Every year in November, buddhists in Myanmar observe their festival of lights. Hot air balloons lit with candles, are released to celebrate the full moon day.. The balloons are released as an offering to the heavenly home of the Buddhist devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits, The main happenings take place in Taunggyi, in the Shan state over the week leading up to the full moon. Every evening, there are contests…beginning with children’s small paper balloons, and leading up to larger constructions festooned with lanterns holding candles and trailing panels depicting scenes from Buddha’s life outlined in thousands of small flames. The final episode every evening, beginning around 10PM, involves contests between different groups for the largest, most elaborate paper balloons, lavishly decorated and lifting a bamboo structure heavily loaded with fireworks that continuously ignite as the balloon ascends into the night sky.
The Taunggyui festival was not in our original itinerary, but as it was only about a 30 minute drive from Naung Schwe where we were staying, we “negotiated” with our guide to take us there. He tried to dissuade us, explaining the danger involved. The festival is attended by dense crowds and the lighted balloons take off in the middle of the throng. Accidents happen regularly, when the the fireworks ignite prematurely, or a balloon burst into flames and crashes into the crowd. Unbeknownst to us at the time, several people had been severely burned the day before, and we heard reports of at least one death.
Our guide agreed to take us, and arranged for a car and driver. We stopped in Naung Schwe to pick up some fried noodles for our dinner, and some chicken to go. We arrived close to Taunggyi after a half hour drive, but got mired in a dense traffic jam. There had been an intense thunderstorm that afternoon, which caused some landslides, and downed trees across the road.
Crews were at work, but progress was very slow, so we turned around and tried a different approach. Didn’t want to miss the show…it was already around 8. A mile or two later, this road was blocked too! More downed trees. We finally made it to the balloon area, what a sight! Huge Ferris wheels where set up, many strings of lights, all sorts of food stands…loud music, revelers. Vendors were hawking helium balloons, all sorts of trinkets. One man was walking through the crowd carrying in one hand a pan of boiling oil suspended over a charcoal brasier (with red hot coals) and in the other hand different food items to be deep-fried to order. Whenever he encountered a customer, he just sat the whole thing down, prepared the food, made the sale, poked his coals and continued his way through the crowd.
We sat down in a tent serving drinks and ordered beers (and water) to accompany our noodles. The temperature was about 20°C but the locals were all bundled up against the “cold”… wooly bonnets, and ski vests!
Next to the tent, a group was preparing one of the big candle-decorated balloons. The process takes quite a while, as the main balloon is inflated with hot air using hand-held torches, and as it slowly inflates, small lantern/candle holders are attached all around it.
When it is almost ready to lift off, the candles that make up the panel must be lit, one by one. Finally the balloon becomes bouyant, and lifts itself and its panel up, up floating over the crowd up into the night sky, towards the full moon. Everyone is cheering, and its really beautiful!
The next group has begun inflating their balloon, but this one doesn’t quite work out. Inflation is not happening fast enough…and the judges call time-out. Disappointment for them. Now its time for the main attraction, the bigger balloons which will hoist the fireworks displays. These groups and their followers are really fervent, all crowding closely around. Our guide shepherds us off out of the crush. He finds us a spot on a small rise with a good view, but next to a firetruck. He rustles up some plastic stools for us to sit on, and more bottles of water. Down on the field, the first of the big balloons has inflated just barely, and has started moving horizontally just over the crowd. The fireworks fuse hadn’t been lit,and the balloon sank back to the ground. Failure for them. The second balloon was looking more promising. It rose up more quickly, nice and round, the fireworks platform reached a good height and the fuses were lit. The balloon stopped rising then…OHHH NOOOOO, and starting bobbing up and down at head height shooting off firecrackers, and heading in our direction YIKES. The Balloon of Death!
It got hung up on an electric wire about 100 meters in front of us …. the firemen sprang into action with their water hoses and shot it down. Ooouf.
( we had retreated to shelter between some vans). Meanwhile, a third balloon was puffing up out on the field. This one was looking good. It rose quickly, the fireworks payload deployed correctly and it was just fabulous.
Huge lit-up balloon rising up in the dark shooting off minutes and minutes of colored fireworks.
The successful team was elated, driving around and chanting and dancing on their little truck!! More balloons were in preparation on the field, but we had had enough excitement…. Back to the hotel at 2 AM.