Threading through traffic, the motorist follows what appears to be a familiar path for him. The road grows rugged and I grip his shoulders for balance as we approach the edge of the festival grounds. Here between the dark outlines of the Sittaung Hills that stand sentinel to Taunggyi—the multicultural capital of Myanmar’s Shan State—I was about to witness the final few days of the Tazaungdaing Hot Air Balloon Festival.
Deeper into the festival grounds, the crowd thickens. Boys and girls in Myanmar Lager t-shirts shake their legs to music as an announcer gestures excitedly at the sky where the drama is set to unfold. At the centre of the ground a group of men in matching uniforms position a lit torch underneath the maw of a giant balloon, whose skin expands and tightens.
* * *
I have come to this northeastern part of Myanmar to meet a man who launches exploding balloons into the sky for sport. Tha Nge, a 39-year-old musician, grew up in Taunggyi. “I’ve been a part of the festival all my life,” he tells me. His team of friends, mostly musicians and pyrotechnicians, call themselves Gita. For the past few years, they have been building balloons themselves, mastering both the preparation and the launch. The tradition, of course, significantly predates them. For centuries, the Tazaungdaing festival, which marks the end of Myanmar’s monsoon season, has been taking place around the appearance of the first full moon night of Tazaungmone—the eighth month of the country’s traditional calendar. With ties to Buddhist and Hindu cosmology, the act of releasing homemade balloons decorated with candles and fireworks is said to ward off evil spirits.
The dynamic of the competition, however, has more recent, colonial origins. In 1894, less than a decade after the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War, British officials stationed in Taunggyi organised the first-ever balloon competition. Although the British hold gradually weakened, the competition retained its popularity, and was eventually assimilated into the annual festivities. Now, every November, about 300 balloons take to Taunggyi’s skies for roughly a week, hustling for the attention of thousands of roaring spectators and some hawk-eyed judges.
True to its grand scale, the balloon festival has forged fierce loyalties. While the daytime activities feature weaving contests and friendlier, animal-shaped balloons called ayoke, night signals a marked increase in tension with the appearance of the two main types of balloons: sein na pan, adorned with candles and lanterns, and nya mee gyi, retrofitted with a payload of fireworks. Each team has a limited window in which they transport, expand, inflate, and launch their balloon. The judges, for their part, assign value (and points) to aesthetic creativity, calculated flight trajectories, and efficiency in execution.
Tha Nge tells me of a time when teams, most of whom suffer low profit margins, would “drum up excitement and ask for donations within their neighbourhood.” However, as the festival grew in popularity, so did its commercial interests. A 30-foot balloon ablaze in the sky commands the attention of tens of thousands, and local advertisers are aware of this opportunity. In between hand-painted renditions of beautiful Buddhist visuals appear balloons printed with the branding of telecom companies and energy drinks. “They’re kind of shit,” Tha Nge grimaces. “You can tell which balloons are made with care—you can always tell.”
Gita builds its balloons with patterned fireworks, starting months before the night of the launch. By June, parts of the team have already begun stuffing gunpowder into the 10,000 paper canisters that will line the frame of the balloon’s exploding payload. By September, a special variety of homemade Shan paper is ordered, arriving in the form of thousands of small rectangular pieces, from which the best 1,200 are selected and glued together to form the skin of the balloon. The body is painstakingly painted. Then it is tested for holes using smoke from burning bamboo bark, manipulated to produce little to no soot so as to not stain the artwork. Finally, the fireworks are individually loaded onto a bamboo frame. At this stage, spacing is key; every centimetre translates to a second in the air. Underneath the perceptible design of the painted balloon, hides the invisible calculus of handmade fuses, circuits, and loaded paper canisters.
* * *
It is three in the morning and the field has been cleared for the final exploding balloon of the night. A brief shower has cleared the sky of smoke, the once-milky night is now jet black. The final team charges over the wooden parapet that divides the spectators from the launching ground: amid the chaos of street vendors, running children, and standby ambulances, a flamboyant choreography unfolds. Twenty pairs of hands grip the rim of the balloon, lifting it above their shoulders and slowly stepping backwards, expanding its circumference. Four burners rush in, hooking a growing flame to the rig at the centre of the balloon’s base. First slowly, then all at once, the balloon inflates, exhibiting its stunning colors and scale: an enormous Buddha enrobed in an emerald shawl. As the balloon reaches capacity, eight more team members roll in the payload, hooking its frame into place.
Only one step remains. The lead pyrotechnician walks calmly to the rim of the floating giant, and clutches the payload’s frame. Every calculation made over the last few months hangs on this moment. If the payload is too heavy for the balloon, it won’t gain enough height before the canisters ignite, endangering the lives of hundreds directly below it. From where I’m standing, the risk feels real. In 2017, an exploding balloon crashed into a petrified crowd, injuring twelve spectators and killing one. The pyrotechnician closes his eyes and bounces the frame in a near-playful manner, sensing the weight and the wind. On his signal, the ropes are released and the payload lit. The entire field holds its breath as the balloon climbs and climbs and climbs to the height of its first explosive break.
In a few seconds, at a height of about 100 metres, the exiled balloon becomes the centre of a dazzling show. Gashes of light cut through the black night like razors, exploding celestially at their tips. Simultaneously, ropes of cracking fire fall from the payload’s base, some burning until they hit the ground. The team near me jumps in celebration, their success sweeter for the communal wonder of the spectators around them.
Gita, unfortunately, wasn’t destined for victory this year. The next night, at the back of a bar and the bottom of a glass of whisky, I ask Tha Nge why he keeps at it. He tells me a story. In 2017, four days before launch day, a set of loaded canisters exploded in the hands of one of Gita’s pyrotechnicians, giving him severe gunpowder burns. “He was in intensive care, holding onto his life, waiting for his balloon to go up,” Tha Nge recounts. The winds were especially unstable that year and contestants struggled to get a clear launch trajectory.
In his last moments, the pyrotechnician gazed out the window of his hospital room, miles from the festival grounds. “The wind has died down,” he said, “we’ll be okay.” Gita managed a successful launch that year. The team is currently working on a documentary to honour the legacy of their late friend.
Tha Nge finishes his whisky and lights a cigarette. “You have to be really crazy to be in this business,” he says.