by Dave Stamboulis
The beginning of May is the time in Thailand where everyone is desperately praying for rain. In Bangkok, this is probably because everyone has been parched and heated beyond anything they can take, and since Songkran is over, about the only way to beat the heat is via the icebox. However up in the northeast, May marks the time when farmers begin to get ready for the planting season, and the foremost thing on their minds is the need for an optimal rainy season to ensure healthy and abundant crops. Thus they host one of the country’s biggest and certainly loudest celebrations, Bun Bang Fai, otherwise known as the Rocket Festival.
Bun Bang Fai is celebrated throughout Isan, in northeastern Thailand, as well as in Laos, but it is Yasothon which hosts the biggest party . The festival is a two-day event held on the weekend to ensure that city folks from around the country can go up to enjoy the festivities. The party actually gets going on Friday night, when there are epic “mor lam” country folk music competitions, with plenty of lao kao (rice wine) drinking and traditional dancing to boot.
Come Saturday morning, there are street processions featuring musicians, dancers, and traditional costumes aplenty. There are local beauty contests, and food vendors set up market stalls throughout the procession areas. Dozens of floats are paraded throughout the city, many of them bearing large ornamental rockets. And floats with bawdry phallic symbols, an homage to the fact that Bun Bang Fai is also a pagan fertility festival dating back to pre-Buddhist times, and it is not only fertile crops that the villagers are hoping for.
Sunday is the main event everyone waits for, and hundreds of locals take out their arsenals. The rockets used for Bun Bang Fai are made out of bamboo, long trunks which have been hollowed out like those that are used for smoking, with PVC casings put around them these days to help reduce the risk of injury or errant explosion. Portions of black gunpowder are densely packed into the rockets, a fuse is attached, and the missiles are then ready for launching. The rockets are wheeled out to the large Phaya Thaen Park, where they are prepared to head skyward. When the gunpowder is lit, the rockets hiss, whistle and, with an explosion of smoke, they are released into the air. The idea is that they will go high into the sky and awaken the gods of rain, who will shower the farmers with prosperity in the form of a bountiful rainy season.
There are various awards given to the rockets, which are divided into small, medium, and then the epic “Lan” rockets, which are around ten meters long and packed with 120 kilograms of gunpowder! The rockets compete against each other to see which can get the highest, travel the farthest, as well as which one creates the most beautiful smoke plume and vapor trail. Needless to say, the large rockets can be extremely dangerous, especially if anything should go wrong upon takeoff. There is a tradition at Bung Ban Fai of throwing participants whose rockets fizzle out at the start into a puddle of mud, which is usually seen as a bit of teasing and good-natured joking. However, another reason for this is that, in case of failure, a dumping in the mud also serves as a safety precaution (think cool and wet) in case the rocket launcher has been burned.
The recent Australian-Lao film “The Rocket,” Australia’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, is all about a Bun Bang Fai festival in Laos, and shows just how much a part of local tradition it remains and how important a Bun Bang Fai celebration is to the local community. As Thailand continues to expand, develop, and change at a pace far faster than a flying rocket, upcountry festivals like this are a great way to experience traditional Thailand at its best, with a combination of great hospitality, fun, and a continuation of ritual all set against the backdrop of one great party.
The most convenient way to get to Yasothon is by first going to Ubon Ratchathani, which is a 100 kilometers from Yasothon by bus. Nok Air, Air Asia, and Thai Airways all fly several times daily to Ubon. Thai Railways also has sleeper trains and a regular day service from Bangkok to Ubon, and express bus company Nakhon Chai Air has comfortable first-class buses running the route. It takes about an hour and a half from Ubon to Yasothon by local bus.
For more information, contact the TAT tourism office in Ubon Ratchathani (045 243770)