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:
Alisa & Kim
Two expats living, teaching, and eating their way across this beautiful world