The Fire Balloon Festival


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Inle Lake
November 29th 2012
Published: January 14th 2013
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In the spotlightIn the spotlightIn the spotlight

A balloon starts it's ascent. The cradle of fireworks has already been lit and is down in the crowd!
What happens when you put ten thousand people on top of a mountain, add copious amount of alcohol and then launch hot air balloons with fireworks strapped to them? The Taunggyi Fire Balloon Festival, that's what!

Burma isn't a country I would normally associate with festivals. So I was surprised to learn of such a radical festival on a large scale. And nothing quite prepared me for what I saw. The town holding the festival was called Taunggyi, and it sits on top of a mountain. Getting there was quite an event in itself. To reach the town our truck had to climb up a series of switchbacks, and the road was packed with locals heading to the festival. Pickup trucks had a dozen or more people piled into the back. Minibuses had people crammed inside like sardines, with more people sitting on the roof and hanging off the ladder at the back. We even saw saloon cars driving with the boot open with several people squeezed into the tiny space! I've never seen so many vehicles overloaded with so many people. It all added to the crazy atmosphere and got our festival juices flowing.

There was an inevitable
View of the FestivalView of the FestivalView of the Festival

This was only a small portion....
traffic jam as we approached the festival, and this was an ideal time to climb onto the roof of our truck. As we got closer, I caught my first glimpse of the festival in it's entirety and was blown away. There was vast sea of lights inside a bowl-shaped hollow on top of the mountain, punctuated by illuminated Ferris wheels and pirate ships. Our truck parked up and we headed straight into the madness.

There were people everywhere, and so many sights and sounds that we barely knew where to begin. On our left were stalls selling cans of beer, home- rolled cigars and snacks. On our right was an open-air tattoo parlour with young boys having their designs tattooed by serious looking guys. There were Beer Stations inside tents, and full-scale restaurants selling every food imaginable. There was plenty of old fashioned fairground fun such as games where you threw tennis balls at pyramids of tin cans to win giant teddy bears. Or rows of balloons lined up which you had to pop with darts to claim your prize. My personal favourite was an area of flat earth covered in bottles which varied from soft drinks to beer
Climbing the Ferris WheelClimbing the Ferris WheelClimbing the Ferris Wheel

Local boys climb the wheel and use their bodyweight to power it manually
to hard liquor. You paid your money and rolled a bike tyre into the "arena". When it lost it's momentum it would fall over, and if it fell over a bottle, you won it.

We hadn't even got close to the fire balloon action yet, we were still exploring the bustling outskirts. We walked past one of the Ferris Wheels and looked on in amazement and shock as we saw how it worked. There wasn't any motor involved. The giant wheel and it's swinging chairs were powered by a team of five teenage boys. They climbed up the framework like spiders, then used the momentum of their own bodies to turn the wheel. Once at the top of the wheel, they would simultaneously scramble over to one side, which would start the wheel turning. Then they would jump and grab the bottom of one of the carriages, using their momentum and body-weight to pull the wheel around further. The wheel itself was made of wood joined together by metal bolts, and the whole structure was wobbling in a worrying manner as it went round. In addition, the wheel was held upright by a pair of giant metal poles that
Ferris Wheel support!!Ferris Wheel support!!Ferris Wheel support!!

Balanced on a few bricks. How long until it tumbles?
were "supported" underneath by a haphazard arrangement of crumbling bricks and rocks. The whole thing screamed of health and safety issues, and I found myself wondering which way I would run if it started tumbling over.

Some of the food stalls had a bewildering array of food laid out on wooden skewers. You chose your skewers and they deep- fried them for you. There were prawns, meatballs, aubergine, chunks of watermelon and..... Angry Birds? Zena figured out that these were made pf reconstituted fish, similar to fish balls. They were shaped to imitate other things and then painted with food colouring. Very clever.

As we headed deeper into the festival, Zena had a try on a Wheel of Fortune. It would be more accurate to call it a "Wheel of Coffee", because this stall was sponsored by a Three-in-One coffee company. This abomination of a beverage is served all over Burma. It's a powdered mix of substandard coffee, sugar and milk. The stall had huge bags laid out on display, some of them weighing as much as a kilo. Zena spun the wheel and it landed on.... coffee! Funny that. I was wondering about the practicality of carrying
Houston, we have liftoffHouston, we have liftoffHouston, we have liftoff

The first fire balloon ascends, carrying a train of lights
a kilo of coffee mix around the festival, but thankfully it was just a sample pack. Enough for one dreadful cup of coffee.

We had a few chats with the locals, and we had the usual requests to have our photo taken with them. Football also came into conversation, being the universal language. For the umpteenth time, someone said to me "you look like Wayne Rooney!" I can't see it myself thankfully.

As we moved through the festival, we saw the first balloon. There was a central area surrounded by safety barriers, which were being ignored by a heaving crowd of thousands of people. A pair of spotlights were trained on a balloon which was being inflated amidst the masses of people. It grew in size and began to take shape. As it started emerging above the crowd, a crew of people were adorning it with industrial-sized fairy lights. It spelt out words in Burmese, and the balloon was slowly spun around for all to see. The balloon was half the size of a normal passenger hot air balloon, but this still made it quite substantial. It soon launched and started rising above the crowd, and an undercarriage
Many hands make light workMany hands make light workMany hands make light work

The team work together to inflate the balloon
of electric lights were attached. These unfolded as the balloon gained height, and were revealed to be a trailing panel of lights, which dangled to a length of 20 metres below the balloon. It was a beautiful sight, and the illuminated balloon continued to rise until it was a tiny glowing speck in the sky.

Half an hour later, a second balloon started taking shape in the crowd. As this one ascended, we noticed it was pulling a large, heavy looking basket which was packed with fireworks. Fizzling fuses were poking out of the sides, and soon there was an impressive pyrotechnic display of rockets firing out of the basket in all directions. Well, not quite all directions. None of the fireworks were directed upwards, because that would have destroyed the balloon. This wasn't a brief display either. The firework cradle was carefully designed to fire it's explosive cargo in sequence. And there were a heck of a lot of fireworks on board. The balloon kept rising and it was still firing rockets five minutes later, several kilometres high in the air.

We decided to get closer to the action, to see how these balloons were being inflated.
The fireworks are litThe fireworks are litThe fireworks are lit

The balloon carries it's firework cradle upwards
We got past the safety barriers and pushed through the tightly packed crowds into the centre. There was a team of people with long poles holding up the balloon fabric while a portable stove generated enough heat to start lifting the balloon into shape. Once the balloon had enough lift, the wick was tied in place. This wick was a six-foot high structure soaked in kerosine. It would keep the balloon powered until the upper stratosphere. Next came the most interesting and dangerous part. The balloon started rising up, and the firework cradle had to be attached. The cradle was huge, about two-to-three metres on each side. The balloon wick above it was alight, and was dripping with flaming kerosine. A guy was holding out a long pole with a steel bucket attached to the end, to catch all the flaming kerosine drops before they landed on the firework cradle. Had a single drop been missed, then the fireworks would have ignited and fired into the crowd. Dangerous! Finally the balloon rose in the air with its deadly cargo dangling underneath. A few minutes later the fireworks started firing from a respectable and safe height, amidst cheering from the crowd.
Pyrotechnic DisplayPyrotechnic DisplayPyrotechnic Display

The balloon launches and impressive array of fireworks


Not all balloons launched without incident. We saw one balloon where the fuses had been mistimed. The fireworks ignited too early and were raining down into the crowd below. Another balloon caught fire in the air, possibly from a stray firework. It collapsed and plummeted to it's doom, still firing it's deadly cargo as it landed in the crowd. We didn't see this actual incident, but a few people told us about it. One lady said people started panicking and running away. The firework cradle crashed to the ground and continued to spew out fireworks in all directions, hitting people who couldn't get away quick enough. The lady managed to reach the safety barrier and her husband shouted at her to crouch down out of the way of the incoming rockets. She said that people started running up her back and using her to launch themselves over the barrier! Cheeky. Later in the evening I saw another balloon collapse from a distance and fall into the crowd. This was clearly a dangerous festival, and people die every year. But these pyrotechnic accidents did not stop people gathering beyond the safety barriers. I must admit, there was a great atmosphere
Deadly RainDeadly RainDeadly Rain

The fuse was too short and the fireworks are firing down into the crowd
and excitement when you got in the thick of the action.

Each balloon is entered by a team from a particular village. The cost of constructing the balloon, including the lights or fireworks, can be as much as 10,000 US dollars. The technical design of the balloon is challenging. The weight of lights or firework cradle will determine the amount of lift needed, and therefore the size of balloon and flaming wick. The firework cradle then has to be meticulously designed to fire in sequence and in the right direction, without igniting the other fireworks. The fuse length has to be calculated based on the estimated rate of lift, to ensure the fireworks don't ignite until the balloon has reached a safe height.

On the big night, the balloon and cradle are slowly driven out into the middle of the festival in two pickup trucks. A procession of villagers follows the trucks, dancing, singing, beating drums and banging cymbals. Once the balloon has successfully launched and is an incandescent speck in the sky, the village balloon team erupt in an explosion of song and dance, with two giant spotlights trained on them. Despite the dangers and the sheer
Boat Parking LotBoat Parking LotBoat Parking Lot

One hour max, no return within four hours
insanity of combining fireworks with hot air balloons, we survived the festival unharmed and unburnt.

The rest of our time in Burma was spent around the town of Nyaungshwe. We had a booking with a hotel at the exorbitant price of $80 a night. This was way beyond the means of our poor struggling wallets, but every other place had been booked up over a week in advance. But when we arrived in Nyaungshwe, we found out that this particular hotel was twenty minutes walk outside of town, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere! So we started looking at other options. Surely there must be somewhere with a spare bed in town? We tried ten different hostels, hotels and guesthouses only to be told "No Vacancies." Some of the owners told us that nowhere in town had vacancies, and that many tourists were being taken in by the local monastery and being given floorspace by the monks. We persisted in our search and eventually found a place with a vacancy for one night only. Our search continued the next day, and we ended up staying in three different places over three nights.

The main attraction
Circus Antics of the FishermanCircus Antics of the FishermanCircus Antics of the Fisherman

Sometimes he catches fish too
of Nyaungshwe is the nearby tourist attraction of Lake Inle. It is a freshwater lake about 45 square miles in size, and is most famous for the local fishermen. They are known as the "one-legged rowers", and row their boats standing up and using one leg wrapped around a pole. They also use a crazy fishing net which is a giant cone. The locals live on the lake itself, in villages built on stilts. At first this sounds like a lot of hassle - why not just build houses on land like normal people? Well, building on stilts gives you the advantage of being immune to flooding during the monsoon season. Clever eh? The villagers also built a series of floating vegetable gardens by matting lots of reeds together and covering with soil. These are also unaffected by rising water levels.

We hired a motorboat for the day for seeing the sights and sounds of Inle Lake. We also called into Leaping Cat Monastery. The name is due to the monks having trained cats to jump through hoops in return for treats. A prime example of monks having too much time on their hands. Training cats is quite an
Monks on a BoatMonks on a BoatMonks on a Boat

Speeding along with the wind blowing through their lack of hair
achievement though. You're hard pushed to get a cat to do anything. Dogs will fetch sticks. Throw a stick for a cat and it will look at you in disdain and think "go fetch your own stupid stick". Dogs have owners whereas cats have staff. The monastery is actually quite beautiful. But I don't think the tourists care or notice. It's all about the cats. It's become the number one tourist attraction in the area and the cats get more attention than Buddha. No idea how the monks get chance to meditate with hundreds of tourists stomping around the place and creating a racket. Sadly we didn't see any cats jumping.

Finally, did you know that Burma produces wine? Well it does. The area around Lake Inle has a vineyard and winery called Red Mountain. Zena and I felt it our duty to investigate further, so we hired bicycles and cycled out there. I've been to various countries who have "dabbled" in wine, such as China and Ethiopia, and the results have been disgraceful. Would Burma be any better? The answer is a resounding yes! Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and a superb late harvest wine. Who'd have thought?
Pretty in PinkPretty in PinkPretty in Pink

Female monks line up for their food donations


And so our time in Burma draws to a close. It's been a difficult and challenging country to travel through, but utterly rewarding. We've had amazing experiences and met the most lovely, genuine people. I implore you to visit this fabulous country before it changes. Now that sanctions are being lifted, it's only a matter of time before the commercialist giants of Starbucks, McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts invade the fair shores of Burma. I estimate that within a year you'll be able to buy a Big Mac served by a guy wearing Adidas trainers and Lee jeans, wash it down with a Pepsi and get a free plastic Buddha with your Happy Meal. Get there soon! As for me, I'm leaving Asia behind for fresh adventures in South America. To be continued....

(More photos at the bottom of the page)


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Made from reconstituted fish and then deep-fried
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A balloon is inflated in the middle of a heaving crowd
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One of the many delicious street food stalls
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Zena wins big! A sachet of three-in-one coffee mix
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We rode through the hills on horseback


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