee at the famous Bristol International Balloon Fiesta.
She informed Insider that, in an ideal situation, the balloon will skim along the ground, maybe with the occasional bump, until it naturally comes to a stop. The balloon is not usually pulled down by the ropes and generally, passengers are briefed on landing procedure: bend knees and hold the sides of the basket in case it tips, not rush out, practically shoving everyone out of the way, as I did.
Perhaps Cambodian Flight Holiday could benefit from fine-tuning their landing procedure. I got away lightly but things could have been a lot worse.
There have been numerous warnings suggesting that a disaster is looming. Insider reported problems back in December with Cambodian Flight Holiday’s test flights – two crash-landings in three days. Since then there have been numerous reports of unscheduled landings. On January 19, Norwegian tourist Kathy Esfandiari wrote to the Phnom Penh Post about a flight she had done the previous day, resulting in a crash into a palm tree after flying “very, very low, about 20-30 meters over the ground.”
Kathy said, “I am writing you to tell about me and my boyfriend’s experience with the same Chinese air-balloon company that you wrote an article about on December 9.2012.
“We booked a tour with them that we did on January 18, 2013. Before going in the balloon, a girl working for the company asked us if we could do the tour tomorrow instead because the winds were too strong. We said yes. They also asked two other tourists that were going in the same balloon as us, and they said no.
The company decided to do the tour anyway, probably so they wouldn’t lose money. They also informed us that the balloon basket can take maximum six people, but they put seven people in it.
“About 25 minutes in to the ride, we started flying very, very low, about 20-30 meters over the ground. We were heading towards a forest when I asked if we were ok. Two of the tour-guides just laughed and said yes. Only minutes after, we crashed into a palm tree. Luckily no-one got injured. I was very scared and could tell that the Chinese pilot was nervous too. We managed to do an emergency landing on a small grass patch in the forest, and when we got of the balloon about 60 people had gathered to see what had happened.
Some people shook our hand and said: ‘Congratulations, you survived. It looked like you were gonna crash and die.’ Another man told us that this is the third time he has seen this happen with the same air-balloon company.
“Of course we told the guides that this was a scary experience, but they just laughed and didn’t take us seriously. Please help us spread this word, because this is very dangerous for other tourists too.”