The Balloon Festival / by Mark Boyd

Nyaung Shwe... Taunggui.... Balloon Festival....

Joy hotel was an actual joy having spent two nights sleeping with 8 others in the same room.  Our second night of rest on our trek was spent in a bamboo building. Everyone was sleeping on one raised layer. It was akin to sleeping on an incredibly noisy, hard and uncomortable trampoline. If one person got up for a pee in the night everyone's sleeping mat (a think blanket on the floor) moved. The entire place creaked as if the bamboo was still growing. Not the best nights sleep I have ever experienced. If one person rolled over everyone knew about it..... Yaaaaawn.

I noticed my new Keen Clearwater trekking sandals had come apart. I showed the girl on reception hoping she could point me in the direction of the nearest shoe repairer. She smiled, nodded and deserted her post at the reception desk, and disappeared out of the door in to the little street behind.

Two minutes later she returned with a tube of superglue, grabbed my sandal and poured a load of Myanmar's strongest bonding agent between the two surfaces. The heat generated as the bonding occurred had me concerned that the sandal may actually combust. Top marks to the young lady and her shoe repairing skills!

 Waterproof? With all those gaps?!!! Ha ha! 

Waterproof? With all those gaps?!!! Ha ha! 

So why were we here in Nyaung Shwe?  Well 30km's away there was a Myanmar's largest annual festival, which runs from Monday to Sunday and over 50,000 people attend, mostly local Burmese people, along with a handful of tourists each evening. So what's the big draw to this festival?

Well, let me tell you.

Unmanned hot air balloons loaded with enough fireworks to make Guy Fawkes wince, that's the draw. Teams of competitors inflate their huge, magnificent balloons from around 9pm. The fireworks are somehow set to ignite and explode when the balloons reach a safe height, but every now and again these balloons only reaches 10 metres before beginning to dispatch their payload of decorative explosives in to the onlooking crowd.

Have people died? Yes.

Do people get burned? Yes.

Is this slightly insane? Yes. Of course it is!

The majority of balloons make it to a safe height before providing the onlookers with a glittering display of pops, bangs and brightly coloured fireworks.

We organised our ride that afternoon. It was half the price of the competitors around town. As we waited on the street wondering if they would ever turn up we began regretting our decision, until 'beep, beep'.... a small truck loaded with 12 people pulled over for us to squeeze in.

Earlier in the day I had been describing the word, 'cosy' to Laura and Judith, and as the guy collecting the money sat on my left knee whilst I rested my chin on his shoulder as he gripped the bar running along the roof, I looked toward Laura and said, 'This moment. Right now. This is cosy.' and laughed. He shuffled a little to gain more comfort. If that shuffle had continued any longer than a few seconds I may have considered myself in a relationship.

80 minutes later we pulled in to the heavily crowded area outside of the main festival.

A young French girl took charge. She had been in attendance the previous four nights and was keen to show us where to head. The 'guide' followed on.

After 10 minutes of hustle and bustle the French girl disappeared into the nearest bar, grabbed some booze and headed in to the 'pop up' discotheque. The guide regained his mantle.

We headed down to the viewing area. I shared a beer with Laura whilst we all sat chatting, waiting patiently for the first balloon.

An hour or so passed and no balloons. The weather was a tad drizzly, maybe this was causing the delay. I decided to head to the bathroom. As I headed off the first balloon floated in to the sky.... Damn! I only saw a little of it, and had no camera with me as I'd left it with Laura.

Relieved and returned the next balloon put on quite a show! It managed to maintain a visually effective display for such a long period of time it was incredible. The heavily armed structure below the balloon managed to spew a beautiful spray of fireworks for over 10 minutes whilst ascending higher and higher until it eventually burned out in to nothingness; balloon and all.

 up...

up...

 UP!

UP!

 AND AWAAAAAY!!!!

AND AWAAAAAY!!!!

Of course when these finely turned full combustion calculations don't quite come together that's when firey, explosive trouble can ensue. Tumbling fireballs, low altitude rockets all whizzing back in to the crowd etc, etc. You get the general picture. Pretty amazing stuff.

We made our way closer to the launch area as we gained confidence in the skills of the balloon and pyrotechnic teams.... or maybe we just wanted a better view.... a little excitement maybe?! Ha ha!

 A little too low me thinks!!!!

A little too low me thinks!!!!

As we watched the third balloon inflating a small TV crew approached Laura & Judith. The presenter asked them to describe their experience. They both denied their adeptness of the English language and pointed towards me.  I was already shuffling away and pretended not to notice what was happening. The girls laughed as the reporter collared me. The interview began.

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I thought it was just going to be for a little Myanmar YouTube clip, but the next day it was in the Daily Mail and Mirror in the UK. Yes I know.... Horrible tabloids, but I had to laugh when one of my friends sent me an image and clip saying, 'I'm assuming this Mark Boyd, 41, from the Isle of Man' is you' Ha ha! It was also on TV in Myanmar and France! Who knew!?

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At the end of the the night, our orders were to reconvene at midnight outside the 'pop-up' discotheque....

We all waited.... Everyone was there early except our young French party animal and her friend.

They eventually staggered out kissing a couple of Russian guys. I think the French girl may well have attended the Balloon Festival five times and never seen a balloon! Sacre bleu!

 This Festival Food looked healthy-ish....

This Festival Food looked healthy-ish....

 But the amount of oil that poured out as it was eaten was pretty rough!!!

But the amount of oil that poured out as it was eaten was pretty rough!!!

It was an interesting night. Too many people for my liking, but I've never been a massive fan of huge crowds... The balloons and fireworks were amazing to watch, it really was an incredible spectacle. One of our trekking gang did manage to get slight firework burn the following night but she was fine.

We got back to the hostel at 1.30am and re-dressed Laura's festering toe blister.... We were all shattered.

Did I mention the human powered ferris wheel?  No I didn't.  There was a human powered ferris wheel.  Men running around like hamsters in a wheel to maintain the rotating fun element of Myanmar's Balloon Festival.  Madness!