Set by the Shan State capital of Taunggyi, the annual Fire Balloon festival is quite the event, drawing hordes of people from the surrounds and a trickle of foreign travellers. This is not a sleepy meditative religious event but more akin to an international music festival with tens of thousands of people enjoying a carnival-like atmosphere. It is not for the light-hearted as accidents can and do happen, nor is it for the crowd adverse, but if you’d like to experience a true festival Burma-style, this is a good starting point.
This year (2013) the Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival ran from November 11 to 17, with daytime parades and evening ballooning and pyrotechnic displays. The final night (17) coincided with the full moon and saw a new balloon being sent aloft roughly every 45 minutes from the commencement of events.
Like a number of other festivals across Southeast Asia, there is little in the way of crowd control — well, there’s just about none, and one should be wary of getting in a position where you’re going to be stampeded, have a balloon collapse back onto you, or be set on fire by explosives, pyrotechnics or dropping candles.
We visited only on the final evening and while we saw no injuries, there were an awful lot of extremely drunk people around and, well, fire just about everywhere — use your brain when it comes to putting yourself in positions of risk.
There is actually a “sensible stand” built on site for foreigners, well away from the danger zone, but there was no shortage of foreigners — perhaps a dozen or so — right in as close as we could get, which was very, very close.
In summary, like riding the minibus on the roof from Meiktila to Kalaw, don’t try this at home.
The balloons are prepared one at a time. A large truck backs into the crowd and offloads first a series of large lattices containing hundreds of three-inch-wide candle holders, covered in different shades of translucent plastic.
These lattices are then tied together while being held aloft above the crowd. The hordes hem and haw back around, jostling to get a position by the balloon itself. If you’ve ever been in a moshpit, it is quite similar, except imagine a moshpit with a hot air balloon being assembled at its centre.
Once the lattice is prepared, the balloon is unloaded and prepared for inflation. A large “flame stick” is attached to the base and heat is allowed to slowly inflate the balloon.
While this is happening, crowds light small yellow candles, which are placed into the individual candleholders, throwing a beautiful light below them. Simultaneously, perhaps a half dozen women collect around the base of the balloon bearing round bamboo platters loaded up with hundreds more already-lit candles, again with various shades of translucent covering.
When the balloon starts to fill properly, there’s a feverish rush to take these candleholders and attach them to the hundreds of hooks on the surface of the ballon. As the balloon’s inflation accelerates so does the rush to get all the candles affixed to the sides. The balloon is not tethered in any serious manner (it’s just one guy holding a rope) so there is really just the one chance to get all the candleholders attached.
Within a very short time the balloon is fully inflated and ready to go. We had a slight breeze so the balloons edged back and forward and the cheering throng of people surrounding it moved likewise. This can get a bit unsettling if you’re right at the base, as you are surrounded by fire on all sides and a crowd boasting some people who are as inebriated as they are friendly — expect many “Mingalabars!”
Right at the base , a small team tries to hold the balloon in place until it is really all systems go and then, before you know it, the balloon is aloft, dragging below it the lattice.
Only once aloft is the design behind the lattice evidenced — and just having completed a three-day Kalaw to Inle trek the same morning, it seemed entirely appropriate that the second balloon we saw was for Tiger Balm.
The balloon, once aloft, floats off into the night sky, taking with it the well wishes and thoughts of the crowd who have lit the candles and sent it on its way. When we asked what happens to the balloon when it flames out, the most detailed answer we received was: “It falls somewhere over the other side of the mountains”. So, wherever it falls, like bad fortune, it’s out of sight and out of mind.
While there is accommodation in Taunggyi itself, unless you’re planning on attending the festival for multiple days, you’re better off basing yourself in Nyaung Shwe, about 1.5 hours away by road. Most guesthouses can arrange transport, be it a hire car, van or a tuk tuk, depending on your budget and number of people.
Dress warmly, with at least long pants and sleeves, and a hat isn’t a bad idea. The balloon launching area can get very muddy, so wearing decent footwear is also wise. There is plenty of food and loads of booze for sale on-site.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 18th November, 2013.