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Taunggyi Balloon Festival 2013

The Taunggyi Balloon festival was one of the highlights of my three months in Burma. Teams spend months stitching and glueing their balloons, some as big as buses, together with giant sheets of Chinese lantern paper. The event begins slowly: flat-packed constructions are unloaded and laid out in the sun, giant wooden torches are dipped in oil in preparation for lighting, spectators begin filling the field. Then, several hours after the scheduled start and with much shouting and concentration, the festival gets under way. The lit torches are held under the balloons to heat the air inside sufficiently to give lift while team members hold the structure upright, keeping the paper walls away from the flames. Several balloons burn up whilst still on the ground or just after takeoff, leaving the devastated owners staring in silence at the smoking remains. When they do take off the team erupts in a fervour. Heads back, ecstatic, they dance in rings, banging drums and singing. Night time is even more chaotic. Dense crowds fill the field as marshals make token gestures at crowd control. Flaming torches dripping with hot oil appear from nowhere and are carried at speed through the crowds, a couple narrowly missing my head, while nurses at red-cross ambulance tents are kept busy applying bandages to scorched spectators. To add an extra layer of spectacle, coloured tea candles are hung from hooks on the outside of the balloon as it inflates and form a long trail beneath it so that it sparkles in the night sky and is visible for a long after take off.

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