Taunggyi Balloon Festival launches with new safety measures

There’s less firepower and more crowd control at the Taunggyi balloon festival to make it safer for spectators and participants.

Organisers of the annual Taunggyi Balloon Festival that kicked off Wednesday have imposed stricter safety regulations in an attempt to reverse the event’s reputation for injury and death.

The week-long festival, in which unmanned hot-air balloons detonate hundreds of kilograms of handmade fireworks above excited — and often intoxicated — spectators, led to a dozen serious injuries and four deaths last year.

This time around, the maximum firepower has been reduced and spectators will not be allowed within 100 feet of the launching balloons, said Dr U Than Win of the event’s Central Planning Committee.

“We are implementing all measures in strict accordance with [Shan State] government mandates,” he said.

In addition, vendor carts and tents have been moved back to allow people more space to escape in case of an emergency.

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The event, in which hundreds of dazzling candle and fireworks balloons launch throughout the night, celebrating the end of Kahtein (Buddhist lent), is famously beautiful and notoriously dangerous. The balloons, many around 30 feet tall, often launch their payloads too early or crash into the crowds below.

Among other accidents, last year two team members were fatally burned while lifting their own fallen creation off several spectators it had pinned to the ground. Balloon teams blamed unseasonably strong winds for the chaos.

Dr U Than Win has been designing his own balloons for more than 40 years, a role he passed on to his sons in order to organize the festivities. When asked if former carnage was due to mismanagement or misfortune, he replied: “The answer is both.”

In light of the recent violence in Shan State, the event will also see ramped-up security by military and local law enforcement, including a CCTV surveillance system and surveillance checkpoints around the launch site.

“The viewers are coming with the expectation to see a one-of-a-kind festival that does not compare to anything in any other country, and we want them enjoy it to the fullest,” Dr U Than Win said.


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