TAUNGGYI, Shan State — Floating fire balloons and colorful fireworks will light up the skies of the Shan State capital Taunggyi this month during the annual eight-day Tazaungdaing festival which runs from Oct. 30 to Nov. 6.
Tens of thousands of spectators will flood into the town from near and far to see the fire balloon competition, the main attraction of this unique event, also known as the Festival of Lights. Each year, more than one hundred fire balloons of various shapes, sizes and designs are floated up into the sky to mark the end of Kahtein, where robes are offered to Buddhist monks.
The wonderful spectacle is not without its critics, who cite the millions of kyat spent on homemade fire balloons and fireworks as wasteful. It can also be seriously dangerous, with falling balloons and stray fireworks often causing fires that send onlookers scrambling for safety. Most accidents occur, however, during the making of the fireworks. In one tragic incident two years ago, four people lost their lives.
A few days before the 2012 festival, Sai Aung Myo and five of his friends gathered at his home to prepare fireworks using gun powder, sulfur, magnesium, paper and bamboo sticks. Most of the fireworks were to be installed on the bamboo frame at the base of the fire balloons. Another friend was testing a small rocket, their homemade creation, outside the house. When the rocket was lit, instead of heading skyward, it veered directly into a room where Sai Aung Myo’s five friends were working, igniting the gun powder and other incendiary materials.
“It was so fast. No one knows how the rocket entered the room through a very narrow opening of the door. The fire broke out after a small blast and the house was burned down. All five of our friends were rushed to hospital with serious burns,” 26-year-old Sai Aung Myo recalled.
Four of his friends died, day after day, one by one, after several days in hospital. The only survivor, who suffered burns to almost 80 percent of his body, is still receiving medical treatment.
Sai Aung Myo, who was a balloon master and leader of the HninThauk team, faced trial over the deaths but was spared from imprisonment. He remains grateful for the kindness and understanding of the families of the deceased, the fire balloon festival committee and local authorities.
“I have to thank them all for understanding that the incident was just an accident and not intentional,” Sai Aung Myo said. “We were so saddened after losing our friends in this tragedy that we decided not to do another balloon,” he added, his eyes wet with tears.
However, the former team leader who, like many other Taunggyi residents, remains passionate about fire balloons, returned to the festival in 2013 as a jury member, assessing the designs of competing balloons.
“I have no energy to build a fire balloon without my friends. I still feel bad for [them] and still remember their suffering faces. In the meantime, the jury committee invited me to participate… Since I still can’t break [from my passion for] fire balloons, I decided to be part of the jury team,” he said.
Accidental fires often occur before the festival, when teams are preparing homemade fireworks. About seven years ago, balloon master Sai Kyi Thein’s garage caught fire while some of his team members were preparing fireworks.
“Suddenly there was an explosion and the person who was mixing chemicals was lifted off the ground due to the force of the explosion. His brother and others who were close to him received serious burns. The brother survived but two others sadly died after a few days. The house was left intact but the garage remains a pile of ashes,” said Sai Kyi Thein, now a balloon master on the Nga Pyin team.
“Ko Naing, whose arms and chest were burned, gave up fire balloons because they reminded him of his younger brother. However, he does visit the festival ground, enjoys the fireworks and always encourages us to be careful,” he added.
Ko Nyan Lin, a balloon master with the Ozone, Thudanu and Sidawgyi teams, lost a child due to a fire balloon-related accident. His second child, who was just a few days old, died two years ago due to lead poisoning.
“We used lead to create silver colored fireworks. My wife was heavily pregnant when we prepared those fireworks and when my son was born, he died after a few days. The blood test showed a high content of lead in his blood,” Ko Nyan Lin said.
A lack of research and knowledge about the making of fireworks is partly to blame for a string of deadly accidents. Young people, who are practicing the traditional way of mixing chemicals to create homemade fireworks, primarily rely on information passed down to them or obtained from the Internet.
“If we are allowed, we would like to have a small lab in which we could test and research the [different] chemical reactions. Then we would be able to prevent accidents and the traditional techniques for creating fireworks would be improved in the future,” Ko Nyan Lin said.
The fire balloon competition has three categories in which balloons are launched both during the day and night. During the day, huge balloons called ‘Ayoke’ adorned with colorful animal figures are released. At night, balloons are decorated with fireworks (Nya MeeGyi) and with candlelit lanterns (Sein Na Pan).
The latter are a favorite among spectators and earn the highest rewards. This year, first prize for the Nya MeeGyi balloons category is 45 million kyat (roughly US$45,380). But when the cost of making one of these balloons varies from at least 30-80 million kyat, it’s not about the money, but the beauty of their creation and design.
“Since the festival is all about offering the light to Buddha and the Sularmani Pagoda, which is said to be built in heaven, we made these balloons to offer the best we have [with our] skills, time and money,” Ko Nyan Lin explained.
These days, the fire balloons of Taunggyi have become increasingly popular and some other towns and cities across the country hire the teams from Taunggyi to make the Nya Mee Gyi fire balloons for certain Buddhist religious festivals.
Some teams from Taunggyi have travelled to Pyin Oo Lwin, a hill station town near Mandalay, to participate in the town’s famous pagoda festival, which falls at the same time as Taunggyi’sTazaungdaing. However, the teams complained that the atmosphere of the town was lacking and the festival less lively than in Taunggyi.
“It was all about winning the prize and the money,” said Ko Nyan Lin, who once competed at the festival in Pyin Oo Lwin. “In Taunggyi, where the festival committee is completely under the control of the town’s elders… the competition is all about unity, friendship, love and peace. We never fight but always help the other teams since we are preparing the fire balloons three months before the festival.”
For the fire balloon lovers of Taunggyi, nothing can overcome their passion for the making and viewing of these homemade balloons. “Sometimes, we feel sad after the accidents and health problems. But our minds are so focused on the fire balloons that the sorrows in losing our homes and loved ones spectacularly fade away. The passion over the fire balloon is deeply rooted in us like a virus,” said U Than Zaw, a veteran fire balloon master and a jury member whose home was burned down in 2010.
“This virus, the love virus over the fire balloons festival, the Tazaungdaing virus, will die only after we die.”
This article first appeared in the November 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.