Lucky for me I happened to be in the right place at the right time to experience the immense ballooning production that is the Taunggyi Balloon Festival.
It happens every year after the Buddist lent which is around the end of October/beginning November, celebrating the end of the rainy season.
Taunggyi balloon festival dates for 2017 have not yet been announced, but are likely to be 28th October – 4th November 2017 as it usually coincides with the first full moon after Buddhist Lent ends.
If you happen to be around Inle Lake/Nyaung Shwe when this is on you should not think twice about visiting this amazing festival. It was one of the highlights of my trip. In fact even if you are not at Inle Lake at the right time I would try and plan to be there.
From Inle Lake the easiest thing to do it ask your hotel/guesthouse or at travel agents if they have arranged transport to the festival and back. Likelyhood is, they have! My guesthouse had arranged for a pick-up that allowed for 20 people (so get in quick!) that left Nyaung Shwe for 8pm and including a pick up back from Taunggyi at 1am. Total cost $12 per person. Yes it sounds a lot, and it is overpriced, however you won’t get a better deal. After traipsing round town all evening looking for a better deal, there was not one to be had unless there was a large group travelling who could split a whole pick-up between them.
BEWARE: if you are late for the pick up, they WILL go without you. We left 2 people at the festival who didn’t make it back to the pick-up on time.
What is Taunggyi?
Taunggyi is the capital of Shan state, a town in the mountains north of Inle Lake, It is a winding, curvy approx. 1 hour trip from Nyaung Shwe in a pick-up truck, although during the balloon festival, you can add an extra hour or more to the trip due to traffic that builds up heavily up the mountain.
For most of the year it is a quiet, nothing to see town, but for 7 days in late autumn it becomes a crazy flurry of food, music, hot air balloons and thousands upon thousands of people looking to have fun. It basically becomes a giant funfair/carnival.
… and this Balloon Festival? What’s that about?
The Taunggyi Balloon Festival is a 7 day celebration that goes on all day and almost all night for different villages and families from all over the area to show off their hot air balloons.
The festival is flooded with young people from Myanmar’s middle class, drinking, eating, socialising and just having a good time.
The closest modern day attraction I can describe it to would be a fair ground, with stalls where you throw a basketball in a hoop to win prizes (I won a Gin and Coke) , candy floss style sweets, fried food, a ferris wheel (a MANUAL one, more on this later!). The only big difference would be that there was a field full of hundreds of people setting off gigantic hot air balloons.
Fireworks launching into the crowd as a Balloon goes up
The hot air balloon competition goes on all day long till late at night. During the day it is the ‘kids’ show with mostly big hot air balloon raising towards the sky in different shapes , e.g. pigeons, cows, parrots,… during the night, things take a turn and the locals attach fireworks to their balloons and turn them into stunning, but sometimes dangerous skybombs.
It is wonderfully chaotic, western health and safety standards would go into absolute melt down and there are many many injuries and even fatalities, when I was there 2 people died. So the safety aspect should not be overlooked, just because everyone else is running toward the fireworks, does not mean you should follow!
The festival consisted of mainly local middle-class Myanmar teens and young adults, bar a handful a drunken backpackers who found some 90’s music to dance to, this seemed to be a hilarious highlight for the locals who were watching and many many selfies with the ‘crazy foreigners’ were taken. It was an atmosphere of happiness and acceptance and fun.
Check out the only other tourists who we saw at Taunggyi, who in the end became a couple of my best travel friends. Watch to the end for the curious locals…
The most wonderful part of the festival is the normality. You, as a tourist in Myanmar, get used to going from tourist hotspot to tourist hotspot on the gringo trail and getting ready to pay at each check point. But here, it was different. We were treated exactly the same as anybody else, we didn’t even have to pay extra for anything, and the festival is free to enter. We blended in (kindof) and got to have the same experience as the other people who where enjoying themselves.
For a more indepth timetable of what is happening each day at the Taunggyi Balloon Festival and for another crazy video showing the moment one of the firework balloons was sent up into the sky, check out my other blog post here.