May Auspiciousness Be Upon You

by Robert Salisbury, December 23, 2013

Getting to the balloon festival was quite a trial. The traffic jam rivaled anything I've endured in LA. It even tried the patience of the stalwart May Maung Tun. But the general mood was festive and the people-watching was brilliant. I had thought that this festival was some sort of tourist-tantalizing-trap. Whoa! Was I wrong! Imagine the largest, grubbiest county fair/reggae festival ever and you might come close. Crooked lanes of food stalls (many wood-fired) blaring tinny music from the rides area, masses of people, mostly Myanmar folk, a few tourists, all set in a large dirt/mud bowl.

As we circled about assessing the scene a large plastic duck balloon rose from the floor of the bowl only to incinerate itself from the gas burner used to create the hot air to keep it afloat and fall into a row of plastic-tarped stalls in flaming chunks. Apparently no one was hurt — all part of the thrill of it, I guess.

As dark descended, rain began to fall. Oh, no! The centerpiece of our trip/Yvonne's vacation from her demanding work/ my brother's careful planning. Was this to be yet another lesson in Buddhist non-attachment? We headed for the car. When we arrived, we saw that nearby, there was a restaurant set up in the courtyard of a house and that it had a pretty solid plastic roof. We gathered there, had tea, then food, struck up a conversation with the fellow across the table from us, eventually met his mum and dad in their ethnic Pa-O dress and generally amused ourselves until — full moon goddess be praised — the rain stopped!

May Maung Tun, who had enjoyed something he called a wine cooler but that looked like a root beer float went to sleep in the car and RB, Yvonne and I plunged back into the maelstrom. Having no idea what the schedule of events was (later we heard that there were 13 balloons due to be launched!), we milled over to the carnie rides area to see if, in fact, the rides were people-powered. Yes, they were, in several cases. We watched the screaming ecstatic kiddies and the spiked-up, skinny-jeaned teens (wild hairdos!). Eventually, we found a vantage point at a tea stall (think kindergarten-sized plastic tables and stools) to wait. It wasn't long before spotlights and movement in the crowd alerted us: the balloons were coming! They arrived two at a time in long stake-side trucks, covered with plastic. Well, they are made of paper. Yes, Shan paper, made here in Shan state. They have many candles in cellophane attached by many hands as they are being raised (we never quite figured out the raising part, though we did get as close as we could to see it, but to no avail; these candles form writing or an image or a pattern when the balloon is fully raised. Then the “tail”: a frame of yet more candles, carried in parallel to the ground, is attached and as the balloon's burner is lit and as it begins to ascend, the tail lifts slowly and precariously (wind could be disastrous) to a vertical position. I was quite taken by the “Tiger Balm” balloon (written in English), with a candle picture of a tiger as the tail. But the final one we saw rise had indistinguishable writing/patterns on the balloon but a beautiful image of Lord Buddha as the tail. Since the ground was muddy, the people ever drunker, and I'd been knocked down once, we took that as a sign that our balloon festival experience was complete and as that last balloon rose, carrying, it is said, our misdeeds, sins, bad kharma away with it, we found our way to the car.

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