The festival is fantastic. Depending on who you ask, this is either "The Festival of Light(s)" or the "Fire Balloon Festival." The latter is more accurate, but doesn't begin to cover the carnival atmosphere or the sheer beauty of the balloons that are launched.
The people in the afternoon are just amateurs compared to the ones that come out in the evening. They bring even larger balloons (more classically shaped, no animals), but they decorate them with lights. And fireworks. The lights are candles: as the balloon fills, the team quickly hooks sets of candles in brackets that hold the flame away from the balloon. The candles are arranged in patterns, usually Burmese letters, sometimes images. It gets even better: once the balloon is full and straining at the ropes, they bring out a basket/undercarriage that is quickly attached. With my favourite launch, this consisted of thousands of multi-coloured candles. Once the balloon took off, it started shedding candles, each on its own miniature paper parachute. It sailed up, leaving a trail of slowly descending candles in red, blue, yellow, orange, and green ... It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.
This was followed by a balloon with a basket full of fireworks - this arrangement is fairly common, but this one started launching the fireworks a little too early, and a little too downwards. The huge crowd on the field was rained in sparks, chunks of burning stuff, and rockets. Suddenly I was even more happy to be a "VIP," and it occurred that making foreigners VIPs might be enlightened self-interest on the part of the city government as we had a corrugated roof overhead. This chaotic mess was beautiful, hilarious, and scary all at once. It didn't seem to seriously injure anyone, and it certainly didn't dampen the party. Later, another fireworks balloon went up properly and it was breathtaking, sending off rockets and sparkly stuff for two or three minutes as it ascended. This is the photograph above. It even launched a paper airplane that made lazy near-perfect circles around the field ... and then started releasing sparkles as it continued to glide down.