It’s a little-known secret that the best time for a Myanmar trip is November if you want to experience unforgettable local customs! Following a fairly sedate period of alms-giving, the Festival of Lights explodes into the evening sky with an elaborate and fantastical display of pyrotechnics like nothing you’ve ever seen before!
Travelers might imagine a trip to Myanmar as one filled with gentle cruises down the Irrawady and visits to Buddhist temples. Travel this November however and your itinerary will be happily disrupted by the Festival of Lights, when hot air balloon animals (shaped like dragons, elephants and sometimes even pigs) containing lit candles are released into the night sky.
This is a national holiday in Myanmar and is preceded by a month in which elders are especially respected and their blessings sought, alms are given and offerings made to local monasteries. For tourists the festival means that local homes are beautifully decorated with lanterns and strings of lights. There are local street fairs and festivals, and temples are buzzing with devotees offering alms and prayer.
In the actual lead-up to the grand finale, hot air balloons are released towards evening, lighting up the sky in a display of colorful and fantastical pyrotechnics. Long processions form at night with people turning up in full traditional attire to depict significant events in the life of the Buddha. These processions are probably worth a visit in themselves, except that the actual final event is infinitely better!
The finale is a grand carnival usually in a large open air venue where tens of hot air balloons are launched into the sky (if you’re watching from amidst the crowds, be prepared for the occasional mishap as well!). Some are lit before they are released and others explode fireworks on their way up, leaving a trail of twinkling lights. These are even more extraordinary since the balloons themselves are embellished and highlighted by the rich glow of the full moon. All these lights are meant to dispel evil but they also make for great photographs. Some venues have separate seating for tourists and viewers at a nominal price.
The grounds from which the balloons are released are themselves throbbing with food stalls, gambling sites, drinks, games and of course hundreds of energetic locals celebrating the end of a month of respectful giving.
The Festival of Lights (Tazaungdaing) is a six-day festival always falling on a full-moon night near the end of the eighth month of the Burmese Buddhist calendar.
This year the festival dates are 20 – 25 November 2015, so you have time enough to start planning in advance to ensure the best bookings.