musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Taunggyi Balloon Festival

The annual Balloon Festival in Taunggyi is a big event in Myanmar. There is a smattering of foreign tourists in attendance, but the vast majority of festival goers come from towns and villages around Shan State as well as other parts of the country. This deluge of visitors invariably overwhelms the town of Taunggyi, which was a popular Shan State Hill Station way back when the Brits had their colonial paws on the country nearly a century ago.

The festival lasts for seven days, culminating on the full moon night of Tazaungmon. The festivities each day are split up into daytime and nighttime programs. During the day, animal-shaped balloons (made from paper or sometimes plastic) are launched from a big field on the outskirts of town. At night more traditionally-shaped, but much larger “fire balloons” are launched, spewing a spectacular display of fireworks as they rise in the full moon-lit sky.

But the festival, as I was amazed to discover, is more than just balloons. It’s like a county fair (complete with rides like Ferris Wheels and bumper cars), a street parade, an outdoor concert, a gambling den, and food court, all rolled into one — supplemented by the myriad balloons being launched. There are also vendors and booths selling clothing, electronic goods, and a variety of other products.

 

The crowd was also much larger than I had expected. Tens of thousands of people each day arrived to enjoy the festival. One person I asked guessed the crowd at 50,000 one night, and that may have been a conservative estimate; the place was just packed. The wife of one of my friends was so alarmed by the size of the crowd one evening that she and her daughter stayed outside the gates, not daring to rub elbows (and who knows what other body parts?) with the masses inside.

Because there are no fireworks displays during the day, spectators are allowed to stand closer to those balloons. In fact, when they noticed me taking photos, I was invited by one rambunctious group to step under their balloon and take some shots of their animal balloon being “ignited” by huge torches. The smoke from these torches fills up the interior of the balloons, causing them to eventually lift off. Of course that assumes that someone hasn’t accidentally set fire to the exterior of the balloon — which does happen on occasion. Seeing pig-shaped balloons flying overhead, I couldn’t help thinking of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album!

The fireworks displays at night are attached to a platform that is suspended by ropes from the underside of the balloon. In some cases, I watched fireworks spewing from platforms a full fifteen minutes after the balloon had been launched. But I also watched more than a couple of balloons NOT lift off and prematurely shoot off errant batches of fireworks into the crowd. So yeah, things can get a bit dangerous out there. One morning, back in Nyaungshwe, I was told by one man that he had seen two motorcycles catch fire the previous night by fireworks gone astray.

I’ll write more about this festival next week, specifically about the village children and groups of monks that I took to the festival, outings that were spread out over three days and nights. I’ll even do a separate post with photos that one of the kids took.

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