Saturday, January 5, 2013

Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival

Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State in Myanmar, and a transport hub for travelers to Inle Lake and Nyaung Shwe, also plays host to one of Myanmar's biggest and rowdiest festivals - the Fire Balloon Festival!

Held annually, usually in November, and lasting a week to coincide with the full moon day, the festival attracts hordes of visitors from all over the country. In 2012, the festival was held from 21-28 November. During the festival, contests are held whereby huge balloons are constructed by teams from associations and groups from neighbouring towns etc, to compete in 3 categories. In the day, the balloons take the form of dragons, elephants, pagodas etc, but I'm unclear how the judging is made - presumably on how ornate the balloon is designed (note that these balloons are huge!). However, it's at night where the competition heats up (literally)! The balloons are generally huge oval-shaped hot-air balloons, carrying a basket full of carefully arranged fireworks. These balloons are launched by their respective teams, and when the balloons are in the air, the fireworks are released systematically. The balloon that goes up the highest, and with the most spectacular fireworks would be judged the best! Finally, there is another category where the balloons would be decorated with candle-lighted designs. The candles are lighted and placed onto the balloon only during launch, and requires quick and organised coordination by team members.

And while all these are going on, the festival grounds is one huge carnival. Lanes and lanes of makeshift foodstalls compete for attention. Carnival favourites like the merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels take up substantial portion of the area with frenzied activity - they are all human-powered, even the ferris wheels! To complete the festivities, another huge area is set up as a concert ground, where live bands and singers perform for the night. No doubt one of the biggest festivals I've seen.

However, a few notes of precaution. Myanmar's tourism infrastructure is still struggling to cope with its recent influx of tourists, let alone such a hugely popular festival with the locals. So accomodation options are extremely limited for foreigners (esp budget ones). The nearby town of Nyaung Shwe has more accommodation options since it is the access town for Inle Lake. Even then, its limits were tested. I could not find any accommodation when I arrived and had to settle for some floor space on monastery grounds. Transport between Taunggyi and Nyaung Shwe were limited to private taxis as public transport does not quite get to the festival grounds, and the festival lasts till past midnight. And finally, even as alot of fire was involved in the celebrations, I'm sure the festival would not pass any safety awards. As the balloon rises into the sky, the pyrotechnics spewing down onto the festival ground is as exciting as it gets. Your run for cover during paintball games is literally kids play compared to this! And then there's the bad news. Not all the balloons have successful flights... some do come crashing down................... 

Nevertheless, everyone is out for good fun as evident by the turnout. A definite highlight on my trip to Myanmar!

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