Burma Calling: Taunggyi Balloon Festival

Burma Calling: Taunggyi Balloon Festival

Hot air balloons are enough to get plenty of people hot under the collar. But what if 60kg of fireworks are strung to the basket and the fuse is lit just as the balloon is rising? Oh, and the hot air balloon is handmade. And there hundreds and hundreds of beer-blind people dancing underneath it. And there was no test run... it's a one time flight, or fall...

Burma's Taunggyi Balloon Festival is the most bonkers festival on earth. It happens every November as part of the Festival of Lights which marks the end of the Monsoon. A descendant of the British village fete imported in the late 19th century, it has become wilder, more dangerous, and more brilliant every year. At core, it's an incredibly serious, fiercely contested competition with £3,500 up for grabs (which goes as far as about £35k here). The balloons are made by huge teams who scheme and sew all year, looking to wow the judges by the size, structure and speed of their balloon. But the bottom line...the more fireworks, the better.

Each team arrives in a brooding cavalcade, nosing through the crowds to the beat of their cymbals and drums.  The balloon is laid out, any loose fireworks tightened to their frame, the giant wick unfurled, the key men in position, the back-up team building the tension on the drums, the spectator mob jostling for a closer look, manic with the electric pressure of anticipation. The heat from fiery dripping rags starts to swell the balloon, the fabric flaps, the drums beat faster, petrol fumes and flames swirl up with the heaving balloon and adrenaline. Will it fly or fall? Will it get high enough before the fuse reaches the fireworks? Will it split and plummet send a firework bomb careering towards the thousands of floating smartphones?

The answer is both. About 70 percent successfully rise and release their fireworks in a triumphant display far above the ecstatic crowds. But 20 percent aren't quite quick enough, spouting firework meteors down into the throng, and a terrifying 10 percent rip open, shrivel, and smash down to the ground, spewing fatal fireballs at the fleeing hordes. Underneath the beat of each incoming team is the weedy wail of a helpless ambulance siren. And for every thousand revellers is somebody that goes home via hospital, or never makes it home at all.  

It's unlike any other festival on earth. Unlike anything else at all on earth. And one day will be health-and-safetied out of madness and into regulation. Every balloon will be built by banks and insurance companies, rather than rustled together by entire villages. There will be expensive advertising, an entrance fee, exclusivity. Probably McDonalds and Bacardi, rather than warm Myanmar Beer and a bag of fried crickets. Expensive city-slickers taking the spaces of villagers who set up camp for the duration, their babies sleeping under the smokey haze. A go-to for the box-ticking tourist, rather than a wild party for the Burmese. 

Less people will die. People will talk of the days when it was completely mental. 

All I can say is you must go, as soon as you can. Stand at the back if you prefer, but see it before it disappears.

Other things you can do while you're there:

  • See the Day Festival balloons which are less fiery, but very charming
  • Get a tattoo, and probably sepsis 
  • Play hook the ciggies / splat the whiskey bottle
  • Buy a semi-automatic gun
  • Go on the man-powered ferris-wheel
  • Eat a pancake pizza pie
  • Be one of a handful of tourists at something totally 100% not designed for tourists; this is a party for the Burmese

Ferris Wheel & Day Balloons

Guns & Pancakes

Firework Basket

Inflating Balloon

Inflating Balloon

AFP Photo / Ye Aung Thu


Tattoo & Hoop the Ciggies

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