A Lot of Hot Air
A few years ago I opened the curtains of my hotel room and saw a house floating past the window.
I don’t think I had had too many magic mushrooms the night before, and I don’t think I had had too many glasses of Glenmorangie 25-year-old whisky … but there it was – a small house floating past my bedroom window.
A week ago I saw a giant chicken floating past my house.
Quick! Call the psychotherapist – call the ophthalmologist – call Nurse Ratched – or call the International Balloon Festival organisers … as I am not really out of my mind and as floating houses and giant chickens really do exist in the world of hot air balloons. There are also giant pandas, giant inflated balloons of Donald Trump, giant elephants, giant Pepsi cans, giant goldfish, giant bumblebees … giant … whatevers and where-evers.
A close encounter
Some years ago I helped organise a major event for a school in Australia. A hot air balloon was to be the major attraction at the fair, but weather and winds and circumstances decided otherwise.
- Some hot air balloons have seventy thousand cubic metres of hot air
- I weigh about eighty kilograms
… strong gusts of wind toppled the balloon and the basket just after it had been loaded with paying guests and I tried to stop the balloon escaping with those guests and some free-loading students, all of whom I imagined being whipped away by the growing winds, hurtled into the gusty skies … and plummeting into the Derwent River.
- 70,000 – 80 = disaster … and a no-flight
- Have you ever tried to hold back a manic steam train?
Puffing steam, grunting wheels, panting firemen loading coal into the beast’s maws … and Hall and one or two others straining and grunting and tugging on the velvet cords tethering the beast to terra firma …
- Not surprisingly, physics won.
The tethered balloon scraped its way across the field, students and parents and pilots and spectators leaped lemming-like to safety and the balloon soared, spluttered, settled and drooped like a punctured life jacket onto the field from which it had aspired to delusions of grandeur.
ABQ and CNX
That was enough of a love affair with fickle hot air balloons for many years until by chance I arrived in Albuquerque in September 2007 the same weekend their huge hot air balloon festival was happening. I was able to view – from a safe distance – the scores of balloons soaring silently above the New Mexico plains, and I had to admit the beasts had a grandeur about them – a sort of majesty that convinced me to take another look.
A good friend in Chiang Mai has been part of the organising committee for several years for the Chiang Mai International Balloon Festival (www.thailandballoonfestival.co) but for some reason I had never been able to get to any of the events. This year – one of life’s ironies – I was able to visit the Chiang Mai International Balloon Festival although my friend was back in her home country of Malaysia and not at all involved in the event.
Like all good writers I did my research, bought an on-line ticket, set the alarm for 4.30 am (I did not really know that such an hour actually existed and it took my small clock some time to work out what I was asking it to do), and drove through the blackest of nights to the field some kilometres north of Chiang Mai where the exciting program was to take place.
The Royal Thai Army has huge tracts of land all around the Kingdom, and as you drive from Chiang Mai the twenty or so kilometres north to Mae Rim, almost all the land is army-owned – including the delightfully named Cowboy Army Riding Club (www.facebook.com/farmcowboy), where the balloon festival was held.
I got there just before 6.00 am – a bitterly cold, black night, with a full moon just visible through the hazy smoke-filled skies. It is the “burning season” in Northern Thailand, a time when air pollution soars and tempers flare and asthmatics seek the safety of inner, closed, air-conditioned and air-filtered rooms.
The program had promised me a morning of delights:
- Balloon Morning Dance, Music and Breakfast on the field
Nope – not a sausage – and certainly not a balloon in sight nor a semi-quaver to be heard. An hour or so later a few people drifted in, a few pick-up trucks arrived with mysterious loads and people started to do things with vast sheets of plastic, small and large propane burners and small teddy bears tethered as unwitting passengers in the miniature baskets of the smallish balloons being prepared.
I suppose I should have been aware that “Chiang Mai Time” is a bit like “Fiji Time” or “Barcelona Dinner Time” – all rather moveable feasts and no-one really minds that 0600 becomes 0700 or 0730 or …
One or two huge balloons (including the giant chicken featured earlier) eventually materialised and were quite spectacular – but I was rather taken by the young woman whose small balloon – perhaps only two metres across and three metres tall and with a tiny basket with the inevitable stuffed furry animal – was held on a leash as she walked it around the Cowboy Army Riding Club rather like a doting mother with an air-borne poodle.
As the larger balloons were fired up – or inflated – or whatever the correct term is, the juxtaposition of other smaller balloons gave a festive air of merry colours like a kaleidoscope viewed backwards or the silks room of the local jockey club after a hard day’s riding. [See main image, left]
The morning fizzled out as the sun burned its way into the scarlet skies, most balloons were packed away and the young woman and young man on the PA system at the main stage continued to bellow things at the tiny crowd. Judging by the great array of potential food stalls and bars and hospitality tents and balloon-themed souvenir stalls, I guessed that the evening might be a better time to visit the event so I left and managed not to see the various local school kids’ musical performances and did not participate in making gift cards from recycled paper.
Enter the Tiger Drummers
In the morning mine was the only car on the field when I arrived.
In the evening, I queued for twenty or so minutes to get to the gates, then another twenty or so minutes to find a parking spot – but then it was straight through the gates to see what all the noise was.
A spectacular feature of this year’s event – apart from the balloons of course – was the Tiger Drums ensemble (www.tigerdrumthailand.com). The ensemble has a dozen or so drummers plus other musicians on flutes and other instruments, and dancers both classical Thai – and aggressive, manic, animal-inspired – all quite thrilling.
I bumped into a photographer from a local magazine who told me to stay for the ensemble’s final performance as it featured the full orchestra augmented by local musicians, two flame-throwing trucks, and a giant drum that was used as a sort of trampoline with the dancers leaping onto it from towers, bounding into the skies, somersaulting through the glare from the metre-long flames from the trucks and raising quite a dust storm as they danced, drummed, twirled and leaped over the dry grasses of the performance area in front of the stage.
The backdrop of a score of huge balloons, with their “sparkling glows”, made the evening’s entertainment memorable and the day – despite its early start – thoroughly enjoyable.
Events March 2018, September 2007
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2018
Man holding Balloon from Internet / Getty Images
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship