Back in the day the head of the Shan State declared that a balloon festival would be held in conjunction with Tazaungdaing Festival held to celebrate the full moon at the end of Buddhist Lent and the end of the rainy season. This year it is being reviewed for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage events, but I’m sure it is has changed somewhat from its origins in the 1890s with the addition of fireworks and crazy carnival rides and lights and a massive soundstage for pop and rap singers to perform. Still the highlight of the event are the night-time 15-20 feet tall paper hot air balloons that either have a 10-15 foot long tail of lit candles or a massive cage of fireworks. The balloons are released as an offering to the “Sulamani cetiya (a physical reminder of Buddha) in Tavitisma, a heaven in Buddhist cosmology and home of the devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits” – yes this is from Wikipedia, but it was confirmed as correct by Matt’s Myanmar coworkers.
This year, the festival was held on Nov 3-6, which happened to be dates that Matt was required to be up in Aung Ban, Shan State anyway for work. I joined him and we both staid in the company guest house located on the second floor of the office (all hotels in Taunggyi being fully booked that week anyway). Aung Ban is about a two-hour drive from Taunggyi, and given the craziness and expense of getting to and from Taunggyi, we only made it for the first and last day of the festival.
The first day we went with three of Matt’s coworkers and got there in time to see the big balloons with lit candles carefully placed on them float on up into the sky. I was determined that on the last day we would get there early enough to see the assembly and figure out the crazy logistics of placing hundreds of tiny candles on a giant balloon (this was sadly not to be…). There are only five balloons per night that have the candles on them, the rest are balloons with giant cages of fireworks hanging off them, which we were just in time for.
We’d heard from many sources that the festival can be quite dangerous with a handful of people injured and sometimes killed each year due to the fireworks going off too soon or balloons exploding into fiery balls rushing back down to earth (this year there were 2 deaths and 12 injuries). So, armed with this knowledge we thought we were sufficiently away from the first balloon with fireworks, sponsored by Novotel, but we definitely were not.
Essentially, as soon as the balloon was let go there was less than a minute before the fireworks starting raining down. There were still some men (I think the ones who let off the balloon) still dancing around ecstatically, but most everyone crowded around the balloon ran for cover. Two of Matt’s coworkers huddled next to a car for cover and got separated from us as we ran up a hill. I momentarily got lost in the crowd of dancing men and shooting fire, but luckily Matt spotted me and grabbed me. It was all good fun. We were surprised that the Novotel, such a large international brand, would sponsor such a dangerous balloon, but joked that they probably reasoned they’d just hire some lawyers. There were so many fireworks that they probably were going for about 15 minutes after the balloon was sent up. You can see the giant fireworks cage attached to the fully inflated balloon already starting to smoke just above the crowd.
Matt used a method called being the tall, white guy standing in the middle of a field to locate his two coworkers, who did in fact spot him after a few minutes and rejoined the group. We had time for one more balloon, and then had to head back through the dark, mountainous highway to Aung Ban.