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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fire Balloons Festival 2012, Taung Gyi, Myanmar

Travel Date 25th November 2012.
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When preparing for the trip I was aware that there was a balloon festival celebrating the full moon near Inle Lake but I thought I would be too early for the event. By chance, when I was dropping my laundry off at the travel agency near the hotel a Swedish traveller was looking for extra passengers to defray the cost of a car to Taung Gyi for the balloon festival that night. The event occurs over several nights, not just one as I had thought. When I returned a couple of hours later I found we were joined by a young back-packing couple from Belgium and France.

Taung Gyi is the capital of Shan State with a population of about 200,000 but that swells at festival time. It is only 40km(25miles) from Nyaung Shwe, but it seemed a long journey in the ancient small Corolla with seats and suspension which had seen many better days. About half-way there the terrain changed quite suddenly from flat and swampy to steep and mountainous. The traffic also got heavier as it seemed that everyone was heading to the festival. Taung Gyi sits in a shallow mountain valley and spreads across the nearby crests.

We arrived at dusk. Apparently there had been several balloons in the afternoon. We arrived in the lull between shows. We were told the more spectacular night balloons would start about 7:30 pm. The crowds grew swiftly. By the time the balloons went up this area was packed solid. 

The area surrounding the balloon field was full of sideshows; mainly restaurants, bars, gambling stalls and rides. 

I was surprised to see so many games of chance and gambling. Every second stall seemed to be gambling in one form or another. 

The crowd kept growing. Numbers are hard to estimate, but by the time the first balloon rose there appeared to be at least a couple of hundred thousand, probably more, when compared with crowds I have been part of at major events in Sydney and Melbourne.

I had a full meal here for 1000 kyats, sitting on a stool and at a table that would have looked small in a kindergarten. 

After I finished eating and paid the lady kept bringing me extra helpings. She seemed very crestfallen when I eventually refused more. She would not accept extra payment. I think it was because several other Westerners had bought meals when they saw me eating at her establishment. Apparently I was a draw-card. Or a guinea pig.

There were lots of other food stalls; later I bought a bag of these tiny savoury profiterole-style mouthfuls. Delicious.

When I first saw the brightly lit Ferris Wheels I was surprised to see that the operators did not mind some local youths climbing up them. When the wheel started to rotate they would swing from the structure and jump off athletically as they passed the ground, sometimes going around again while hanging from the bars if they got the timing wrong. It took me a while to realise that the Ferris Wheels have no motors and that the youths were paid by the operator to rotate it. The people on the ride were very patient, sometimes waiting for long periods until all the seats were full before the operator sent the boys up top to send it spinning. 

The balloons are made from the local Shan paper. They are enormous, prepared off-site by enthusiasts and brought to the location in small trucks. When taken off the truck the balloon is a folded paper bundle about 3m(10') square and 15-30cm(6"-12") thick. It is held overhead and carefully unfolded and spread until the ring at the base is clear. 

 While that is happening three fire-sticks are prepared away from the balloon, ready to place a roaring fire under the cleared ring.

The hot air rising from this blaze provides the initial inflation to expand the balloon.

I saw a balloon raised every half hour or so until midnight. It was quite amazing that not one caught fire during the preparation stage. Once the balloon is inflated the fire on the ground is replaced by a pole up the centre with fuel and burners attached.

As the balloon reaches the point where it has lift and needs to be restrained to remain on the ground, a load is attached. In some cases the load was advertising or displays made from many lit candles, but in others it was a spiral of fireworks weighing up to 50 kg (110lbs). The fireworks were attached carefully below the dripping, blazing inner core fire. Once the balloon had sufficient lift the fireworks fuse was lit and the balloon sailed into the sky. The spiral of fireworks burned in a way that released the spiral to become a long tail. Then the fireworks provided a brilliant display, sometimes for quite a while. 

In this case the balloon was released before it had enough lift. It went sideways instead of up. The results were spectacular. 

Notice the people at the base running into the flames. Sorry about the shaky cameraman; I was holding a beer in one hand, the camera in the other and being bumped by lots of very excited people.  Later I was told that no-one was killed, which seemed incredible. A few days later it was rumoured that two people were injured. One was the man who released the balloon early. It was not clear whether he was injured by the crowd he endangered or the police who attempted to arrest him. The other was one of those police when the friends of the balloon man defended him.

The backpacker couple wanted to stay watching balloons until they ceased at 2am, but the Swedish guy and I both had boat bookings on Inle Lake for the early morning so we convinced them to leave at midnight.  

We had a further delay while we helped our unfortunate driver search for his mobile phone, which he had lost during the evening. Sadly for him, we did not find it. I arrived back at the hotel about 1am.

It was a fascinating and enjoyable night. One of those experiences I'll never forget.

Cheers, Alan 

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