Taunggyi, Festival

The bus ride from Yangon to Taunggyi was an education in Third World roads and transportation. Most North Americans would see that the distance from Yangon to Taunggyi was 700 km and assume that the bus would take about eight hours. This is because we haven't travelled much in the Third World. I knew that we were to leave at noon and arrive at 9:00 AM the next day. What I wasn't prepared for was a rock fall in the hills about 20 miles from Kalaw (50 miles from our destination). At 4:00 AM we came to a complete halt (having never topped 60 km/h on the very potholed roads) behind a long line of trucks and buses, where we were to sit for 12 hours. It rained most of the day, so we were mostly confined to the bus. I had had the sense to pack a lot of water ... but no food. But people offered me food, so I didn't starve. There was a young man that I met, perhaps 18, who spoke some English and was very friendly. He kept me informed about what little information we received. He also told me that in fact the bus didn't go to Taunggyi, but stopped eight miles short ... When we arrived, he said "come with me, my parents pick me up." So at 9:00 PM I got a ride in a big new Nissan Diesel truck with his extended family, and they delivered me right to the guest house I wanted to stay at.

The kindness people have shown me on this trip has astounded me. There have been several times where I would have been lost (sometimes quite literally) without their help.

To forestall those who might warn me about scammers and con artists, I've already had a prank played on me (no money lost, just a bit of pride) and I pay very close attention to circumstances before I accept offers of assistance.

I considered going to Mandalay before Taunggyi, because Taunggyi is currently in the middle of a very popular festival and I was afraid that I'd be unable to get a room. I did find a room at my chosen guest house, although it has a shared bathroom with cold shower only - the latter is incredibly bracing in the cool morning mountain air!

But it's all worth it, because the festival is fantastic. Depending on who you ask, this is either "The Festival of Light(s)" or the "Fire Balloon Festival." The latter is more accurate, but doesn't begin to cover the carnival atmosphere or the sheer beauty of the balloons that are launched.

To get to the balloon launches you have to walk several hundred meters of avenue lined with vendors, selling clothing, fake Ray-Bans, all kinds of carnival food (Myanma style, some of it quite good, all greasy), Thanakha wood (used for makeup), miniature impromptu bars, betel vendors, and lots of other stuff. There is, of course, a strip with carnival gambling which is pretty much exactly the same as it is all over the world: put your money on the number, the wheel spins or the dice roll, and your money goes away. Then you find the launch field, already a mud pit on day two of the seven day festival. There's also a "VIP" box, guarded by the military. I'm a VIP simply by virtue of my foreignness, which is both disturbing and wonderful. The festival is extremely popular with Burmese tourists, but there are very few westerners here so the VIP platform was fairly uncrowded.

But the balloons ... During the day they launch huge multi-coloured paper balloons in the shape of animals (birds are commonest, but elephants and others are also flying). These things are about six meters tall, and have a burner in a bottom hole that consists of what I think is tar-covered rope wrapped around a bamboo frame. It burns for a long time and is very hard to put out, even with several buckets of water. Every launch is prefaced with a great deal of dancing and banging of drums by the team. If the launch goes badly, things get even more interesting: one I saw didn't get enough lift and a breeze took it into the nearby power lines, where it immediately incinerated itself in a matter of seconds. The resident fire truck hosed down the remains (including the makeshift roof of the vendor shed underneath). But if the launch goes well, we have a huge beautiful animal sailing majestically up into the sky, where it creates a surreal sight floating over the gorgeous hills and monasteries of Taunggyi.

The computer I'm at has no USB, so I have no pictures for you. They can't do justice to the magic, but I'll try to post a couple later.

The people in the afternoon are just amateurs compared to the ones that come out in the evening. They bring even larger balloons (more classically shaped, no animals), but they decorate them with lights. And fireworks. The lights are candles: as the balloon fills, the team quickly hooks sets of candles in brackets that hold the flame away from the balloon. The candles are arranged in patterns, usually Burmese letters, sometimes images. It gets even better: once the balloon is full and straining at the ropes, they bring out a basket/undercarriage that is quickly attached. With my favourite launch, this consisted of thousands of multi-coloured candles. Once the balloon took off, it started shedding candles, each on its own miniature paper parachute. It sailed up, leaving a trail of slowly descending candles in red, blue, yellow, orange, and green ... It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

This one was followed by a balloon with a basket full of fireworks - this arrangement is fairly common, but this one started launching the fireworks a little too early, and a little too downwards. The huge crowd on the field was rained in sparks, chunks of burning stuff, and rockets. Suddenly I was even more happy to be a "VIP," and it occurred that making foreigners VIPs might be enlightened self-interest on the part of the city government as we had a corrugated roof overhead. This chaotic mess was beautiful, hilarious, and scary all at once. It didn't seem to seriously injure anyone, and it certainly didn't dampen the party. Later, another fireworks balloon went up properly and it was breathtaking, sending off rockets and sparkly stuff for two or three minutes as it ascended. It even launched a paper airplane that made lazy near-perfect circles around the field ... and then started releasing sparkles as it continued to glide down.

I went to bed after 1:00 AM, and was awoken at 7:30 AM by the banging of drums in another parade just outside my window. I expect to be short on sleep for a while, but damn, it's worth it!