On the afternoon of the festival’s last day, we met a friend who had been able to book herself a hotel room well over a month in advance in Taunggyi. I had a goal of seeing the candle balloons as well as the daytime animal-shaped balloons that need much less ceremony and are let of in larger numbers. Our friend showed videos and photos of the animal balloons from the day before. There was a trio of ducks that gently floated up into the sky, a duo of chubby zebra released, and a single large bat whose wings appeared to be flapping in the breeze. This was all not meant to be for us, because it rained all day and into the night up until we had to leave at 10pm to make it back to Aung Ban by midnight.
We made it to the festival grounds in the drizzling rain in time to see a swan balloon nearly lost in the mist burst into flames and come back down as a single, giant piece of ash. The next group had a giant woodpecker. In order to get the torch lit in the drizzle, they held an umbrella over it and then wrapped Styrofoam pieces to give it that extra flammability. The balloon launch was all looking very promising despite the odds until a gust of wind blew and a big hole tore in the side of the balloon. The people frantically tried to tape it up while refilling it with hot air, and that looked promising until a giant hole appeared at the top of the bird. It was all over then. They tore out the flaming core of the balloon and stamped it out, but, fiddle-dee-dee, they all came out with musical instruments and began dancing and singing anyway. That was the end of animal balloons for the day.
We grabbed some food and came back to the balloon field once it was dark to see what would happen with the candle balloons. Oh my hopes were raised when we saw a frenzied group of people playing music and dancing and slapping plastic inflatable noise makers. The pattern to these balloon launches seems to be the group that has constructed the balloon makes a grand entrance into the field; takes about 10 minutes of energetic singing, dancing and playing music to build up the momentum; the balloon is let off; and finished with more energetic singing, dancing and playing music.The drinking, singing, dancing and balloon launching are a man’s activity. There were women industriously working away in the meantime getting the little paper candle lanterns ready in the back of a truck. But the strange thing was that only to a small degree did spectators join the frenzy and start singing and dancing; mostly people stood on the sidelines watching intently and very seriously. Unlike the first day we went, this evening the police set up a barrier to the main field where the balloons were let off. The funny thing though was that if you happened to already be in the main field before the balloons started, you could stay, so not a terribly strong public safety measure. As well, the barrier was about as porous as the US-Canada border; pretty easy to step over the fences or ropes if the policy weren’t standing directly in front of you. Alas, the crowd soon disappeared, and it was just an empty misty field with hazy shapes of people periodically crossing the field. We asked the group with the balloon if it was going to fly, and they simply said, “No – weather.” So we went off to enjoy the other sites and sounds of the balloon festival, which includes a full-scale carnival with rides and games and a big outdoor performance stage. Definitely not in the US can you play carnival games where knocking down a tiny, pink owl figurine with a snapped rubber band wins you a pack of cigarettes. We played another game off ball toss where you win whatever drink you are able to knock down; after a few rounds we collectively won about eight beers of various brands. We were all pretty good at throwing darts at balloons and won packs of laundry detergent, packs of ramen, and many packs of chewing gum. We spied one game where you have to roll a bicycle tire and hit drinks laid out on the ground where one of the prizes was an entire bottle of whiskey.
We finally made it over to the performance stage just as the performance took an interlude to announce raffle prizes. They were holding a giant cardboard car key, so we guessed they were raffling off an entire car. They were shouting out the winning raffle number in Burmese, English and Thai. I can only assume they had Thai sponsors to the event. Well, then it turned 10pm, and Matt and I had to go. We got a text message the next morning from his coworker saying that they finally lit off the first balloon at 2:30am, and it was amazing and they were close enough to even help light one of the balloons. Sigh. My only consolation was that they were apparently only the fireworks balloons and not the candle balloons. I highly recommend clicking here to read this person’s up-close and jealousy-inducing account and pictures of lighting the candle balloons.