Myanmar: The Taunggyi Balloon Festival

The Tazaungdaing Festival is a traditional festival and public holiday in Myanmar. It is also known as the "Festival of Lights" and it is celebrated on the full moon of Tazaungmon, the eighth month of the traditional Burmese calendar. The Tazaungdaing Festival marks the end of the rainy season. In Taunggyi in Shan State hot-air balloons lit with candles are released to celebrate the full moon day and the Tazaungdaing Festival. It is comparable to the Yi Peng and Loi Krathong celebrations in Thailand.

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However, the Taunggyi Balloon Festival it much more than a public holiday. It lasts around 6 or 7 days and it is also a balloon competition and funfair at the same time. Traditionally the festival ends on the full moon day Tazaungmon with the announcement of the winners of the balloon contest. The balloons are beautifully designed and hand-made of traditional mulberry papers and bamboo. They are released day and night during the festival. The balloons for the daytime competition are smaller and usually have the form of pagodas, ducks, dragons or even elephants. The bigger balloons decorated with candles are released at the night time competitions, sometimes even with attached fireworks that explode into the night sky.

Like other full-moon festivals held throughout South East Asia also the balloon festival's origin is connected to Buddhism. The release of a balloon is a Buddhist symbol for floating one’s sins and bad deeds away. During the festival monks are offered new robes and alms as a means of merit-making. A robe-weaving competition to weave monk robes is also part of the festival. Historically the British started soon after the annexation of Upper Burma the hot air balloon competition in Taunggyi as a part of the Tazaungdaing Festival.

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Nowadays the festival is a huge, vibrant and most popular event in Myanmar which is also broadcasted on television channels. Combined with the funfair the festival is a colorful and exceptionally loud spectacle. There are also illuminated Ferris Wheels, live music on stages, plenty of beer and food served in food stalls and Myanmar energy drink sponsors handing out soda cans for free. At nighttime the square below the Yat Taw Me pagoda where the festival takes place is immensely crowded with visitors and party people. And sometimes it is even dangerous: It is not uncommon that spectators are injured or in rare cases even killed when hot air balloons carrying fireworks drop down onto the crowd by accident.

Taunggyi has almost no infrastructure for foreign tourists. Most of the hotels in town during the festivals are fully booked mainly by Myanmar tourists and local people. Most of the foreign tourists stay at the nearby Inle Lake and visit the balloon festival doing a daytrip and return in the evening to Nyaung Shwe. However, to witness the whole festival it is better to stay in Taunggyi for a couple of days, which requires of course an early hotel reservation. And then you will be rewarded with an exceptionally loud, colorful, vibrant and unforgettable event.

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