{ } Bap­tism of Fire

WITH EX­PLOD­ING FIRE­WORKS SHOW­ER­ING CROWDS IN SPARKS AND SOME­TIMES FLAME, THE TAUNG­GYI FIRE BAL­LOON FES­TI­VAL IS NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED!

Asian Geographic - - South East Asia -

The

mas­sive pa­per hot-air bal­loon, adorned with tra­di­tional Myan­mar im­agery and car­ry­ing a hun­dred kilo­grams of ex­plo­sives was sup­posed to as­cend into the heav­ens and fill the night sky with daz­zling light. In­stead, it ex­ploded nine me­tres above our heads, un­leash­ing a bliz­zard of blue and white and red fire­balls into a field of 10,000 peo­ple.

Hun­dreds fled. Oth­ers laughed and cheered. I just stood there, mes­merised, un­til some­one grabbed my arm and told me (if my trans­la­tion was cor­rect!) to “run like hell”.

The mal­func­tion­ing fire­works­bear­ing bal­loon was not the first to ex­plode pre­ma­turely that night, nor would it be the last. A few min­utes later, ev­ery­one was back in the grounds, hav­ing taken the op­por­tu­nity to fetch a fresh beer or skewer of meat.

myan­mar The mal­func­tion­ing fire­works-bear­ing bal­loon was not the first of the night to ex­plode pre­ma­turely, nor would it be the last

This fes­ti­val is held around the full moon of Taza­ung­mon, mark­ing the end of the rainy sea­son; it is also some­times re­ferred to as the Taza­ung­daing Fes­ti­val of Lights. The tra­di­tion of hot-air bal­loon com­pe­ti­tions was in­spired by the Bri­tish in the late 19th cen­tury.

Other than the Taung­gyi Bal­loon Fes­ti­val, which is held in late au­tumn to cel­e­brate the end of kathein, there is lit­tle else in the way of tourist ap­peal in Taung­gyi, a sleepy hill sta­tion in north­east­ern Myan­mar.

Dur­ing this week-long event, the day­time sky swarms with gi­ant pa­per birds, cows, dogs, di­nosaurs and other an­i­mals. At dusk, the meesaya – the “fire masters” – march in a pa­rade to the cer­e­mo­nial launch­ing ground to fill the night with daz­zling py­rotech­nic dis­plays and ra­di­ant air­borne mu­rals com­posed of thou­sands of tiny can­dles.

Of all the fes­ti­val’s air­borne de­lights, the me­e­gyi (fire­works bal­loons), which carry home­made rock­ets on bam­boo cages, are the most pop­u­lar – and they are also the most dif­fi­cult to cre­ate. Teams of fire masters spend much of the year de­sign­ing and build­ing their bal­loon, us­ing gen­er­a­tions-old se­crets to mix gun­pow­der, weave com­plex fuse sys­tems, and paint flame-re­sis­tant pa­per with im­ages of lo­tus blos­soms, tem­ples, an­gels, or the Bud­dha. If all goes well, the un­manned ap­pa­ra­tuses will rise to around 120 me­tres be­fore launch­ing a halfhour fire­works dis­play, earn­ing the win­ning team glory (and a cash prize).

But it does not al­ways go well, as U Than Zaw, Taung­gyi’s self-de­clared top fire mas­ter with more than 40 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in launch­ing bal­loons, ex­plains. A bal­loon might fire early, bathing the crowd in flame; a stray mor­tar might ig­nite the pa­per; the kerosene burner might go out; the bal­loon could be­come over-full and burst; the bam­boo bas­ket might catch fire, com­bust­ing a half-hour’s worth of fire­works into one great su­per­nova.

At dusk, the meesaya – the “fire masters” – march in a pa­rade to the cer­e­mo­nial launch­ing ground to fill the night with daz­zling py­rotech­nic dis­plays and ra­di­ant air­borne mu­rals

left Fire­mas­ters fill a bal­loon with hot air be­fore launch

right Light­ing the hun­dreds of can­dles of a sein na pan bal­loon

bot­tom A suc­cess­ful send-up re­quires del­i­cate work by a dozen or more team mem­bers

But for U Khin Maung Chit (who also claims to be the top fire mas­ter in Taung­gyi), the big­gest dis­as­ter comes when a bal­loon’s fire­works fail to ig­nite at all, and the team must watch their work drift silently, gloomily, into the dark­ness. “That’s what re­ally crushes you – when you do all that work and you don’t even get to see it,” he says. “It’s bet­ter when it burns and crashes.”

That the bal­loons crash above thou­sands – some­times tens of thou­sands – of fans doesn’t seem to bother Khin Maung Chit. There are a few in­juries each year, but he in­sists that the com­pe­ti­tion is (more or less) safe, with emer­gency crews stand­ing by. The com­mu­nity of fire masters holds it­self re­spon­si­ble for fol­low­ing the rules and reg­u­la­tions.

Than Zaw also ap­pears to be un­fazed, de­spite the fact that his last home burned down af­ter his stored fire­works ig­nited and set fire to it. More­over, one of his four sons suf­fered burns to his face and head while

launch­ing a bal­loon for the fam­ily team. For Than Zaw, the danger is half the fun. “It is no dif­fer­ent than the run­ning of the bulls in Spain,” he says. “Peo­ple have a deep long­ing to be close to peril. It makes them feel alive.”

Taung­gyi na­tive Dr Aye Aye Aung, an an­thro­pol­o­gist at Yan­gon University who has stud­ied the fes­ti­val tra­di­tion, does not buy into the fire mas­ter mys­tique with the same devil-may-care en­thu­si­asm. She de­scribes a cul­ture of machismo that pushes fire masters to pour vast sums of money into one­up­ping each other with big­ger – and riskier – dis­plays.

The bal­loons have a weight limit, but teams are be­gin­ning to aban­don tra­di­tional tech­niques, and are turn­ing to high-tech im­ported com­pounds to get more bang for their kilo­gram. “There is not a limit to what they will do,” says Aye Aye Aung.

The fes­ti­val, which be­gan in the 1950s, was not al­ways ex­trav­a­gant. Aye Aye Aung re­calls her fam­ily launch­ing their own mod­est lantern from the town square as an of­fer­ing to the heav­enly Su­lar­mani Pagoda. To­gether, the town would fill the sky with small, beau­ti­ful lights. To­day’s event fea­tures more than 100 large fire bal­loons each year, and the launch­ing ground has been moved three times in the last decade to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing crowd and mer­chant tents, car­ni­val rides, concert stages and party pavil­ions erected by the coun­try’s big­gest brands.

Cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships don’t en­cour­age re­straint from the fire masters, ar­gues Aye Aye Aung. Even the gen­tler sein na pan bal­loons, which carry works of art com­posed of thou­sands of in­di­vid­ual can­dles, of­ten fea­ture lo­gos. “Our tra­di­tions are more im­por­tant than money,” she says.

To­day’s event fea­tures more than 100 large fire bal­loons each year, and the launch­ing ground has been moved three times in the last decade to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing crowd

The night­time fire bal­loons steal the show, but for a safer al­ter­na­tive, head to the launch­ing ground dur­ing day­light hours to see a con­stant pa­rade of pa­per cows, dogs, roost­ers, di­nosaurs and other an­i­mals take to the skies.

A sein na pan can­dle bal­loon lifts a fiery mu­ral into the air

Top right Can­dle bal­loons are the favourite of cor­po­rate spon­sors bot­tom right For many spec­ta­tors, the ex­cite­ment of a crash­ing fire bal­loon is half the fun

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