This was another serendipitous event that happened to us while at Nyaung Shwe, Inle lake. We were walking back to our hotel from having been on the lake all day long, when we got approached by a couple drivers who offered us 2 seats onboard a taxi going to Taunggyi. They were looking to fill up their shared ride. In Taunggyi, they said, was happening the final day of the Fire Balloon festival.
After giving our usual “No Thank You”s, we went to the cafe where we were planning on getting on the internet for a bit. There, I decided to check out what this fire balloon festival was. As it turned out, it was quite a famous event! What’s more, the official dates for it were in the first week of november, but for some reason, they had postponed the last couple days of it to coincide with the time when we’d be there! After reading a couple reports about it, I told Jodee that we had to go check it out. She agreed, and we went searching for that taxi driver. He wanted to leave at 6PM, and it was by now already after 5.
As luck would have it, he had the last 2 seats open (this wasn’t a selling technique. The taxi really was crammed, and we had the last 2 available seats!). We jumped in, and made our way to the Fire Balloon Festival in Taunggyi.
Upon reaching the place, we see roughly a few 1000 people milling around an area the size of a few stadiums. On one end of it were Carnival rides, which I’ll get to in another blog. On the other side were the main attractions, the Fire Balloons!
What is a Fire Balloon?
A Fire balloon is a completely unsafe, and very beautiful, contraption that I have seen only here. Essentially, it is a huge hot-air balloon made of paper. Thick wax paper. It is set afloat by hot air created by a fire at its open base. On it hang hundreds of candles that form a beautiful pattern.
And from this bewildering contraption are hung one of 2 things:
Think of a huge 10’x10’ bamboo mesh with hundreds of strategically placed candles hanging by hooks from it. Once the Balloon goes up in the air taking this bamboo mesh with it, all the candlelights on it form a beautiful design that gets taken away by the wind.
It’s quite unique. It reminded me a lot of the Illumination contests back from my College days in IIT KGP. Any KGP Junta reading this, remember Ilu?
This reminded me exactly of that! In both cases you have the same bamboo meshes (Chattais), the same hundreds of candles (diyas) that needed to be lit up at precisely the right time (when the judges were coming, or when the balloon was about to rise) to form a pattern that would die after a short time of glory. In that short time, they would be judged as to their creativity, and in that short time, the huge team of about 50 people that worked together to create it will sing and dance with drums and music to rejoice the successful completion of their creation.
This one is truly unique. Think of a big metal grid to which are tied around 3000-8000 rockets. I’m not kidding. 3 to 8 Thousand Rockets, all in close proximity to each other, ready to launch in different directions from their metal launchpad! All the rockets (and these are the kind that explode into a million sparks each) have their fuses tied together to one big fuse. Right when the balloon and all its accoutrements lift off, the big fuse is lit, and fingers are crossed. Assuming all goes well, when the balloon reaches about a 100 ft or so, all the rockets ignite in a sequence, and you have a glorious, glorious display of fireworks that keeps moving as the balloon gets pulled by the wind!
I say assuming all goes well because, well, read on…!
Our Experience Watching the Launches
Teams are called one by one into a wide open area where they are given time to prep and launch their balloon. The team enters with much pomp and splendor not unlike a baraat at a North Indian wedding, with people dancing in front of the jeeps that carry the balloon materials for the whole procession.
First the balloon itself. As I said, it’s made of thick wax paper. It’s brought in folded, and looking like this:
At its base is a hole where are tied bamboo rods wrapped in cloth dipped in oil, and set ablaze, The hot air from these rise into the balloon, filling it up. Once it enlarges, you will see there are hooks taped on it at strategic intervals. As the balloon slowly rises, lifted by the hot air, two groups of men and women form around this balloon in concentric circles. The outer group holds trays upon trays of lit candles. The inner group frantically picks up these candles and hangs them from the hooks. The hooks are spaced such that when all the candles are lit and hung they form a pattern all around the balloon.
Once the balloon rises, you will see tied to its base are 4 strong ropes. These ropes connect to either the bamboo mesh, or the metal rocket launcher.
In the case of the bamboo art, while the balloon is being filled up, a third group will be hanging candles from the mesh (at this point laid horizontal just above the ground). When the balloon starts to rise, it slowly lifts the mesh and takes it with it. Voila! Fire art in the air!
We made this movie from the first balloon launch. Look at the amount of sheer manpower (sorry PC people, person power) it takes to launch one off the ground!
We saw a couple of these being launched. The first one rose slowly till it vanished, just a speck in the night sky. The second one did not fare so well. After rising for some time, we saw it lose height and slowly sink to land on top of a neighboring house! Next thing, the balloon collapses, and the candles set it on fire. Shortly thereafter the bamboo mesh catches fire as well! A jolly good bright scene it was. I wonder how the owner of the house felt, knowing there was a hot air balloon merrily burning to a conclusion on his roof!
The rocket launchers though, were an entirely different story.
We saw the same initial process as above being done for the fireworks balloon. Everything went well till the balloon started to rise. The fuse was lit and shortening as we saw the entire contraption rise into the air. Here’s where things went wrong. Whoever was doing the calculations for the length of the fuse required to delay the start of the fireworks till the balloon was safely in the air probably had had one too many Grand Royal Whisky’s (a surprisingly smoothly distilled Myanmar-made whisky!), and no sooner than the balloon had cleared about 15ft in the air than all hell broke loose. Or well it seemed like it. The first couple of the rockets got lit and flew into a neighboring pavilion. It was empty, so that was all right. Then the next set of rockets launched, and these were aimed directly at our side of the field. As suddenly all around us we saw rockets whizzing past and hitting the ground, we turned and ran! I have never run so fast in my life! For a second I got a glimpse into the world of a soldier in battle as he is running for cover, bullets whizzing over his head. Covered in synthetic, elegantly flammable jackets and trousers, I sprinted. Over my shoulder a couple rockets whizzed past and extinguished themselves on the ground in front of me. I looked around frantically, searching for any place that would afford some protection. Just ahead was a wall of riot shields. The police men who were stationed there in case something happened had all taken out their riot shields, you know the metallic curved ones stretching from head to foot with a small grill through which to look at rioting students and opposition parties? That one. There was a solid wall, with the police behind them. I ran for the shields, the shrill whistle of rockets flying past me. Reaching the shields, still unhurt, I turned and ducked under it. Safely watching about 10 police men cowering behind it. All around us was mayhem. People running for cover, rockets hitting the ground, some exploding in the air in a beautifully dangerous display of fireworks ridiculously close to us.
I had just had the chance to take a breather when, suddenly, the police started to shout something in burmese. Someone urgently prodded me on the shoulder.
“Please. Please. Move!”
I turned and looked. The police had now lifted the shields above their heads and were retreating, and myself and a couple other folks who had used them for sheltering were blocking their path. I wondered what and looked up. Then I saw it. The balloon with its carload of still unlit and firing rockets had been pushed by the wind to be directly above us! So far the rockets weren’t hitting us, but there was the very real danger of the entire thing collapsing on us! We arose, still half crouched, and the whole formation started to move quickly sideways, making towards the edge of the field. The whistling of rockets followed. The police lifted their shields higher. Soon I saw that at that angle, the shields weren’t going to be protection for me as well as the others. It was too small. I turned and looked. There was a firetruck standing helplessly on the side. I did a quick calculation. It would take me about 5 seconds to get there. 5 seconds of being fully exposed or the next 2 minutes of being partially so. The decision was made. I bolted. Whizz.. shhupp.. the rockets landed around me. I reached the fire truck, grabbed the rear handle, and swung myself to safety behind it. I looked up. The balloon was heading away, carried by the wind. I was safe. Huge sigh of relief. My heart was still pounding. Hands shivering. Legs trembling. I felt I needed to pee and shit all at the same time.
I stood behind the truck for a minute trying to calm myself down. Then, shakily, I stumbled out onto the field. People were emerging from their respective hiding places, excitedly talking about the encounter. I regrouped with the others I was standing with. Everyone was laughing huge laughs of relief. We were all giggly and on a high from that experience. We’d come to get a glimpse of a Myanmar festival, have some fun, and watch the goings on. We got a lot, lot more than we bargained for. I said a prayer, thankful to be alive, and joined the group in the ongoing festivities.
As you can imagine, I hadn’t taken out my camera when the balloon took off, and then, running for my life, taking out my camera wasn’t exactly in my consciousness. However, Jodee who happened to be in another place, a little safer, was filming the launch and we have video of the balloon launch, the fireworks and then it gets all hazy as she runs like a madwoman to a fire engine. Here is the video of the launch followed by us all excitedly talking about the event, immediately followed by the loudspeakers coming out, and the Myanmar people celebrating. Being alive is truly a celebration!
Finally, we got to see the next fireworks balloon being launched. This time, the fuses were set to the right length, so we all got to witness a glorious display of fireworks far up in the sky…