TAUNGGYI — Tens of thousands of people gathered in the Shan State capital last week for the annual balloon festival to mark the Buddhist celebration Tazaungdaing, also known as the festival of lights.
Each November, teams of locals launch homemade hot air balloons of paper and bamboo in an eight-day competition that concludes on the night of the full moon, which his year fell on Sunday.
The ancient festival marks the end of Kahtein, where robes are given to Buddhist monks. Although the annual balloon competition was reportedly introduced by the British during the colonial era, the practice is also considered an offering of light to Buddhist spirits.
During the day, balloons shaped like animals are launched, and a fairground runs at the site of the festival—a field on the outskirts of the mountaintop town of Taunggyi.
At night, events take on a sense of danger. Streams of people rush into the field for the main event. The teams of locals—cheered on by drums, dancing and chanting—launch their balloons with torches, at the last minute attaching a battery of fireworks or decorative candles.
The crowd looks on at the awesome rise of the balloon, and an airborne pyrotechnics display presumably costing thousands of dollars in fireworks. Sometimes dozens of individual candles fall slowly to ground with tiny parachutes. Often, however, the launch does not go as planned, and the balloon catches fire, descending rapidly to the ground and sending the crowds fleeing from a fireball.