One hundred thousand people are cocooned in chaos. Their wide eyes raised in wonder. High above, a giant balloon decorated with a smiling Buddha is rising gently towards the heavens. It is a majestic sight. But Buddha has a wild side. He unleashes a battery of fireworks and the night sky is lost in a violent storm of light and sound.
Back on the ground dozens of young men from the launch team begin a frenzied celebration. They chant and jump and bang drums as if their very lives depended on it.
Taunggyi Balloon Festival is in full swing. It is unique. There is nothing else quite like it in Myanmar.
The festival is a week-long visual spectacular almost entirely liberated from rules and regulations. Foreign tourists are essentially absent. I counted two dozen at most. Just getting there can be an epic test of patience and stamina. For those who made it there is a massive outpouring of goodwill. Two friends and I were feted like rock stars. Dozens of handshakes and countless requests to pose for photographs.
Put it on your bucket list – but perhaps not too high. It can get a little dangerous. Things can go wrong. On the final night (I wasn’t there) a balloon climbed fifty metres into the air, caught fire, stalled and plunged to the ground. Its cargo of fireworks spitting out lethal spears of rockets into the fleeing crowd. There were injuries. I don’t know how many or how serious. These dramatic pictures were captured by tourist Rudy Caers (copyright firstname.lastname@example.org) as he was leaving the festival.
Despite the hazards the festival is extremely popular. People travel from all across Myanmar to Taunggyi, capital of the Shan state. The event takes place around full moon in October or November. It marks the Buddhist celebration of Tazaungdaing.
I travelled from Mandalay. I’d opted against the 40 minutes flight in favour of the scenic overland route. Three of us shared a taxi. Eight hours were the estimate, 13 the reality. In the final few kilometres our driver mutinied, we walked, flagged down a minibus and sat marooned in total traffic meltdown.
It was worth every ounce of hassle.
The daytime festival is a fun and comparatively sedate affair. Towns and villages compete for the best designed balloon. These mostly take the shape of cartoon animals.
However, at night the flavour changes. Bars get louder, young men rowdier, huge conga lines cut through the throng. Gambling gets serious. Guys with mobile tattooing do good, if unhygienic business.
Then there is the main event.
Villages and towns compete to build and launch the best balloon. They’re judged on design, fireworks and height achieved. Balloons are designed to soar extremely high.
Small candles in colourful lanterns are often painstakingly attached to the exterior skin or attached by ropes to swing under the balloons. As they rise some jettison scores of colourful little candles with tiny parachutes. It is mesmerizing to watch them fall gently to earth.
Even more dramatic are the firework balloons. A team is divided into three groups. One brings in the folded canopy, another a huge basket laced with fireworks, the third, the firestarters, enter with flaming wooden torches. It is chaotic and in the confusion it’s easy to get past the ropes and right into the thick of it. I even helped launch one. It is wild and thrilling.
The canopy is made of cloth and paper and is supported by a bamboo frame. Flameproof it is not. The firestarters crawl under the canopy, their flames inches away from setting the balloon on fire. They reach the centre hole of the canopy and hot air from their torches inflates the balloon. Another team brings in the firework basket and attach it to the frame. A fuse is lit and the balloon is launched.
There are false starts but mostly they make slow and steady ascents. A few hundred feet off the ground the spectacle really begins. As the fuse burns through rockets start flaring upwards, sideways and downwards. The night skies explode with showers of bright and colourful light. There’s not a computer in sight yet it is fabulously choreographed. As the balloon climbs and climbs the pyrotechnics can continue for 15 or 20 minutes.
However, things do go wrong. Launch teams are mostly young men loaded with enthusiasm and testosterone. What they lack is fire safety.
Fortunately on my night it is chaotic but it goes well enough.
At 1.30 in the morning we leave. The show will continue for another hour or two. We have a weary walk of 25 minutes to get to our minibus. Traffic is yet again at a standstill but our driver takes us a different route and we are moving well.
All the more disappointing when we have a puncture 500 metres later. The spare, of course, is flat. It adds another tortuous 30 minutes to an impossibly long day. We arrive back at our Inle Lake guesthouses at 3.15 am.
Sometimes the world makes you work to see its wonders. But the balloon festival really did put a rocket up my enthusiasm.