Spectacle in the sky

Taunggyi’s dazzling annual pyrotechnics festival is becoming more popular, profitable and perilous.

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

Taunggyi balloon festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Taunggyi balloon festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

American teacher Kate McNeil described her brush with death at the Taunggyi Balloon Festival: “It was like a freaking Harry Potter movie.”

The support team of an enormous paper hot-air balloon laden with 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds) of fireworks lit the wrong fuse, and rockets designed to fill the night’s sky with light and beauty exploded in the crowded field instead.

Team members, small children and barefooted monks scrambled for their lives amid tentacles of spark and flame. Someone was shouting, “Don’t run! Don’t run! Get down!” Ms McNeil hunched over and accepted her fate.

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“The last thing I thought was, ‘I’m going to die by fireworks in Myanmar, and my mum is going to be furious.’”

Despite a few holes burned in her shirt, Ms McNeil lived to see the festival’s other balloons, which — except one that got caught in power lines — were spectacular, heralding the end of Kahtein (Buddhist Lent) with dazzling pyrotechnics and glowing airborne murals composed of hundreds of tiny candles. Ms McNeil went back the next year.

Each year Taunggyi’s fiery spectacle grows more elaborate, more lucrative and  as Ms McNeil discovered — more hazardous. In what began as a relatively modest affair in the 1950s, fire balloon teams spend six months and millions of kyat building their creations, which compete for tens of millions of kyat in prize money. Champion meesaya, or “firemasters,” are local heroes with corporate sponsorships.

Lighting the fuses of a balloon at the Taunggyi festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Lighting the fuses of a balloon at the Taunggyi festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

The guide to Taunggyi on the Lonely Planet web site says: “Unless you’ve spent too much time in rural Shan State … there’s really little of interest here for the average visitor.”

Even Taunggyi native Dr Aye Aye Aung, an anthropology professor at Yangon University who is researching the festival, admits that her home town has little to offer tourists except for the one week in November devoted to the event.

But what a week it is. The daytime sky is aswarm with inflated fish, roosters, cows, monkeys and other creatures, judged for their realism and creativity, and at dusk, the firemasters parade through town to the launching field to light up the night until dawn.

The 30-foot nya meegyi balloons float into air before launching up to 104 kilograms of handmade explosives, and the sein na pan candle balloons rely on the crowd to help light the radiant designs borne on metal racks and the flame-resistant balloon surface.

The candle balloons are especially popular with corporate sponsors. Dr Aye Aye Aung recalls a recent entry from Cherry Oo Watch Gallery featuring an enormous glowing clock. It was a stunning work of art, she said, but stunningly expensive.

“Our traditions are more important than money,” she said.

The balloons she watched as a little girl were launched from the town centre and were quietly beautiful offerings of light to the heavenly Sularmani Pagoda. The festival site has been moved three times in the last ten years to accommodate the growing number of entries. Backed by hefty corporate sponsorships, top contenders have abandoned traditional firework ingredients for high-tech imported components, while veteran  firemasters and young challengers spend tens of millions of kyat trying to out-dazzle each other.

“There is not a limit to what they will do,” Dr Aye Aye Aung continued. More than 100 balloons are launched each year, and she shudders to think about the amount spent on what will end up as piles of ash in the Shan hills.

“Successful balloons, unsuccessful balloons, all balloons burn,” she said. “But this is our tradition.”

Scenes from the festival grounds in 2014. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Scenes from the festival grounds in 2014. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

The prime viewing spot is directly under the fire balloons, whose rockets fire in every direction but up.

“I love to stand as close as I can and then run away from the fireworks. That’s my favorite part,” said Daw Wai Wai Thaung, wife of firemaster U Than Zaw.

U Than Zaw’s balloon, called Guru, which he built with his four adult sons, won first prize last year. He is without doubt the best firemaster in Myanmar, as long as it’s U Than Zaw you’re asking.

“Anyone else who says they’re the best is lying. They have their talk, but I have these,” he said, indicating a shelf full of first prize trophies.

The awards shared a room with piles of parchment and bamboo rods for his latest masterwork. Judges will scrutinise the aesthetics and performance of the balloon and its fireworks display, which should detonate at an elevation of 300 feet and last at least 40 minutes. U Than Zaw has been a firemaster for 40 years, and his pyrotechnical prowess is renowned throughout Myanmar.

On the night of October 31, Khun Tan was airborne and launching its payload when, as if cut from a rope, it dropped onto the crowd, pinning team members and spectators. Ko Khun Thi Han and another firemaster darted into the inferno and hoisted the bamboo frame long enough for the victims to escape while flames scorched their arms and faces and rockets burst against their bodies. They both died a week later.

Nevertheless, his new balloon will carry a system of rockets and fuses as complex as it is delicate. It will also be totally untested until it is floating above the multitudes, where balloons great and small answer to no one but Fate.

“Ours couldn’t even fly last year because of strong winds,” said firemaster U Khin Maung Chit, drinking tea with two teammates at the bus station he runs in downtown Taunggyi. They keep images of winning balloons from days past on the office wall, and insist their own balloon’s grounding was the only reason Guru won first place last year.

Random gusts of wind capsize airborne balloons, explained U Khin Maung Chit, 53. Stray rockets punch holes in the paper, or the balloon overfills and ruptures. Sometimes the burner goes out, or the kerosene tank catches fire. Any of these events can send even the best creation down like a tiny Hindenburg. For U Khin Maung Chit, the worst catastrophe is when the fireworks fail to ignite and the team must look on as their opus drifts philosophically into the night.

On the other hand, when everything goes perfectly and they see their balloon rise into the night: “It’s this feeling inside…I really can’t describe it.”

A teammate cuts in, the oldest of the three.

“When you have a new child,” he said. “That is what it feels like.”

A reveller at the Taunggyi balloon festival. Scenes from the festival grounds in 2014. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

A reveller at the Taunggyi balloon festival. Scenes from the festival grounds in 2014. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Ko Khun Thi Han thought balloons were pure magic. His family didn’t go every year – his mum and sisters found them noisy and unsettling – but when they did, he always made them stay for just one more balloon, and then one more. By his early twenties he was making his own balloons.  At last year’s festival he launched a nya meegyi, called Khun Tan.

On the night of October 31, Khun Tan was airborne and launching its payload when, as if cut from a rope, it dropped onto the crowd, pinning team members and spectators. Ko Khun Thi Han and another firemaster darted into the inferno and hoisted the bamboo frame long enough for the victims to escape while flames scorched their arms and faces and rockets burst against their bodies. They both died a week later.

That week saw four people killed and 12 hospitalised, and the festival was cut short. Most blamed unseasonable storms, though some said events were cursed from the start when a woman was electrocuted in a haunted house decorated for Halloween.

“No festival was ever like that before,” said U Khin Maung Chit.

Normally things are safe, he said: the entire fire department stands guard, and the community of firemasters holds one another accountable. He insisted the incident only proved the honour and bravery of the men who keep the tradition alive.

Still, no festival is without casualties. U Than Zaw’s son, Ko Ahkar Win, suffered burns to the eye one year, and in 2010 their house burned down when a gunpowder store ignited. The house has been rebuilt and Ko Akhay Win is still on the family team.

To U Than Zaw, the danger doesn’t harm tradition. It is tradition.

“It is no different than the running of the bulls in Spain,” he said. “People have a deep longing to be close to peril. It makes them feel alive.”

The only people in harm’s way gleefully put themselves there, U Than Zaw argued. He said the wind always carries the balloons eastward over the uninhabited hills, never to the shops and houses that overlook the launch site.

Even a man whose shop stands at the very edge of the launch field claimed the balloons are no looming phantasmagoria, but a yearly delight for the whole neighbourhood. (Its name, incidentally, means “big luck.”)

Sofia Nyuntwai, who works at a local hospital, agrees. “There are no burning houses,” she said. “Only burning people.”

One of them was her brother, Ko Khun Thi Han.

She and her sister Susan were abroad when he died, leaving their widowed mother alone during her son’s final week in the hospital. The women didn’t think much of the balloons before. Now they can’t even bear to look at one.

Copious amounts of alcohol are consumed at the Taunggyi festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Copious amounts of alcohol are consumed at the Taunggyi festival. (Jeroen de Bakker / Frontier)

Daw Nyuntwai does not want the festival to end. But she said it needs more security, tougher regulations and better weather monitoring. She simply doesn’t understand how drunk, shell-shocked hordes can be allowed onto the launching field to distract team members, loiter in the line of fire and trample one another in a blind panic.

It is beyond negligent, she said. “It’s crazy.”

Dr Aye Aye Aung has made safety the focus of her research. “I agree it is dangerous, but what are the dangerous parts?” she said.

When we spoke, the professor was planning a fact-finding mission to South Korea, which conducts its own pyrotechnical jaunts, such as the Jeju Field-Burning Festival, with comparatively little carnage. “If we can find out and fill in the blank spaces, we can make it safe and still have our traditions.”

Dr Nyuntwai regrets that her brother became involved in balloon making, but she is proud of his courage. And despite the small stab of pain when she hears the distant sound of a rocket or sees a snapshot from the event on her Facebook feed, she hopes Taunggyi Balloon Festival will continue sending its paper offerings toward Heaven.

“I am the one who sacrificed,” she said. “But it is our tradition. I am proud of it.”

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