The biggest Fire Balloon Festival in Myanmar is located in the mountain town of Taunggyi which is about a 12 hour drive north of Yangon. I took an over-night bus up for an impromptu weekend getaway with my friend Ashley to see the festival. Being the biggest, I knew it was going to be a lot of people at the festival but I have not been anywhere in Myanmar with quite that amount of people all in one place before. If I were to guess I would say that there were probably a couple thousand people all gathered for the festivities. As we walked up to the festival grounds we were greeted by our first sighting of a fire balloon - and this one had fireworks on it! It was quite the site shooting up in the sky. (If you are impatient and just want to get to the action scroll all the way down for the video)
It was probably about a half a mile walk up to the main area of the festival and all the way up was lined with booths with vendors selling all sorts of things like clothing (traditional and modern), trinkets, gadgets, more clothing, accessories (purses and wallets), to name a few. There were a lot of warm clothing for sale especially hats and scarfs, although it was only about 50* or so people were dressed like it was freezing. I guess they are not quite as used to the cold as I am.
Of course there was food, all sorts of food. Mostly traditional barbecue (below), noodle dishes, lots of greasy fried things, and don't forget the rice! Along with the food were the beer stands. You could get beer just about anywhere and walk around with it. Or you could pop into one of the clubs that the beer/alcohol booths had set up behind. These closed in spaces had private DJs and lots of flashy lights.
There were lots of game booths also. There were the traditional prizes I was used to like stuffed animals or cheep plastic toys, but then there were the booths where you could win beer or cigarettes (above) or you could go straight for the bottles of liquor (below). Just make 2 baskets and it's yours!
Temporary tattoo anyone? This man had all sorts of stamps that he lines with thick black ink that supposedly lasts for about 5 days. I almost got one but I couldn't find a design I liked.
Two other types of booths were the monkey booth and the photo booths. When I peeked into the monkey booth I saw two monkeys sitting on hanging loops with a string attached to their legs. Ashley said that it was set up for people to pay money to see the monkeys to various tricks. The photo booth was kind of like glamor shots, where they dress you up in fancy or funny clothing, do your hair and makeup, then take your photo to be printed out and sent home with you.
And then there was the ride section. This looked like most carnivals that I knew, with kiddy rides, jumping houses, and a few bigger power rides. What was not so normal was the fact that the ferris wheels (there were three of them) were all human powered. By that I mean that there was no motor, instead amazingly skillful men would climb up the wheel and, when aligned, would all power it by leaning to one side and using their weight to spin it. To stop it they would jump back on to the bench parts of the wheel and use their weight to pull it the other way. It was quite the sight to see these men nimbly making their way all around the beams of the wheel and swinging around like acrobats. Check out the video below for the full effect.
Now off to the field to see some of the Fire Balloons up close. Fire Balloons are similar to Chinese lanterns in the way that they are lit using the hot air from fire and let off in the sky to burn. Yet this is like Fire Balloons to the extreme because these balloons were GIGANTIC!!! If I were to guess I would say they were somewhere between 10 and 20 feet in diameter. Each balloon is sponsored by a different village, organization, or company and these are represented on the sides of the balloon in writing or symbols. Besides just good fun the general idea is that you send a wish or good thoughts out into the world to get the universe to fulfill.
But the balloons are not the only things that are lit, they are also adorned with hundreds of small candles. These mini lanterns are colored so when arranged they reveal an image of sorts. They are hooked onto specific spots on the balloon, this has to be done very quickly as the balloon is filling but before it gets too full. Lots of helpers are needed for this part.
Fire is slowly built up below the balloon and fills it with hot air to make it inflate. Many skilled people are needed to help with this part as to not burn the balloon itself. After it gets filled enough one main fire is lit under it and the sticks are removed, these are just placed aside within the crowd. The process of filling the whole balloon up takes only 10-20 minutes.
While this is happening there is also a whole other section of the balloon being worked on. This section is completed by taping wooden frames together then placing more of the colored mini lanterns on it to show another symbol of sorts. The rows of lights here were quite stunning.
Finally the sections are attached together and lifted off.
Sometimes instead of the mini lanterns, the balloons are decorated. These specially decorated balloons are always accompanied by a box of fireworks underneath them (instead of the wooden frame with mini lanterns). The fireworks start shooting off almost immediately and stretch right above the heads of the crowd. As you can imagine this is extremely dangerous. I later found out that the night before there was a huge accident where one of the balloons fell back into the crowd. Apparently somewhere between 1 and 3 people died and somewhere between 15 and 30 people got injured. The news is all hearsay here so it is difficult to get the specifics. Luckily all was well and good the night I was there.
Here is the video of the full process:
Another great weekend started with taking it easy and watching E & H so Sharon and Steven could have a night out. Saturday morning we met up with the four of them to go for a ride on the Circular Train. The Circular Train is a slow-moving train that makes a loop around Yangon over a three hour time period.
On the way back I managed to gu-estimate which stop to get off to be closest to the Shan noodle place that we love so it was only a very short walk before we were seated in front of some noodles and dumplings. Yum! Here is a video of the awesomness (don’t mind how incredibly hot and sweaty we were, three hours on an open-air train in the tropics will do that to you):
Still very hot, we tried to find some ice cream but ended up with this creation called a caterpillar that was so overly sweet and artificial. It was not good. Not good at all.
I had always admired the concept of couchsurfing, letting a fellow traveler crash on your couch (or spare bed or even floor) for a short time as they are passing though. Unlike airbnb or similar sites where you can rent out your spare room to visitors, couchsurfing is completely free for both the host and the guest. The only thing I expect to gain is meeting new friends and fellow travelers that can share their stories and advice, plus some good karma and hopefully some invites to other’s homes across the world. Seeing as we lived in the middle of Maine, we didn’t get a whole lot of travelers wondering though our neck of the woods; but here in Myanmar, the backpackers are flocking in now that the country is open to foreigners with the hopes to see this unknown land before it gets run over with modernization. With few foreigners that live here and even fewer ones that have extra space to offer guests, as soon as I signed up with couchsurfing.org I began receiving requests to stay.
This weekend we accepted our first couchsufers, two young backpackers from China, Rachel & Jo’di. We invited them out to join us for our Sunday tradition of dimsum and it was just as delicious as ever. Then we wandered around the mall area and found a $1.80 store where Jo’di explained this contraption to me that was designed to make your face slimmer. I also found a “lame mirror,” as well as a phone store that sounds like they take really good care of their customers.
As we continued wandering the streets we stumbled on the very last thing I would expect on a random back road of Yangon – an Amusement Park. It was the creepiest, funniest, most strange find ever. As it was almost 9pm we expected it to be closed but the happily let us in to wander around and I could only think of one thing – that this would be the PERFECT place for a creepy serial killer movie. Let me set the scene for you.
Firstly it is pitch dark, the only lights coming from the off-colored bulbs on the rides that are almost all standing perfectly still except for the occasional merry-go-round which is spinning without anyone riding on it. In fact there is not one person there at all, visitor or worker. As you hesitantly walk around the plastic characters intended to entertain the children look anything but cute as their creepy eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. I continued to glance behind us to make sure we weren’t being followed by a man wielding a giant machete or something. When I turn back around a man appears out of the shadows motioning to an old, peeling sign that says “haunted house.” Always up for an adventure, the group decides to take him up for it and we hand him $700 kyat ($0.70 usd). With a low, menicing laugh he directs us to a dark doorway that I am unable to make anything out beyond the door frame and waves us a slow goodbye. That was the last time anyone every heard from Alisa, Kim, and their couchsurfers.
Hehehe, obviously not – but that is seriously what it felt like at this place. The haunted house was actually really good. It was just the right amount of scary/creepy and poorly constructed making it funny. This is my favorite kind of adventure, when we wander around and stumble upon crazy random awesome things.
Monday started off another school week, in the afternoon I joined a group for the first yoga lesson offered by another teacher (and yoga instructor) in one of the classrooms. I am so glad to have a yoga class again! On Tuesday I began my first meeting of Photo Club. The idea is to get a group of photographers (students, teachers, staff, ect) together to learn some new techniques and practice together. It was a small but interested group that joined, hopefully I will be able to have a great time in the club this year.
Wednesday, Shelly and I decided to go grab some dinner after school. I took the bus over to her apartment and we grabbed a taxi downtown. We didn’t have a real destination but decided to just wander around and see if we could find something tasty to eat. A short while after getting in the taxi we were stuck in the ever growing Yangon traffic – one of the most frustrating and most unavoidable parts of living in a city (especially one with no city planning). After sitting at a light for a good 15 minutes we decided to just get out and walk around that area to see if we could find something to eat. Of course as soon as we got out of the taxi the light turned green and it speed off. That’s okay, not a big deal, but looking around we realized that we were in the wrong part of town to find food because there were no restaurants –not even any stores- in sight. We did the only thing we could do, started walking. I kid you not, after only ten steps or so the skies opened and it started pouring. Now, of course it was not just sprinkling or raining a bit, oh no, it was one of the normal Myanmar monsoon rains that feels like buckets of water being dumped on you.
Shelly was smart enough to have a small folding umbrella with her but I hadn’t picked up the habit yet. Although she tried sharing, her attempt was in vain due to the miniature size of the umbrella and the massive amounts of rain. Since there was no where to duck into we did the only thing we could – kept walking. It looked like we were in the area of Vista Bar where I had gone over the weekend so I gave my best estimate at how to get there and we trudged on.
After taking a wrong turn we found ourselves at one of the entrances to the famous Shwedegon Pagoda. This entrance is unique in the way that it is split halfway through so a road could run through it. We turned left to take a shortcut through the other half of the entrance to reach the road below. As we were almost out of the entrance hall we were stopped by a middle-aged local lady who pointed to our shoes and said “no.” I realized that we hadn’t taken off our shoes when we came through the entrance because we were going backwards. Normally I try to be very respectful of the traditions and customs of the locals but we were literally only 10 feet from the street so we skirted around her saying “sorry” and pointing to the outside.
Normally I would have loved to take the time to curiously wander through the shops we found at the foot of the entrance but by now we were soaked, hungry, still unsure of how to get where we were going, and grumpy from being yelled at. So we hurried along and after another 20 or so minutes of walking finally, FINALLY, found ourselves at vista where we gladly welcomed some tasty drinks and happily munched on some western food as we watched Shwedegon’s lights turn on.
I don't think I'll ever get sick of this view, ah, Shwedegon
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world