August 18, 2016

Moments of serenity and panic at the Tazaungdaing Light Festival

A balloon bobs just above the ground before lifting off.
A balloon bobs just above the ground before lifting off.

Alec James Wilmot

Thousands crowd a vast, grassy expanse for a chance to get an up-close view as the explosives are primed. A team of about a dozen men lift a massive basket over their heads and push it into the night sky. Flood lights hone in on the brightly coloured mass twirling its way upward. The crowd cheers and laughs in anticipation as another giant, gaudily painted balloon makes its way higher and higher, the wind carrying it toward the hills.
As the balloon begins to shrink into the distance, the fuses dwindle and meet the ignition caps, and all in an instant, the night sky lights up with terrific force. Streaming jets of gold, green and red pour from the basket in a variety of incredible dances—the torrential streams of gold explode thunderously, to the great amusement of the crowd. Smaller rockets curl and dance their way back down toward the earth. It’s Taunggyi in November. The Tazaungdine Light Festival is on again, and it’s just as amazing and dangerous as in years past.
The festival is a well-known staple among Myanmar’ annual festivals. As far as tradition is concerned, the releasing of the balloons in Taunggyi is the meeting point of three momentous cultural events. The festival takes place over a period that includes the full moon day of Tazaungmon, the beginning of the eighth month of the Buddhist calendar. The day itself is noteworthy, but more importantly, it represents the official end of the Myanmar rainy season. The day also heralds the end of the Kathina season, the time of year during which citizens offer alms and robes to Buddhist monks. The traditional importance of the festival still resonates strongly with visitors, even as commercialisation takes hold.

The festival attracts people from all over the world.
The festival attracts people from all over the world.

Ground zero of the event—a large, circular field of grass on which excited spectators sit—is surrounded on all sides by promotional stands, food stalls, carnival games and glowing, semi-mechanical rides. Reaching the quieter epicentre of the event, where the pyrotechnicians prepare their floating fire machines, can take over 20minutes.
In the eye of the storm, where the balloons are released, spectators look on reverently as the balloons, replete with explosives, are erected and set ablaze. The best efforts of the security personnel cannot prevent the heavy press of onlookers from coming dangerously close to the chemical explosives.
The balloon launchings are, for the most part, successful, and it is a joy for people to see the multi-coloured sparks whizzing through the sky. However, there were a number that failed upon launch, exploding prematurely mere metres above the ground, showering the crowd with charged projectiles, fire and sparks.
Connor MacDonald, an Australian spectator at the event, was struck directly in the face by a flaming projectile shot from a faulty balloon.
“I heard the collective sigh of the crowd as one of the balloons went up, so I left my seat at the beer stall to see it unleash a wall of fire and rockets onto the crowd directly beneath it. It was quite far away, maybe 200 metres, and I was taking photos of the display. As I pulled my camera from my eye to have another look, I caught a split second glimpse of a rocket coming my way. Then it hit me.”
Mr MacDonald was struck directly in the face by a burning green firework. It missed his eye by two centimetres. He left the festival complaining only of minor burns and did not require medical attention. His close encounter was a lucky one, considering the injuries and even deaths this festival has been known to produce.
Two people were killed, and a dozen were injured when a similar balloon mishap devolved into disaster last year. But the threat of imminent injury does not seem to worry the crowds of balloon-gazers; indeed it has come to be expected. The makeshift fire brigade on hand, equipped with buckets of water, offers a modicum of solace to the pyrophobic spectator.

A balloon explodes above some unsuspecting teddy bears.
A balloon explodes above some unsuspecting teddy bears.

While this year’s celebrations were thankfully completed without disaster, the failure of some of the balloons, which take a great deal of care and effort to craft and release, causes dismay among the team members who build them. One such team whose balloon faltered, even after they repeatedly placed themselves in danger in their attempts to correct its course, were later witnessed collectively sobbing in shame.
Such is the heady, confused celebration that is the balloon festival in Taunggyi. It is an odd cocktail of tourism, commercial peddling, love, devotion, Buddhist traditionalism, beauty and danger. The displays are stunning. The swell and jubilation of the crowd (aided by the flow of beer and whiskey) colour the event with a cheerful chaos. There are cautionary tales to be told about Tazaungdine Light Festival, as one Australian attendee would certainly attest. But did he regret being there? Not at all.
“It was a pretty crazy thing that happened to me, but in the end, I had an amazing time.”


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