Human-powered Ferris Wheels, exploding hot air balloons and rampant fireworks? Now that’s what I call a festival!

Every year, the Shan capital of Taunggyi plays host to a “fire balloon festival”. It’s crazy and thrilling and massively dangerous.

I’d highly recommend it.

Held in late October/early November, the festival coincides with the first full moon after Buddhist Lent (to mark the end of the rainy season). Although the tradition is said to be rooted in Buddhism, with release of the hot air balloons intended to drive away evil spirits, the contest itself was actually started by British colonialists in the late 19th century. Just letting off some steam, I guess.

Whatever the cause, the effect is mighty.

Today, the fire balloon festival is held in a sports ground on the outskirts of the town and takes the shape of a giant carnival. Candyfloss and popcorn stands squeeze between makeshift beer ‘n’ noodle halls, while typical hoopla and target firing games sit beside stalls selling anything from hats to fake eyelashes to snake blood.

There’s the “exotic animals” pit, featuring monkeys and baby alligators and the bingo hall to calm down after the excitement of said animals…

…Not to mention a worryingly large number of pop-up tattoo parlours – a fairly dangerous idea considering how massively drunk 95% of the crowd gets. A traditional Burmese belief is that tattoos offer protection; in this case maybe attendees thought they’d need it against those aggressive hot air balloons.

Because this festival doesn’t just defy health and safety codes – it doesn’t have them in the first place.

During the day, the hot air balloons – some as big as houses and taking various shapes like birds, cows or tigers – are released into the air to entertain the kiddies. It’s all just a bunch of good, clean fun.*

*Note: having only been at night-time, I cannot verify the accuracy of that statement. Sorry. 😉

But as evening falls, Taunggyi takes on a more dangerous, more thrilling atmosphere.

Teams from different communities introduce their creations to the field with raucous drumming, dancing and singing before sending them up into the night sky…but not before attaching a s**tload of fireworks to a platform right below the wicker basket. The idea is that the fire underneath is lit by whoever on that team is brave/stupid enough to volunteer. Then the balloon fills with hot air and up it rises, its fierce beauty drawing gasps of admiration from the crowd – which soon turn into squeals of excitement as the fireworks shoot off mid-flight.

Of course, there’s plenty of room for error here.

Since that’s a lot of fire, and a lot of wicker to act as a catalyst, the balloon often explodes during ascent. And, as if a dropping ball of fire isn’t dangerous enough, this also triggers the fireworks, which begin plummeting at random into the crowd below. Every year sees serious injuries at the Taunggyi festival. In 2014, 2 people even died. So although it may be tempting to get as close to the action as possible, the ambulance sirens in the distance will quickly remind you to back off!

The festival welcomes tens of thousands of people each day and goes on for about a week before culminating with a huge party on the Sunday, followed by a slightly calmer wrap-up event on the Monday. Some people end up pulling all-nighters throughout the week, shaking off the icy chill with blankets and beer as they watch the festivities. It’s a great mix of families, large bands of Burmese youngsters battling through crowds in a conga-style line and a sprinkling of bewildered Westerners, finding themselves in the throes of such a conga line and wondering how the hell they ended up there.

Myself included. 😉

We arrived in Taunggyi on Sunday – the penultimate and biggest night of the festival. It began with a candlelit Kathine procession through the centre of town, which then snaked through the hills and past a Disney-like pagoda towards a sports grounds on the outskirts.

We’d booked our accommodation months in advance but most people were coming from Nyaungshwe, the main town on tourist hotspot Inle Lake, around 30km away. So the road leading into the festival was teeming with pick-up trucks, motorbikes and a mass of revellers who’d been travelling the short distance for several hours and were raring to start the party. At times, near riots broke out with each person trying to gain a precious inch or two of ground. As the dull bass of the nearby festival grounds thumped, the word “stampede” popped into my head on more than one occasion.

Things were getting dangerous already.

After about an hour of surging and stopping, we found ourselves at the entrance to the fairground and began our evening as any festival goer should…with a victory “We made it!” beer.

Next stop was the famed “Human Ferris Wheel” – a thrilling and frankly, mental, ride that’s powered entirely by a team of local guys, who fling themselves around the bars of the carriages with reckless abandon. As they dance through the sky, their body weight propels the wheel around, and a cheer goes up from the passengers onboard.

It goes a little something like this…

When it was our turn to be spun, I giggled like a 5-year-old the whole way around. Good times.

And so began our first (and hopefully not last) fire balloon festival. Much as I might try, I can’t fully put into words the excitement, the scale or the sheer madness of such an event. Over the course of that night and the night after we got swept up in several conga lines, got soaked in a hail of flying drinks as we danced to local bands and got dizzy several more times on that Ferris Wheel. Our cheeks ached from smiling for so many pictures and our necks throbbed from gazing up for so long at those majestic balloons – not to mention our shot nerves from bracing ourselves to run away!

After the revelry of Taunggyi, we needed some quiet time.

So we headed south, for the apparently mellow town of Loikaw, where we planned on chilling out and detoxing for a few days.

The peacefulness didn’t last long.

Turns out there’s only 3 places in the whole country that has a fire balloon festival at this time – and we’d managed to find ourselves smack bang in the middle of another one!

Although Loikaw’s festival is teensy compared to Taunggyi, it contains every bit of the danger; probably more so, considering there wasn’t a fire engine or ambulance in sight this time! The teams unleashing the balloons seemed to be quite a bit drunker too, judging by this overly eager ascent…

Once we’d recovered from the sight of so many sparks flying, we delved further into the crowd. The locals seemed both bewildered and thoroughly amused by our presence and within moments of arriving, we were bundled into the fold to join in some more dancing and revelry.

We had a ball in Loikaw – our excitement of the festivities heightened by the fact that we were given gifts of 2 incredibly cosy hats by a hat stall owner (terrible businessman, but a lovely guy!)

Still, as we walked back to our guesthouse that night, having witnessed yet another balloon exploding and another crowd scarpering towards safety, we agreed that we’d been lucky to escape without injury.

Just then, a guy walking past us set out a firework from his bare hand before whooping with delight at the sheer craic of it all.

What a bunch of bleedin’ firestarters. Keith Flint would be proud.

Note: Thanks to Andy Barker for supplying most of the photos for this post. Any decent ones are his! 🙂

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