Morning was greeted by beating drums and chants as the locals carted their colourful donations towards the Nyaung Shwe monastery. It was the second last day of the national holiday and the annual donations for the monasteries were being made. These donations ranged from cash (presented in beautiful flower-shaped shrines) to toiletries, to free taxi rides and almost anything imaginable in between. After watching for an hour or more what appeared to be an endless line of singing, dancing donors we grabbed a bowl of the delicious Shan noodles. With such an electrifying start to the day, we knew that things would reach a feverish level by the end of the night to follow.
That night we found ourselves heading for the centrepiece of this national holiday: the Balloon Festival in the nearby city of Taunggyi, the capital of the Shan State. As we approached the city, yard-by-yard the roads became more and more crowded and the hum of scooters and growl of overcrowded pick-ups grew more and more intense. For tonight, the road between Nyaung Shwe and Taungyi was one-way: no room spared for those who wanted to escape the chaos.
Within a mile or so of the festival grounds we reached total gridlock, and because of the adrenaline-laced atmosphere outside we couldn’t resist but alight and follow the car from outside, mixing with endless partygoers who greeted us in a manner we were only familiar with in the company of close friends. It was hard to fathom that there were as many scooters and pick-ups within this predominantly rural area. I must mention that this was the most engaging traffic jam that anyone is ever likely to see. We were really concerned but excited at the question of whether the actual event would live up to this rapturous appetiser.
The sound of Burma’s must successful rock band Iron Cross echoed to our left as fireworks filled the night sky to our right, and in between were tens of thousands of ecstatic singing and dancing Burmese, fuelling the throbbing atmosphere. Hands appeared out of the crowd from every direction looking to be shook and the warmest of smiles followed. Within a matter of minutes we had a posse of a dozen or so new closest friends to sing and dance with. The main focus of the night was the hot air balloons: some illuminated revealing messages and pictures while others had heavily laden racks of fireworks attached where a basket would normally be placed. The results of the former were as beautiful and elegant as the latter were mesmerising and thrilling. By thrilling I mean that about a quarter of the fireworks found themselves pointed downwards resulting in hundreds of shards of light hurtling towards the crowd.
It is hard to imagine that only weeks before, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi brought Burma’s lack of freedom to the front pages yet again. For us, and for the thousands around us, there was no question of ‘freedom from fear’ for that magical night.