03 Nov Meet the Mastermind behind the Magnificent Kalaw Fireworks Festival
Every November, when the rainy season comes to an end, the people in Myanmar’s Shan State throw a party. The fire balloon festival in Taunggyi is notorious. Thousands of people flock to the Shan State capital and risk their lives to watch hot air balloons explode in the sky. Equally magnificent, but perhaps lesser-known, is the fireworks festival in the hill town of Kalaw. Nestled in pine-clad mountains, this lovely little heritage town has a lot going for it at any time of the year, but it’s definitely worth a trip during the Tazaungdaing festival — also known as the ‘Festival of Lights’. As the night descends onto the town, the streets fill with glowing processions of locals carrying paper lanterns, small candles and sparkle sticks. They’re joined by teams of muscly men with drums, gongs and giant stacks of fireworks arranged carefully around the top of bamboo poles, moving towards the sports ground nearby. When the poles are lit, for a split second you can see nothing but fountains of flames and seas of sparkle. We meet U Ngwe Saung, the inventor of the famous ‘firecracker tower’, to find out what it takes to build a winning tower, learn more about the festival’s unique community spirit and how it all started.
How it all started
“I had the idea to build a tall firecracker tower when I was just twelve years old. My friend was about to become a young monk, so for his novation ceremony, I decided to build something spectacular. My father helped me build a tower, which we took to the monastery. We were the first family to have such a small festive celebration like this in Kalaw. Since then, other people have wanted to join us and make firecracker towers as well. Every year, the festival is getting bigger.”
Now at seventy years old, Ngwe Saung is very proud to see what started as a fun day of invention for him as a young boy, turn into a festival that encourages youth to channel their creative energy. Every year in November, teams lead a procession through town of firecracker poles, which are handmade from homemade fireworks and bamboo. The festival coincides with the full moon day of Tazaungdaing, which occurs on the eighth month of the Burmese calendar. The festival is the loudest and most famous in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi. Yet U Ngwe Saung says the celebration in Kalaw is just as exciting.
“At first, we wrapped pine in small pieces of wood that burn quickly around a long wooden pole to create our firecracker towers. Over the years, we chose to use bamboo sticks with a stick on top and cloth soaked in gasoline instead,” explains Ngwe Saung in his home in central Kalaw. With his legs wrapped around his chair, he retells with animated hand gestures how over time, the poles have become taller for shooting firecrackers into the sky.
“Now the poles are 10 metres high. We shoot rockets into the sky to send a message to Buddha. We want to know if it will be a good harvest or not, which is why we give an offering of light to the skies. In Shan, we also believe that we have been born from dragons, so we offer fire to the dragon ancestors as well.”
Although Ngwe Saung has retired from fire-tower building, he lends his creative eye to many other fields. First and foremost, he introduces himself as an environmentalist.
Ngwe Saung was forced to drop out of school at the tender age of 10 when his mother died and the responsibility of looking after his brother and sister fell on his shoulders. Ngwe Saung’s father gave up his trade of carpentry so he could spend time with his children, and together they worked in a plot of land of damson plum trees, which he bought. Ngwe Saung quickly developed an environmentalist way of thinking and also began to suggest value-added products like preserving fruit, using bark to make natural dye and jams. He has continued his entrepreneur skills and helps farmers around Kalaw with knowledge about how to improve their techniques, and gives market advice about the most profitable fruit trees.
Tazaungdaing 2019 will be celebrated from November 3rd, 2019 to November 12th, 2019.
Excited to discover the Kalaw Fireworks Festival and more?
Explore Kalaw through the lens of locals with the iDiscover App&Map, created and designed by locals. Download our app (it’s free!) here, and here to get your free, beautifully illustrated map of Kalaw to complement our app.
Our guides are created by locals, designed by locals and powered by locals… with a little help from iDiscover. Hear their stories, share their passion and learn what they love! Our Kalaw Neighbourhood App&Map are curated by Kalaw Tourism Organisation, illustrated by local artist Ko Wai Yan and proudly powered by The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ).
Words and photos by Libby Hogan
Libby is a freelance journalist who has documented the changes across Myanmar’s many ethnic states in the past three years, specifically after Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections. Her passion is looking at youth culture and stag leaping to isolated regions to hear untold stories from those who never had access to media or the opportunity to speak freely. Check out her website.
Interviews by Nang Phoo Pyi Mon
Phoo is a Shan girl. A lover of nature. She would not want to live anywhere else but in the Shan mountains. Phoo loves talking to people and people love talking to her. As a language graduate, she has a deep interest in psychology, culture and religions, in her country and far beyond.