The Balloon Festival in Myanmar might be one of the coolest things I’ve ever been to. It was a such a crazy and unique experience, and one that I’ll never forget.
What is the Balloon Festival?
The Balloon Festival is a seven day celebration at the end of the rainy season, and culminates on the first full moon of the dry season. It is held just outside the town of Taunggyi, the capital of the Shan state, and is commonly called the Taunggyi Balloon Festival.
During the day it’s much like a state fair with carnival rides, booth games, and tons of street food. But at night the balloon competition is the main attraction. Groups of people, companies, and even entire villages from all over Myanmar create beautifully decorated balloons to send into the sky. Those balloons also have have fireworks attached to them where a basket would normally be, creating a sky high fireworks display.
When is the festival?
This years dates are 26th October – 3rd November 2017
The last night with the full moon is always the biggest party, it’s when we went and I’d recommend going that night if you have to pick one night to go.
Everything you need to know for visiting Myanmar
Experiencing the Balloon Festival
We’d heard about the Balloon Festival from someone at our hostel when we first got to Myanmar. It sounded awesome and like something we wanted to check out. We planned to be in Nyaung Shwe, a little town near Inle Lake around that time so we’d be able to go. The festival is about an hour drive away up the mountain, and our hostel had arranged for a van to take people. But after hearing that the van situation might be a bit over crowded, we decided to hire our own taxi. It was my boyfriend Rob, friend Lauren, and I, plus a fourth, a girl we’d met at the hostel in Bagan and happened to be staying at our same hostel in Nyaugn Shwe. Split between the four of us the taxi fare was quite reasonable and our driver would wait for us to drive us home as well.
We went the last night of the festival which also happened to coincide with the super moon, and the excitement in the air was palpable. The last night of the festival is usually the biggest party and largest balloon/fireworks display as well.
It was like a carnival, but Myanmar style
Walking in around dusk we wandered through tons of stalls selling all kinds of trinkets, carnival games to play, we even walked past a tattoo booth! Once we were inside the “fair grounds” it seemed like a typical county fair that we have in the US, but not quite.
The fair rides had no motors and were powered by people. We watched a group of guys, probably a little younger than us, climb up the ferris wheel. Then when the brake was released they began climbing up the structure to turn it, like a giant hamster wheel. These guys were acrobatic! They climbed and swung from the rungs of the wheel with such grace, and once it was going, one by one the would hop off when they got close to the ground.
The food stalls had all varieties of meat on a stick, I have no idea what any of them were, but they were all delicious. We sat in plastic chairs in the beer tents drinking cool Changs and ordering big bowls of noodle soup to help ward off the cold night air.
They also had some animal attractions that seemed a little sketchy. From what I could tell it looked like the attraction was watching monkeys fight each other over an alligator pit. We did not pay to see that, not wanting to support any kind of animal cruelty. However, I was kind of fascinated by the fact that it was a thing. I had always assumed that in general most kinds of animal attractions are only for tourists benefits and dollars, but there really weren’t any tourist there.
Hanging with the locals
The balloon festival is a huge celebration and people come from all over the country to socialize and party. It doesn’t seem to be widely known about outside of Myanmar, so we being westerners were definitely in the minority, by a long shot.
We ended up becoming sort of celebrities and people wanted to take their picture with us. At one point I kind of felt like a Disney Character with a line of people waiting to have their photo taken. It was kind of a surreal experience. Since we had a bit of a language barrier I can only guess that they wanted photos because we were different and they probably weren’t used to seeing white people. Although, one group of guys seemed convinced that Rob was a soccer player for Manchester United, so I’m sure that didn’t help.
The balloons & fireworks
The balloon competition started after it was fully dark out. What they were competing for, or what the rules were, I have no idea, but the balloons sure were epic looking. They began filling the first balloon, to do this a bunch of guys stuck what were essentially giant torches inside the balloon the heat up the air and light a flame inside. Once the balloon had enough hot air to lift off they let it go and lit the fireworks. It flew into the sky with a brilliant explosion of fireworks. It was beautiful. Until the balloon caught fire and came crashing down into a beer tent. No one was hurt and there was a fire truck right there to take care of it.
We saw around 12 to 15 balloons that night, most of them soaring into the sky with their fireworks making for a beautiful display. But there were a few times that the launch didn’t go so well.
A couple of times the balloon didn’t really get off the ground, but the fireworks started going off anyways, right into the crowd. I found the whole experience exciting. Waiting and watching to see if the balloon would take off and give us a beautiful display or if we’d be running for cover from explosion near the ground. It was like we were kids playing chicken, seeing how close we could get and then running away. It was fun and exhilarating, and when it went right, it was beautiful.
Here are a couple videos, of the balloons and fireworks, going right, and not so great.
Lauren and the other girl had left a bit earlier than Rob and I had wanted to, so we told them to take the taxi we had waiting and we’d find another taxi at the end of the night.
When the last balloon was only a tiny dot in the sky Rob and I started making our way out of the festival grounds and up to the street. We had a new mission, trying to figure out how to get back to our hostel. We wandered around looking for any open taxis and asking around to no avail. So we began walking down the road we’d come up hoping to find a ride or a taxi stand along the way. We saw a man sitting next to his pickup truck on the side of the road and asked him where we could find a taxi. He told us there were no more taxi’s and then asked us where we were going. We told him Nyaung Shwe, he thought about it for a moment, and then told us he was going to Mandalay. While he couldn’t go all the way to Nyaung Shwe, because it was too far off the main road, he could drop us off at the intersection near town on the main road. We thanked him profusely and climbed into the back of the truck where his whole family was already sitting and napping after the days festivities. The whole family was so kind and pulled out extra blankets for us for the chilly ride down the mountain in the open air.
He dropped us off just outside of town where we were able to find a trishaw taxi to get back to our hostel. We tried to give him some money for helping us out be he refused, saying he was going this way anyways and he was happy to help.
The whole experience was like nothing I’d ever done or seen. The whole vibe of happiness and excitement was an amazing thing to be a part of. And while some of the aspects of it might seem dangerous or sketchy, like fireworks going off in a crowd. I always feel like you have to take (smart and calculated) risks to really get an awesome reward, and this experience was no different.
So if you are in Myanmar or are going there soon, I would highly recommend going to the Balloon Festival, it really is a once in a lifetime kind of adventure.
It’ll be happening October 26th – November 3rd this year. You can find out more info about this years festival here.
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