April 23, 2014 00:00
By Phoowadon Duangmee
The Northeast province of Yasothon prepares for its annual Bung Fai Festival
Yasothon, 600 kilometres northeast of Bangkok, is gearing up for the “big bang” next month with the annual Rocket Festival scheduled to take place from May 9 to 11.
The rockets, the highlights of the annual Bung Fai Festival, mean no harm to Laos, Cambodia or even to neighbouring villages, but are aimed at the heavens and convey a very important message to the gods: “let the rain pour down on our fields”.
Like many festivals in Thailand, Bung Fai “literally rockets of fire” would not be complete without plenty of fun and crazy activities. Drawing upwards of 50,000 spectators, the event features a rocket competition, crazy mud dances and plenty of eating and drinking.
This year South Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Lao teams are joining the fest and will be trying to outdo local rocket science.
Phrya Than public park serves as both centre stage and the launch pad.
On the first few days, the locals will leave their routine work behind, and head to the local temples for rocket making.
Out on the empty Isaan plains, Yasothon folk don't need quantum physics to make their rockets fly into the blue sky. Led by monks, who seem to have the formula, these rural engineers put the gunpowder inside a long plastic pipe. The secret lies in how to make the rocket fly high.
Once the rockets are done, they're loaded on to floats. Pulled by handsome bulls, the procession marches around the town allowing visitors to admire the gigantic missiles up close. In between the procession of floats, are groups of white-powdered men wearing frog masks and doing a weird dance.
The whole atmosphere is an unfakeable indicator of the style and emotion of Isaan.
On launch day, Sunday, May 11, thousands of people converge in Yasothon’s civic park. Projectiles shoot off everywhere – big ones every half hour, small ones all the time. Groups of monks sit under the trees while families wander past the vendors selling beer, lao khao liquor, chicken, wooden phalluses and balloons.
The crowd thickens where the giant rocket launchers stand at the far end of the park. These respectable-sized rockets are made of blue PVC drainage pipe and packed with explosives.
The higher the rockets go, say the locals, the more rain will come. The higher the rockets go, say the gamblers, the more they'll win on their wagers.
But not every rocket will fly. If yours didn’t go anywhere, expect an embarrassing treat – dancing in the mud until you look like a walking cookie.
There is plenty of shouting to help bring forth good rains for wealth and for survival. Most do, but some don’t – generally those that are too big, too powerful and way too ambitious.
If you go
_The Rocket Festival takes place in Yasothon from May 9 to 11. The hotels are usually fully booked. If you drive, take a tent, you can pitch it in the temple grounds. Mukdahan province, a short drive from Yasothon, is your best bet for a comfy bed.