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.
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.
The Akha people of Laos are an indigenous hill tribe who live mainly in the mountains of the province Phongsaly. The ethnical group of the Akha people originally settled in the Kuaichao and Yunan province of China, from there they moved also to Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The population of the Akha in southwest China, eastern Myanmar, western Laos, northwestern Vietnam and northern Thailand is estimated about roughly 400,000 people. In all these countries the Akha people are an ethnic minority.
The best way to visit the Akha hill tribe people of Laos is doing a several days trek to the villages in the mountains. One possibility is to start the trek in Phongsaly. A guide is mandatory for the trek, because the Akha people don't speak English, and the accommodation or the food could be a huge problem without guide. Guided tours are offered in Phongsaly from the tourist office or a small local tour operator. There are not many tourists in Phongsaly, but it isn't a problem to find a guide, or if needed, other foreigners to join the guided trek.
The other possibility is to go by bus to Boun Tai and start a 3- or 4-days trek from there to Akha Loma, Akha Mouchi (Mochi) and Akha Eupa (Eurpa) people. Boun Tai is a small town on the way from Oudomxay to Phongsaly. The trek from Boun Tai is lesser known than the treks around Phongsaly and it starts by a songthaew to reach the first Akha Mouchi village. From there a hiking trail, sometimes pretty steep, leads from village to village and ends at the main road, where it is possible to catch a bus either back to Phongsaly or to Oudomxay.
For a boy in Myanmar it is customary to enter a monastery between the age 10 and 20 as a Buddhist novice for at least one week. Sometimes the boys are even younger, and in rare cases they are only 5 or 6 years old. For Burmese people, the novice hood initiation is a very important ceremony and a big event as a family. The novitiation ceremony is called "Shinbyu" in Burmese language. Shinbyu ceremonies are held throughout the whole country, in villages as well as in big cities. Often families send their sons at the same time to the monastery and celebrate the Shinbyu ceremony together. Celebrating together saves costs, because the event with music and traditional dresses is expensive. But it is also a wonderful opportunity for the families to organize a procession through the village as a kind of village festival.
Money doesn't matter for a Buddhist monastery, so they take every boy, regardless of the wealth of the parents. Poor boys or orphans are also welcome to join the monastery for one week. But there is a difference. Although the Shinbyu is without doubt a religious Buddhist ceremony, it is not organized from the monasteries. Of course the monks support the Shinbyu, and they open the monasteries for the families to come and pray. But the ceremony itself is more a secular event, with loud music, a procession on horses through the village, a lot of food, many flowers, wonderful clothes and a big colorful ceremony tent, where the celebration, the dinner and many speeches take place. Sometimes rich families or families who are not blessed with a male child support poor families who cannot afford the ceremony. The boys of the supported families and also orphans are invited to join the ceremony as well.