Tazaungmon Full Moon Festival -- Kalaw, Nyangshwe, and Taunggyi, Myanmar

October 29 - November 2, 2009

Myanmar transport -- always room for one more!


We are delighted to discover that our stay in Myanmar will line up with a series of events associated with the upcoming full moon. We hear rumors of parades and offerings, festivals and fireworks and start asking around: "Will the parade be on Sunday?" Invariably, this simple question elicits vague answers, everyone seems confused. I finally realize that Myanmar works on a different method of marking time. According to my calendar, the full moon will be on Sunday, November 1, 2009. But in Myanmar, it is the month of Tazaungmon, the eighth month of the twelve, 28-day months on the Burmese calendar, a lunar calendar with a second June/July (known as "Waso") inserted every few years to link up with the solar year. They have an eight-day week, with Thursday to Tuesday conforming to my calendar, but Wednesday divided into two 12-hour days. Further confusing matters, their year count begins in April and is 638 years behind our Christian year count.

When will the parade start? Answer: Full moon waxing, Tazaungmon, in 1371, just listen for gongs and cymbals.

Last month, when we were in Laos, we were lucky to see the wild, full-moon celebration at the end of the Buddhist monks' "Rains Retreat." Now we learn that following that event, during the lead-up to the next full moon, local communities throughout Asia give offerings to the monks, providing new robes, umbrellas, toothbrushes, shampoo, towels, notebooks, clocks, brooms, alms bowls, thermos bottles and bags of potato chips. Hmmm...gift giving, sounds like a good excuse for a party! All the gifts are carefully tied onto bamboo floats, and every town we visit (Kalaw, Heho, Nyangshwe) puts on a rousing parade, ending at their local monastery.


We read in our Lonely Planet about a "fire balloon festival" in the town of Taunggyi, and decide to stay in the area for an extra couple days so we can check it out. All the hotels in Taunggyi are full now, so we arrange through our guesthouse in in Nyangshwe for a return taxi to take us 45 minutes north for the evening to see the spectacle. During the week-long balloon festival, each successive night builds up until the grand finale, this year on Sunday, when the moon is full. Since it is three nights before the actual full moon, we expect a low-key evening with a few hot air balloons lifting off into the night sky.

It's dark at 6:30pm as we arrive at a crowded parking lot on the outskirts of town and start walking with meandering crowds towards the fairgrounds. The low boom-boom-boom of the music filters in from the distance. Then we see the balloon grounds -- a low wooden fence that delineates an empty square dirt lot about the width of a football field. And on the far side is a sea of brightly lit tents, food and souvenir stalls, and a large collection of carnival rides lit up with neon lights. The music gets louder and louder as we approach, finally reaching a volume that requires yelling at the top of my lungs so Liza (who is standing right next to me) can hear what I'm saying. Inside the tents is a gambling extravaganza with people betting on rolls of giant 18 inch wooden dice, spinning huge roulette wheels, and a host of other games, like: roll the tire through a field of standing bottles trying to hit as many as possible (or maybe not hit any -- hard to tell). Money is being lost, won, and lost again as people excitedly try their hand at their chosen game. It really harkens back to home-grown carnival days which are long gone in the States.

At the edge of the gambling arena are brightly lit ferris wheels, 40 feet in diameter, glowing in the darkness. We stare in disbelief as fifteen agile boys, clad in red shorts and shirts and wearing flimsy flip-flops, clamber up, through and about the wooden spokes. The operator keeps motioning to us to get on, "Good photos!" he mimes. I was reluctant at first, but one look at Mark's eager face and (thankfully!) I agreed. The tiny seats (everything in Myanmar is too small for us) are rickety metal jobs, balanced in an open box -- no safety measures here! Our ears are throbbing from the noise that surrounds us, a cacophony of distorted buskers' voices, pounding rhythms of bad rock music, cheering crowds...but there is no ferris wheel motor noise -- the wheel is being turned by the red-clad boys! They climb like monkeys up into the framework to the top of the wheel and then, following the directions of a fellow blowing a whistle at the bottom, slowly move in unison, tipping the balance point until the wheel starts spinning. As it gets going, the boys jump through the framework, landing on the ground where they kick the bottom car, keeping the momentum up.

I was so scared I could barely breathe when we first lifted up, our flimsy metal box swinging in the air fifty feet above the ground. But by the second revolution, I am swept up in the magic of the moment, the thrill and excitement of being airborne, the fun of watching eager smiling boys climbing past me. We spend several minutes gliding through the night sky -- no sudden starts or stops -- the crazy carnival scene so far below us we are in another world. After several spins we reluctantly hop off, the operator smiles and mimes, "Free!" and we disappear into the crazy crowd.




Eventually there is activity over at the balloon ground and we arrive to to find pickup truck caravans driving through the gateway and circling the fenced-off square, showing off their stuff with noisy panache, finally settling in at random spots within the arena. Each truck is packed with drum-beating, gong banging, cymbal crashing, cheering men, who leap out and start assembling balloons at their chosen spot.

It turns out each of these groups is from a particular small village or town quarter and is ready to show the growing and eager crowd that their balloon is the baddest on the planet.

It's obvious right from the start that every team member has a specialized role, including the rowdy musicians who keep up a hypnotic cacophony as others dance and cheer. At one end of the field is the judges' booth, where every balloon launch is carefully monitored (fire trucks at the ready). At the end of the festival, cash prizes will be awarded to the best of show! We learn later that for these villages, balloon making is serious business and teams work for months in order to get ready for their night. This is the moment when all the preparations are put to the acid test...

The first part of the evening is the launching of candle balloons. These gorgeous handmade paper shapes are carefully filled with hot smoke using bamboo torches tipped with a bundle of burning wood. Amazingly, attached to the outside surface are small bamboo candle hangers, from which dangle colored cellophane candle lanterns, just inches from the surface! As the balloon fills and lifts up, the candle team lights and hangs their lanterns in arrays that form pictures and words.

When the surface is fully decorated, a framework of bamboo slats, from which many more lighted candles are hanging, is attached to form a huge banner of light that trails below the central flame source.

Some of the balloons rise and then start to drift back down to earth again while the team holding the bamboo frame runs behind trying to keep the hanging lanterns from hitting the ground. This causes the flame carriers to rush in with their torches to do some power heating, until the whole array lifts off to a vigorous round of cheering and clapping.

The delicate glowing light sculptures soar up and over our heads and off into the clear night sky under the light of the gibbous moon. This spectacle takes our breath away -- we cannot believe what we are seeing! As these glowing apparitions drift high in the sky, we can't help but wonder where and when these gleaming fire starters will land again.




After six or seven candle balloons (the last of which partially catches fire just before liftoff, and the crestfallen team quickly douses the candles, packs up, and skulks away) it is time for the firework balloons. We're not sure what these might be, but any event that combines hot air balloons and fireworks can't be all that bad!

While Liza finds a more sensible place to watch, I drift in with crazy locals through a break in the wooden fence that surrounds the balloon ground to have a closer look at the action. The paper balloon is unloaded and carried in, while cheerleaders continue to drum, dance, and chant.

The balloon is held up off the ground using long bamboo poles. On cue, the torch bearers run in and start filling it with smoke. There is an air of tense excitement and everyone is very careful not to make a mistake and set the whole thing on fire.

After it is fully inflated, I see another group on the sidelines unwrapping a plastic covering from a large cube-shaped bamboo frame. There is a six-foot perimeter around the cube -- the safety zone -- enforced by a few guys holding up a circle of bamboo poles.


Yikes! At about this time, I realize that I am standing a few feet away from a gigantic array of home-made fireworks! While one guy holds what looks like a pie pan on a long pole under the central fire -- so that bits of flame raining down from the heat source don't ignite the fireworks! -- others rush in carrying the cube and attach it to four lines dangling down from the hot air balloon.

Soon the stage is set, and to the continuous drumbeat of the musicians, someone lights the fuse, and everyone runs like hell as the balloon lifts off with the long dangling fuse lines smoking and burning up towards the waiting cargo of fireworks.







One of the balloons doesn't quite rise as quickly as planned, and the fireworks start going off close to the ground. This causes a slight panic in the crowd and folks start running as rockets land a bit too close for comfort. Back at the fence, I duck as flaming missiles zip over my head and exploding balls of fire rain down on all sides.

I have to say this is about as exciting a firework display as I've ever witnessed, and it certainly beats hands down any 4th of July celebration I have seen while growing up in DC! Just the idea of launching uncontrolled hot air balloons filled with rockets into the night breeze over the heads of a large crowd seems totally unbelievable.

We left the party at 11:30 that night, but later heard they were launching balloons well into the wee hours of the morning. A few days later in Kalaw, we talked to some travelers who witnessed the actual full-moon night extravaganza -- they were guessing it was equivalent to Woodstock, and estimated there must have been a half million people there -- whoa, we must return to Myanmar to see this!




As each balloon rises high into the sky, fireworks continue to rain down for a good twenty minutes...

Refueling our taxi at a Myanmar gas station -- pour from the big drums into metal pitchers, filter through sieve, siphon into tank!

It was hard for us pyromaniacs to leave Nyangshwe knowing that there would be even more spectacular firework displays in the following nights, but a Canadian couple we met told us about the Tazaungman Festival in Kalaw, which they had seen the previous year. On our way from Began to Nyangshwe, we had passed through this one-time British hill station, and we decided to return to Kalaw to see what a small town festival is like.

Back at the wonderful Eastern Paradise Guesthouse in Kalaw, we asked our host what might be going on during the full moon. The reply : "Tonight, the small rockets, tomorrow, the big rockets." Hmmm, sounds promising!



The evening begins with a parade through town. First is a line of cute little kids (tiniest first) escorted by their parents, each carrying a candle lantern wrapped in colored cellophane or made into a paper and bamboo star. They are followed by demure girls, dressed in their finest outfits, and finally adults, some carrying brightly lit floats shaped like various animals. At one point we notice that many of the townsfolk are carrying shoulder bags, and they seem to be filled with ...fireworks! As the parade progresses, they reach in and pull out hand-rolled rockets and firecrackers, setting them off in the midst of the crowd. Holding a rocket between thumb and forefinger, they light the fuse. And when sparks come flying out the bottom, simply release it, and the rockets go zipping off between the onlookers.

We see groups of (mostly) young men, eight or ten of them carrying 10-foot-long posts -- bamboo wrapped around bundles of wood and tied together with wire. These are suspended from 2-person bamboo shoulder carrying poles, and the carriers dance as they go, the big posts swaying back and forth. Along with each group is a circle of rowdy musicians (gongs, drums, and cymbals) and young men doing a lithe, low crouching dance, arms held up and waving. They look as though they will fall over, bending way down towards the ground as they go, but always managing to stay on their feet. It seems as though they are entering some sort of trance state, and the repetitive music propels them along.

Excitement is growing as we follow along with the crowd. The parade finally ends at the local monastery and we all file in to the temple grounds at a clearing ringed by Buddhist stupas. The post carriers set down their heavy loads and begin digging holes in the dirt near one end, while the musicians and dancers carry on with a continuous gong and drum beat. It's all very confusing, until the crowd suddenly parts and we see another group carrying in what looks like a giant multi-tiered bamboo pagoda wrapped in plastic. Soon we recognize the telltale signs: It is festooned with a giant array of ...fireworks!

These guys insert their firework tree into the end of one of the post, and using long bamboo poles, the group starts to push and prod the whole array upwards into a vertical position. It teeters back and forth and looks like there is no way they will succeed, until suddenly it is upright and towering over the crowd. Okay! Now we get it -- this is some sort of pagan ritual fire display, supervised by the ever-present red-robed monks.

Somehow in this big crowd, we meet up with our Indian trekking guide who explains what we are seeing. Each town quarter puts together a firework array, and there is a contest, judged by the head monks, to see who can put on the best show. In the early days, it was just a big flaming torch (the bottom post part), but as time went on it became more elaborate, and now involves a complex firework display. Our guide's entry in this year's competition took the team four months to build, contains over 4000 hand rolled rockets, and they were up late every night for the past month putting the finishing touches on their creation. The individual firework towers are stored away from the action until just before they are needed (so that stray rockets don't ignite them by mistake). And like the fire balloons, each tower is carried in by a rowdy bunch of guys ready to show the riotous crowd just how cool their invention is, as their group dances trance-like to the sounds of their own musical entourage.

The moment of truth has arrived, the announcer on the PA system loudly introduces the team as they set up their tower under the light of the full moon, light the fuse, and now the townspeople eagerly wait to see what will happen.




It's hard to describe what happens next, but when the fuse on the tower burns its way up to the first tier of fireworks, all hell breaks loose. Rockets are flying everywhere and detonating at random. Some corkscrew outwards in a spiral, some go high into the air and explode, others are like magic sprites moving first straight out and then changing course and sparkling off in another direction. People are running for cover, little kids are hiding under the stairs, but the guys directly under the barrage are in an ecstatic state -- twirling their towels around their heads and dancing wildly as the rockets bounce off their bodies and sputter along the ground. The drum beat and dancers continue unabated, and the remainder of the crowd looks on in stunned amazement.

I'm ducking as rockets whiz over my head. Time seems to be suspended in an overwhelming blaze of light, motion, and sound. For some minutes, as one tier after another ignites and sends its bank of rockets in new directions, an exact memory of what happened is lost. All I can say is that I am engulfed in another dimension of space and time and am beginning to understand that these pagan/Buddhist festivals are something very special.


When it is all over, a dense cloud of acrid smoke hovers over the area. As my senses start to recover, I can see the next group getting set for their turn. On the first night we witness three or four of these small rocket displays and head off to bed around 10:30. But from our hotel room a few blocks from the temple, we can hear the sound of explosions continuing until three or four in the morning.


I don't know where these folks get their energy, but the next day the whole process is repeated. Another parade at mid-day, followed by another in the evening which ends at the hilltop monastery overlooking the town. This time it's the big rockets, and although we stayed until eleven or so and couldn't believe our eyes when the fireworks were even more spectacular than the night before, we were assured that the best part would take place in the early morning hours before dawn. But since we had a plane to catch the next day, we'll have to return another year to find out what goes on during the finale!

It's so refreshing here in Myanmar, the way festivals are created by the participants instead of everyone hanging around waiting for someone else to provide the entertainment. In the morning light, I find spent rockets all over the streets -- made from little pieces of recycled cardboard, masking tape, a stick of bamboo, and packed with home-made gunpowder. The balloons and firework towers are handcrafted (and paid for) by the villagers. Maybe we've gone a bit overboard commercializing and packaging our lives, and in the process have lost touch with some of the essence of life, so tangible here on the streets of Myanmar...



Our Sikh guide in the hills above Kalaw.

As we leave Myanmar our minds are full of images, impressions and questions. We had been hesitant about visiting this military-regime-run country, where human rights are regularly violated, free election results ignored, Aung San Suu Kyii -- whose political party should be in power -- remains under house arrest. (And, thanks to a crazy American who swam across Inya Lake to her home just before we arrived, the junta has yet another excuse to keep her sequestered.) The USA and other countries have sanctions against the government, restricting investment, aid, and trade. Are we violating those principles by visiting? Will our tourist dollars support the military junta?

Almost every day we are in Myanmar, someone we meet tells us the sanctions are entirely ineffective and have been devastating to locals. They claim the military has not been affected by the sanctions -- their residences are plush, they drive shiny new "low-rider" jeeps, and seem to strut around town -- but the common people we meet (shopkeepers, grocers, restaurant and hotel owners) are really hurting. We hear over and over again that the last three years have been disastrous for Myanmar's tourist-based economy. In September 2007, the "monks protest" against the government (some claim they were not real monks) made tourists hesitant to visit. In May 2008, the second-deadliest storm in history, Cyclone Nargis, hit Myanmar, leaving two million people homeless. The total deaths will never be known, but is estimated at 300,000. And in 2009, the Bangkok airport closed, following rioting associated with the 2008 presidential coup. (Because of the sanctions, almost all flights to Myanmar go through Bangkok. Thailand does not honor the sanctions.) There are few guests at many places we stay, and we are often the only ones eating in restaurants. But this is the low season and everyone is hopeful that in the next month (the start of the "cold season") tourists will arrive.

We ask about the upcoming elections, which the regime has promised will be scheduled in 2010. No one is certain when or if they will occur, many are skeptical that elections will result in any significant changes. One person shows us his horrific scars from being tortured and imprisoned, and tells us, "It is not an election, it is a selection," since the only people on the ballot will be puppets of the military regime. Others say they will be hesitant to vote. Each voter must put his/her name and address on the ballot, so the military will know who voted for whom, and there could be repercussions for voting for the "wrong" person or party. Our Inle Lake guide tells us that it makes no difference who is in power, the government doesn't change your life. What matters is what you did in your previous life. Using George Bush as an example, he claims Bush must have been very good in his previous life.

Myanmar prides itself in being a Buddhist country, claiming to practice the "purest" form of Buddhism. Monasteries, temples, shrines (and festivals!!) are everywhere. Men are expected to join the monastery twice during their lifetimes, completing one stint before the age of twenty, and another later in life. The monasteries provide education for boys (schools are too costly for most.) I am surprised to learn that most of these boys do not make a lifetime commitment, and freely talk of the jobs they will soon have. I am disappointed that nuns seem to be given much lower status than monks, and there is sharp discrimination against other races and religions. One day we take a hike in the hills with a Sikh guide, whose grandparents were brought by the British to what was then known as Burma to build railroads and infrastructure, and were stranded here in the years following. We hear that only "pure Bamar" (all of whom are Buddhists) can own property, run most businesses, and hold government positions, which are the most lucrative in the country. He is not allowed to travel to India, and has lost touch with his extended family. Apparently, Muslims fare even worse. They are issued "temporary" cards, and are not allowed to vote, own property, or travel.

Just as we are leaving this land of contradictions, we learn that President Obama will be meeting with a high ranking Myanmar official at the next meeting of Asean, the Asian countries consortium, the first such meeting since President Johnson imposed sanctions in the 1960's. I am glad to hear this news. As I remember all the wonderful people we met, I am glad we visited and am hoping Myanmar has a better future.