I had planned on taking a group of novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery in Nyaungshwe to the Taunggyi balloon festival while I was in town. I had talked to several of the monks back in June and mentioned that I intended to return in November for the festival, and they were all keen to go too. My friend Htein Linn talked to the Saya Daw, the abbot of the monastery, and they worked out a plan where I could take ALL of the novice monks if we went on two separate days. That was fine with me, and the expense wouldn’t be that outrageous, but my only concern was which portion of the festival that the monks wanted to attend; the daytime or nighttime balloon launchings, or perhaps both? Htein Linn seemed to think that the monks wanted to see only the night program and indeed, after talking to the Saya Daw, that ended up being the plan. But that presented one slight dilemma: I preferred to see the animal balloons during the day. So what to do?
I could, of course, rent a car and go by myself one afternoon. But these outings are always much more fun if locals come along too, so that gave me an idea. What if I took a group of students from the primary school at Tat Ein Village, located near Nyaungshwe? I guessed that they had never been to this festival before and would enjoy it. I’ve been dropping by the school on trips over the past two years, donating everything from shoes and soccer balls to first aid kits, so they know me pretty well at this point. Htein Linn thought the idea was entirely do-able, and after checking with the principle and teachers at the school, we got the go-ahead to take a group of students on Sunday. It was decided that we’d take only the older students, the fourth and fifth graders, along with a small group of middle school and high school students (who live in the village but go to school in Nyaungshwe), and some novice monks from the village’s monastery. Altogether, that would be slightly over 50 children. To accommodate such a crew, Htein Linn arranged for me to rent a big flatbed truck.
When I arrived at the school the morning of departure, a group of novice monks were sitting in front of U San Di Mar, the senior monk in the village, getting his blessings for the trip. When that ritual was done, every single one of the young monks walked up to me, huge grins on their faces, and shook my hand. To say that they were excited about going to the festival would be a definite understatement. As I had surmised, none of these kids — not the monks or the other students — had ever been to the festival before. But what I didn’t realize was that none of them had ever journeyed this far from their village before. And going to Taunggyi takes less than one hour by car. This was looking like it would be an amazing first-time experience for them — and for me too.
After lunch in the village, we departed for Taunggyi, arriving just before 2:00. Part of that journey involves some steep turns on the road, but I’m happy to report that not a single kid got sick or vomited on the way. The festival grounds in Taunggyi were packed with vehicles of all sorts, along with throngs of balloon watchers and balloon launchers. These balloon crews are attractions in themselves. It takes about a dozen people to handle and launch a single balloon, and other members of the party play musical instruments, dance, and sing (some of them a bit inebriated!). In addition to the balloons, there were booths selling food, clothing, and other goods. Our truck was one of the largest vehicles entering the area, so it took us several minutes to negotiate the maze of humanity and debris and find a parking space.
After we parked, everyone climbed out and surveyed the scene around us, a giant elephant already soaring overhead. All the children were instructed to hold hands and follow the teachers into the main spectator area. The teachers kept the kids in one spot, making sure they didn’t wander too far away, but that didn’t stop most of them from buying all sorts of snacks to munch on. Even the monks had some spending money that the Saya Daw had given them. After about two hours of watching a variety of animal-shaped balloons rise into the sky (and a couple crashing and burning!) in the hot midday sun, it was decided to head over to the Sulamuni Paya, one of the more revered pagodas in town. We spent about 30 minutes wandering around that site and taking lots of pictures before it was time to visit one more place in Taunggyi, the park on the edge of town.
I call it a park, but it’s much more than that. In addition to gardens, a game room, playground, and a wooden suspension bridge (from which there is nice view of the valley below), they also have small zoo with monkeys, bears, deer, rabbits, and a variety of birds. The children loved this park, and I think just by itself it would make for a fun field trip. I think the kids would have been content to spend the rest of the afternoon in the game room alone, but we pulled them away to see the animals before they got too immersed by the video games and toys (some of them got really excited by a sandbox in one corner of the room!), and more importantly, before the sun set.
But the best part of the whole day, at least for me, was the ride back to Nyaungshwe. For the better part of an hour, the kids sang songs. Sang one song and then launched into another. Loudly, joyfully. They never stopped, singing at the top of their lungs; Shan songs, Pa-O songs, and Myanmar songs. They sang everything that the teacher called out, a very “Me and Bobby McGee” moment, you might say. Towards the end of the trip, one of the older novice monks started a really cool call-and-response number. He would yell out a line and the others would follow with a rousing chorus. I was spellbound by it all. The air was turning cooler as the sun set, but I swear I was getting chills from the songs and not the dip in temperature. Really, listening to them cheerfully sing these songs was a most magical experience, one that I’ll never forget. In retrospect I wish that I had brought some sort of recording device with me to capture those wonderful musical moments, but I was so caught up in the spell that I neglected to even take photos of the singing. But that’s okay too. I think taking photos — or even recording the songs — would have broken the spell at the time.
By the time we reached Tat Ein village if was dark. The kids poured out of the truck, big smiles on their faces, and another hand-shaking session started again, laced with profuse expressions of thanks. Che zu tin ba de! I was smiling too, but also trying to hold back the tears, having become so overwhelmed by this shower of gratitude and sheer joy that surrounded me. These kids had stolen my heart.