Tazaungdaing in Kalaw: Risk your life in peace

The Tazaungdaing firework festival in Kalaw, Shan State.
The Tazaungdaing firework festival in Kalaw, Shan State.

Every November, people from around the world flock to the notorious fire balloon festival in the Shan State capital of Taunggyi to celebrate Tazaungdaing – the official end of rainy season.

For a few days, the town is packed with thousands of people who pay a lot for forgettable hotels in order to risk their lives to watch hot air balloons explode in the sky. It’s magnificent, but injuries are reported every year, and some years, including this year, people are killed in firework-related accidents.

But just down the road from Taunggyi is the hill town of Kalaw, which puts on a rival firework festival that is equally stimulating but attracts a much smaller crowd and has a way less morbid reputation.

The town is nestled in gorgeous mountain scenery and has several places to eat and drink that rival their big-city equivalents.

The firework festival in Kalaw goes until the end of this week, but even if you don’t make it for that, we hope these photos will inspire you to make the trip next year, or even sooner.

walking in kalaw

To the Yangon resident accustomed to splashing around in the muck and the mire, Kalaw is shockingly picturesque and a pleasure to spend a day walking through.

It’s full of architecture you don’t get to see in the big city, like wooden cabins and colonial cottages. (Colonialism is bad.)

New Simple Life, seen from a hill.
Roasted chicken pasta with feta and sun-dried tomatoes | K6,000
Big garden salad with feta and balsamic vinegar | K6,000
New Simple Life owner Saw Sander Kyi stands in front of her garden.

As you walk, you’re likely to spot a restaurant called New Simple Life. If you were already looking for it, you’ve probably heard that it’s one of the best restaurants in Myanmar. If not, you’re in for a treat.

New Simple Life specializes in a few simple Italian dishes – pizza, pasta, bruschetta, and salads. While not mind-blowing to read about on the menu, the care and knowledge that went into every bite of these yummy foods will take you by surprise.

The restaurant is run by Saw Sandar Kyi, a Yangon native whose life took her on a roundabout path toward an obsession with, and later a mastery of, French cuisine. She moved to Kalaw to open a restaurant and practice her passion, but since she likes to grow her own ingredients, and since the climate is more friendly to Italian food, she has happily adapted and now gets to share her creations with her ravenous neighbors – locals and foreigners alike.

Tazaungdaing is not the only good reason to visit Kalaw in October or November. These months are also puppy season. All the puppies that haven’t starved to death or been crushed by heavy things will be smiling and ready to play.

A walk around Kalaw and its environs will eventually lead you to Hi Bar, a tiny dive bar downtown that serves whiskey and gin and peanuts – no beer. It’s warm and cozy and full of regulars, some of whom will be happy to share the latest Kalaw gossip with you.

As the night deepens, the streets of Kalaw will fill with glowing processions of townsfolk out to sanctify the special night.

There are incendiary toys for sale throughout the town, so visitors can join in the celebration.

The main event in Kalaw during the Tazaungdaing festival starts when teams representing different local organizations haul out giant stacks of fireworks arranged carefully around the tops of bamboo poles.

The poles are erected one by one in a corner of the field and then lit. Each one sprays the crowd of hundreds with fireworks for several minutes, triggering a frenzy of adrenaline-hungry activity.

Some audience members stay back and watch the fountain of flames from afar.

While others run as close as they dare to the stack of explosives, dancing their way around the flaming projectiles coming at them. Wriggle the wrong way and you’ll get nailed by one of the fireballs, but if it hits any part of you that’s covered by a coat, you’ll hardly feel it.

kalaw fireworks
Photo: Lucas Karn

Like Taunggyi, Kalaw for Tazaungdaing is an epic experience. It also tends to be tastier, more affordable, more pleasant, and slightly less deadly.

You should go.

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