“You’re so full of hot air!” Say this on an ordinary day and you’ll get a fight. Say this in one special event and you’ll have lots of fun. A special event, like the 14th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (Clarkfield, Pampanga).
Children, and we were all children once, love balloons. There are big balloons and small ones, of widely different colors, shapes and designs. There’s even one that we seriously want to be, well, airtight. It’s no wonder that people, and that includes us grownups, enjoy the not-so-ordinary balloons at the 14th Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta (Clarkfield, Pampanga).
There are two windows of opportunity to watch the hot air balloons take flight — very early in the morning or late afternoon. In between the flights are various activities. Airplane flight exhibitions, parachute jumps, kite flying, among others, consistent with the tagline: “Weekend of everything that flies.” At the very least, it’s a venue to have simple picnic fun in a portion of the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (DMIA).
I’m not really sure if it’s in DMIA, though, but I figured that much because it’s at the end of a runway, with Philippine Air Force (PAF) structures at the sides. I was also unsure with the directions in going to the place, as there were no directions posted in strategic places in Clarkfield. So we just drove our way to Clark and fell back on a tested formula — ask the security guards for directions. But since there were only a few guards scattered in the area, we headed towards the general direction of the DMIA. It was a safe assumption.
How to go to Clark? The usual way for us is the Angeles Exit near the end of the NLE (click here for how to get to Montevista, which is near the venue). This time we tried the Clark Exit through the SCTEX, which is a few kilometers after taking the turn to Baguio.
Some of our companions suggested we go watch the late afternoon flight, based on one main reason — watching the early morning flight means leaving Manila in an unholy hour, around 3:00 a.m., because the flight is scheduled between 5:30 to 6:00 a.m. I wasn’t convinced. I’d rather wake up at around 2 in the morning, drive on coffee at around 2:30, rather than being stuck in heavy traffic in the afternoon schedule. I could say now with all confidence that it was the right decision.
Somebody told us to expect some traffic, but nobody told us it would be that bad. I mean, traffic was “manageable” when we arrived at around 4:45. There already was a long line of cars going into the parking area. Many people were already ahead of us. That means, of course, that they were there much, much earlier, perhaps spending a pre-Valentines date in the evening of February 13.
The Hot Air Balloon Festival was scheduled from February 12 to 15, 2009. We chose February 14 because we don’t celebrate this commercialized nonsense called Valentines Day and, more importantly, we thought perhaps people would spend time away and leave us alone at the festival.
We were mistaken. By 6 a.m., the parking lot nearest to the venue was already fully packed and by the time we left at around 9 in the morning, the huge open field parking surrounding the venue was glistening with cars, trucks and, surprise, tour buses. You’ll have to take a long walk if you’re one of the unlucky souls who had to settle at the farthest parking slot.
We never expected the carnival atmosphere once we survived through the crowd. I thought it’s just plain sit-there-and-watch-the-balloons-float-by, but later discovered that watching the crew work on the hot air balloons could be interesting (maybe that’s just me, of course). So I stood for the first hour looking at the car headlights in the dark, waiting for the cars to roll by and bring their loads to the grounds, unload the balloon and the passenger basket, then start preparing something that gracefully floats, with the pilot controlling how it goes up or down — pretty much nothing else.
They started testing the propane burners while it was still dark. It was an impressive sight. The hiss of the burner and the solid sound of the flame make you imagine a dragon lying on its back, shooting fire skywards as it yawns in the morning. After they initially pumped a bit of hot air, the parachute jumpers started the show by dropping with the Philippine flag, landing a few minutes after the national anthem ended. As expected with things that fly, particularly passenger aircrafts, delays are normal and so the first balloon took off at around 7 a.m. Anyway, I didn’t know that pumping enough hot air to lift the balloons takes just a minute or two.
Here are some things that we wish we should have known before going here:
1. Bring food and water. There were a lot of food stands, although bringing food is not prohibited. While many stalls sprout around the venue, the stocks ran out after the hot air balloons all flew away. You could save when bringing food, but consider buying here to support the event.
2. Bring mats and portable chairs. Either you stand the whole time or sit on a mat. There was a concrete area and a bigger grass area. Nobody told us it would be best to bring a mat or blanket where the group, especially the children, to sit down and relax just like in any picnic.
3. Go early. We thought we were too early, but we found out so many people were already in the venue by 4:45 am. Going early means you’ll beat the traffic, have the choicest parking slots, as well as a good view along the fenced area for spectators. This is important for those who want to take photos.
We enjoyed the experience. Our kids enjoyed the sight and the carnival atmosphere, eating and having their faces painted, though it would have been more awesome if the organizers brought in an exhibition plane more advanced than the old F5 that the PAF has. I wouldn’t mind spending the whole day on the ground waiting for the exhibition if that happens. Until then, it will take some persuasion to bring me back to the Hot Air Balloon Festival. But if you still haven’t seen it live, I strongly suggest you go. It’s fun. And the entrance fee is just a 100-peso donation to a foundation.