South by Southeast: Taunggyi Balloon Festival

Daily life is a struggle in Myanmar. For the average local, working days are filled with long hours of backbreaking manual labor, meager pay and no weekends or vacation time. Considering this exhausting schedule, festivals and holidays are special times – a chance to kick back, relax and let loose. In Myanmar’s Shan State, one of the most important of these festivities is the annual Taunggyi Balloon Festival.

Over the course of this annual eight-day event, teams compete to design and launch the most impressive hot air balloons: some shaped like giant birds, zebras and cows; others filled with a potent mix of fireworks; still others elegantly lit by flickering candles. Each balloon’s launch is symbolic of Buddhist hopes for the purging of human sin, gently gliding off and disappearing into the heavens. More than 200 such entries are launched each festival season, continually rising throughout the day and night.

Surrounding this magnificent hot-air balloon spectacle is a chaotic and festive carnival sideshow: drunken men shout at giant gambling wheels, open cooking fires sizzle with pots of Mohinga soup and pig entrails and children scream with joy on huge Ferris Wheels (powered solely by jumping men). It’s as if the Fourth of July, Las Vegas and a giant refugee camp had suddenly collided in one huge, heaving, wonderful mass of humanity and celebration.

During my visit to Myanmar this past month, I had a chance to visit the Taunggyi Balloon Festival and get first-hand taste of this awesome event. Wondering what happened? Keep reading below for more…

Getting There
Upon arriving in Myanmar, I immediately began planning my visit to Taunggyi. This was easier said than done: the event is among the most popular in all of Myanmar and hotels in Taunggyi are fully booked for weeks in advance. Even finding a bus to Taunggyi during festival time presents a problem: as many are jammed with eager locals.

As an alternative, I arranged to begin my Taunggyi visit from the nearby Shan State town of Kalaw. The town has its own smaller balloon festivities and is about a 3 hour taxi ride from Taunggyi. Many visitors also consider Nyaungshwe, the main city on Inle Lake, which has plentiful lodging options. Both cities make convenient bases to begin your exploration of the festival. A taxi to/from the event costs around $40-50.

The Balloons
Though Taunggyi is most famous for the nighttime balloons, the daytime balloons are equally impressive. Unlike the evening launches, which explode with colorful fireworks, the daytime launches show off Myanmar craftsmanship, with each colorful entry shaped like a different animal. On the large festival launching grounds, amorphous piles of fabric slowly rise into fantasy creatures of heat and shape: curious pigeons and lazy cows emerge and drift away, carried at the whim of the warm winter breeze. Some entries are not so lucky: an errant gust of wind or careless touch of the torch and the fragile creations are consumed by flame.

Soon the sun began to slip behind the nearby hills, bringing with it a growing anticipation for the evening’s main event: the fire balloons. Before launch each entry is brought to a judging station to be weighed. A typical balloon contains about 75 pounds of explosives, bringing with it the potential for both delight and catastrophe. Several days before my visit an errant balloon exploded too low to the ground, showering spectators with a bath of molten paper that injured 200. My guesthouse owner advised to bring a hat to protect my hair from catching fire.

Suddenly the evening’s first fire balloon began to rise from among carpet of tiny humans, a glowing, undulating mushroom of explosives silhouetted against the blackened sky. The crowd let out an excited gasp. The balloon inflated towards its maximum size, anxiously tugging at its tethering below. The handlers nervously gazed up at months of work and preparation, and released their offering to its fate. The balloon’s rise was unspectacular at first: lazily floating along, unsure of its purpose. Then suddenly, as if triggered by some celestial epiphany, the balloon’s base exploded in a massive powderkeg of light and sound and color and activity.

Nothing prepared me for that first explosion, bigger than any Fourth of July shell I had seen back home. It blanketed the sky and sent me running for cover, awed and delighted by what I had seen. Over the course of the next several hours another 6-8 balloons were slowly launched, but nothing compared to that first explosion. I spent the night lost beneath the festival’s many carnival tents, playing and drinking and celebrating with the locals until dawn. Then it was time to head home. All too soon, the vivid dream I had witnessed at Taunggyi was gone: floating off into my memory like the fragile fire balloons, slowly disappearing in the sky.

Curious to read more about visiting Myanmar? Read the initial post on my recent trip HERE.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.