July 24, 2017
The vast majority of the people of the Isaan region depend on the agriculture of the flat plains. In the summer months, the temperature can be brutal. The sun beats down on those working the fields and the crops are dry. People around the country pray for rain.
Since time immemorial, the locals of Isaan have been practicing a unique tradition to make the rains come. They fire a volleys of rockets at the heavens.
The Bun Bang Fai, or rocket merit-making festival, is one of the most chaotic and visually arresting celebrations found anywhere in Thailand. Locals launch handmade rockets up to several meters in length to beseech the rain god, Phaya Thaen, to unleash his deluge on the thirsty landscape below.
The Piety and the Party
Me and my friends I went to high school with here in Yasothon decided to start a rocket team eight years ago to carry on the practices of our ancestors
The festival takes place throughout the Isaan region, which encompasses much of the area between the capital and Laos. But, the largest and most well-known festival occurs in Yasothon on the second Sunday of May every year.
Despite the advancing pace of development in the rest of the country, ritual and culture still have a firm hold on people’s everyday lives in the northeast. Compared to Thailand’s metropolises, this area is so distant it might as well be on another planet when it comes to infrastructure.
The lead up to the rocket launch day on the grounds of Phaya Thaen Park starts out in a more subdued manner as processions of dancing girls and traditional floats make their way through Yasothon’s streets, though this quickly makes way for more robust celebrations.
The following day sees stages spring up along the streets that were previously filled with pious parades. It’s a space for the various rockets teams to dance and drink the night away before the main event the next morning.
Stacked high on each stage, speakers blast modern and traditional Thai songs, some performed by live bands. It was at the stage hosted by the Intimate Friends rocket team with whom I most became acquainted. Srayuth, a Yasothon local now living in Bangkok, returns to his hometown every year for the festivities.
“Me and my friends I went to high school with here in Yasothon decided to start a rocket team eight years ago to carry on the practices of our ancestors,” Srayuth says, offering me another cup of beer and ice as his teammates rocked out on stage.
As the sun rose over Phaya Thaen Park on Sunday preparations were already underway to get the launches started. Five platforms resembling large ladders of various heights for the 3 different rocket classes stood in a field apart from the main viewing area. Crowds filled the area and vendors sold everything from food to small rockets for the whole family can enjoy.
Waking the Rain God
Groups of men hoisted their rockets to the tops of the launch platforms for others to attach them to the top with loosely bundled ropes before takeoff. Standing amongst the men near the bases of the platforms the atmosphere is electric.
The rockets aren’t science fair projects. They lift off with such force it can be felt in the bones. These massive projectiles rise high in the air, spin, and, occasionally, explode – sometimes with disastrous results.
In the crowd filled with anticipation, there’s also a healthy bit of wagers being made on the side.
“I saw a lot of money change hands after rockets were launched, and some not too happy people who had to pay up,” observed Steve Boitano, an American expatriate visiting Yasothon for the second time to see the rocket festival.
After each launch those unlucky enough to have lost a bet slowly but surely make their way to a mud puddle to take a traditional jump into the mire. As the day wears on, more and more unlucky souls covered in mud wander around the grounds of the park in varying states of intoxication.
After the last launch of the day, the lucky teams who won the official cash prizes, the highest being $1,475 USD were escorted on foot by dancing precessions back to their neighborhoods and villages.
The next morning, as if on cue, a hard rain drenched the parched town. The rockets sated the mighty Phaya Thaen once again.