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Who would expect to find in a remote corner of the most southern tip of Myanmar, a native adventure- seeker braving open sky and space with a primitive balloon of his own making, and exhib­iting without any protective equipment, his gymnastic feats in the air, not only once but several times?

He was one U Kyaw Yin, or better known till today as Balloonist U KyawYin, though he is no more now.

Born in the year 1873 of father U Shwe Bwa and mother Daw Mann Ye of Pan Ta Lei village in Dawei township, in the Taninthayi Division of Myanmar, U KyawYin was the fifth son in the family. Since his childhood little Kyaw Yin took to acrobatics, gym­nastics, running, jumping, all kinds of activities that involved exertion and risk, which largely explained why he enjoyed physical fitness and good health till his old age. Born with strong will power, self-con­fidence and a love for sheer adventure, the little boy was destined to become a self-made balloonist of national fame.

He received only vernac­ular education at the local village school which taught only three Rs’ and there was neither science nor technology in the school curriculum. Yet he learned from experienced elders some basic principles of balloon-making and by trial and error he successfully constructed a balloon made of ordinary white cotton material, with a circumference of 100 cubits and a height of 30 cubits. A furnace fed by crude earth oil was lit just below the balloon which when filled with hot air and smoke swelled up and soared. It is said that in clement weath­er, his smoke filled balloon could rise up to an altitude of about two miles.

He was serving as a draw­ing master at the Govern­ment High School in Dawei town, when he first went up with his balloon in 1929. Partly because he had no technical or scientific train­ing in balloon-making and balloon-ascent, there were some difficulties in obtain­ing from the authorities permission for his balloon ascent. He was in his early fifties when he first went up with his balloon. There was an iron bar attached to the chain below the balloon, on which U Kyaw Yin performed marvelously his gymnastic acts as the balloon went up into the sky. He wore just simple Myanmar traditional dress including a headgear called ‘gaung baung’ without any protective equipment. In 1930, on an island in the Kandaw Gyi Lake, Yangon, while he was displaying acrobatics on the iron bar of his balloon, the balloon struck against the trees and the balloonist dropped onto the motor road. Luckily he only got some minor bruises on his chin and legs. When the bruises were healed dauntless U Kyaw Yin made many more bal­loon-ascents.

His exploits were terribly dangerous. Many a time did he fall when his balloon met with accidents, but many a time he narrowly escaped death or even seri­ous injury.

Within a decade of his balloonist career from 1929 to 1939, at the age of 56 to 66 years, he used five balloons for 55 ascents to give several gymnastic performances in the air, all over the country. Most of his shows were fundraisers for the construction of pa­godas and schools. He won several medals and awards for his hair-raising feats.

His attempt at a world tour to display his bold ex­ploits unfortunately failed. Had it ever succeeded, he would have made an early entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. However, on British Civil Serviceman named Maurice Collis who later became a writer of world renown gives in his book Into Hidden Burma the following credit to the Myanmar balloonist:

“One day a man called Maung KyawYin came to my house and asked permission to make a bal­loon-ascent. The balloon, I learnt, was lifted by hot air, like the paper balloons sent up at festivals… Needless to say, I immediately granted the permission and warned the head of police, Mr.Hall, to expect a big crowd on the day fixed. The ascent was to be from the flat shore below my house.

“Before dawn the sound of voices came up from the town. This sound of voices before dawn in the darkness is beautiful. It came from the crowds hastening to take up positions to witness Kyaw Yin ascend in his balloon. At seven I went down the hill. By that time quite ten thousand people had assembled. The hill was so thickly covered with bright clothes that it seemed massed with flowers. The open space by the sea edge was covered. In the middle, behind a palisade, the black cloth balloon swelled up, I entered the enclosure. A furnace was lit below the balloon,which was thus filled with hot air and smoke. The notabilities present de­sired me to present a gold medal to Kyaw Yin. Soon the balloon was straining and Kyaw Yin, after pros­trating himself to the four quarters of the sky, took hold of his trapeze, told his men to let go the rope so and was whirled upwards, hanging head downwards from his bar. There was no wind and he went up straight, but after 250 feet the air in his balloon cooled and he began to descend. A slight draught now carried it over the sea. There was a shout from the crowd and a rush for the bank. But I had ordered the port launch, the Jalinga, to follow him in such a contingency, and as he was precipitated into the sea, the launch crew rescued him. The balloon lay on the sea, smoking like a dying dragon. Soon Kyaw Yin was seen arriving, standing on the roof of the Jalinga. The crowd gave him a great ovation. People were mad with joy. It was a great spectacle for quiet Mergui. KyawYin pressed through the crowd to where I sat in my car. I gave him my hand.

He took a risk in going up so near the sea, though the early morning was generally without breeze or, what there was, from the sea. The drift of air that carried him out was a surprise and he might have been drowned, for a fast ebb was running. Shaken by the danger he had escaped, and moved by the ovation, he was in a state of great emotion when he came ashore, as were all the spectators in their admiration of his feat and joy at this escape.”

His last balloon-ascent was performed in Dawei town in 1939, and it was in that year that he passed away peacefully.

Source: The Traveller Journal