Myanmar has shot to the top of myriad travel hot lists of late, putting this emerging Southeast Asian destination top of mind for travelers in search of tourism's next “it” spot. Since word is widely out on the country’s big-league attractions (from temple-speckled Bagan to the floating villages of Inle Lake), herewith an insider’s tip for travelers looking for more off-the-path, slice-of-life authenticity. Coordinate your 2013 visit with the auspicious full moon of Tazaungmone (or, November, according to Myanmar’s traditional calendar), when the country is set aglow during its heralded annual Tazaungdaing Festival (or, Festival of Lights).
Fresh from attendance at this year’s exceptional edition, I can firmly declare the event to rank amongst the world’s most wonderful, weird, and wow-factor festivals, exceeding my wildest expectations. Just be forewarned: One look at this balloon-, lantern-, and pyrotechnic-fueled spectacle and home-front Fourth of July celebrations to come will be condemned to comparative yawn-worthy status.
The multiday national festival marks the ending of a Buddhist alms-giving period when donations to local monasteries are made and homes and shops are strung with colorful electric lights and lanterns. But no place does it better than Taunggyi, the capital of the eastern Shan State, where daytime launches of hot air balloon animals (with dragons, elephants – and, yes, even flying pigs) lead into a last-night procession of lantern-covered floats depicting the lives and times of Buddha, and fancifully dressed villagers bedecked in national costumes.
For the fantastic grand finale, a frenzy of cars and motorbikes make way for the main event at the “fire balloon” launching grounds – held at the foot of the festival’s raison d’être, the Sulamuni Pagoda (which purportedly encases hairs of the Buddha himself), where the carnival-like atmosphere comes alive with amusement rides, food stalls, gambling halls, concerts, and maddening crowds.
Above it all, dozens of wildly decorated hot air balloons are inflated and set up into the night sky, set wildly aglow by the light of the full moon and their own shimmering light embellishments (footage of which you can see below). Some are adorned with flickering lanterns, others carry fireworks cargo that continuously sets off midair as the balloons ascend. The artful pyrotechnic displays spewing out of the balloon is a sight like no other: I likened it to an exploding supernova; my beau envisioned it more as an epic “star wars” battle. (Prize money is awarded for the best decorated and highest flying balloons.)
The festival grounds are packed with tens of thousands of Burmese (and only a sprinkling of Westerners), who pour in from around the country. It’s a wonderful way of mingling with locals having fun in their own unique way – and fun they do have, tipping back drinks, nibbling away on local foods, and letting out excited gasps and bursting into spontaneous dance as the hot air balloons begin their flight.
If you do want to hobnob with the handful of other tourists there, head to the private viewing platform for foreign visitors, where for $6, you’ll get a proper sitting area away from the heaving masses, an excellent vantage point, and some shelter from the elements – including falling debris or fireworks gone astray (the festival's high-flying balloons have not been immune to pyrotechnic and technical mishaps over the years).
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!