The rocket festival, known in Thai as ‘Bun Bang Fai,’ is an ancient local festival that has been carried out continuously till modern times. It is popularly celebrated in Yasothon, a province in Thailand’s northeast, and is usually held in the second week of May.
In Thailand, the month of May is the beginning of the rainy season and farmers are ready to begin planting their rice fields. The festival is associated with traditional beliefs in the supernatural powers that help promote the production of rice crops for the coming planting season.
Rocket Festival Highlights:
- Bun Bang Fai rocket contests
- Processions and parades
- Cheerleading contests
- Miss Bun Bang Fai beauty contest
- Fun fair
- Stage drama
- Open-air theatre
- Folk music
- Mor Lam folk performance
- Folk entertainment
Rocket Festival History
The legend has it that once there was a rain god named Vassakan who loved to be worshiped with fire. The townspeople created a rocket or ‘Bang Fai’ to send to heaven, where the god resided. They believed that the god would hear their entreaties and bless them with plentiful rain for rice cultivation. So the celebration is entirely to the god of rain.
Scholars study the centuries old rocket festival tradition today as it may be significant to the history of rocketry in the East, and perhaps also significant in the post-colonial socio-political development of the Southeast Asian nation states. Economically, villages and sponsors bear the costs in many locations in Laos and in northern Isan (Northeast Thailand). The festivals typically begin at the beginning of the Rainy Season, in the sixth or seventh lunar months.
These festivals are presumed to have evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rites held to celebrate and encourage the coming of the rains, from before the 9th Century discovery of black powder. It may also be said that Lao culture is not lacking in earthy, bawdy themes, with rockets festivals the most sexually oriented and bawdy of the lot. Coming immediately prior to the planting season, the festivals offer an excellent chance to make merry before the hard work begins; as well as enhancing communal prestige, and attracting and redistributing wealth as in any Gift culture.
Anthropology Professor Charles F. Keyes advises:
“In recognition of the deep-seated meaning of certain traditions for the peoples of the societies of mainland Southeast Asia, the rulers of these societies have incorporated some indigenous symbols into the national cultures that they have worked to construct in the post-colonial period. Giving the “Bun Bang Fai or fire rocket festival of Laos” as one example, he adds that it remains “,far more elaborate in the villages than in the cities.”
Like several other Thai festivals, Buddhist monks would be in attendance for the ceremony. The rockets, launch platforms and other decorations for this event are prepared for several weeks before the actual event. An average rocket is some nine meters in length and carries 20-25 kilograms of gunpowder.
Bang Fai Rockets
Jaruat is the proper term for rockets used as missiles or weapons, but Bang Fai skyrockets are gigantic black-powder bottle rockets. Tiny Bottle rockets are so called because they may be launched from a bottle. In the case of the similar appearing Bang Fai, also spelled ‘Bong Fai’, the ‘bottle’ is a bong, a section of bamboo Culm used as a container or pipe (and only colloquially as a pipe for smoking marijuana.)
Originally the rockets were made out of natural materials, but these days, they are slightly more sophisticated. Rockets are packed with several kilos of gunpowder instead. In order to make the rocket festival much more fun, various competitions for the biggest and highest flying rocket are held, all conducted with the undying Thai spirit of ‘sanook’.
Bang Fai come in various sizes, competing in several categories. Small ones are called Bang Fai Noi. Larger categories are designated by the counting words for 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000: Meun “Saen” and the largest Bang Fai, the Lan. These counting words see use in many contexts to indicate increasing size or value. Lan in this context may be taken to mean extremely large as well as extremely expensive and extremely dangerous: Bang Fai Lan are nine metres long and charged with 120 kg of black powder. These may reach altitudes reckoned in kilometers, and travel dozens of kilometers down range (loosely speaking, as they can go in any direction, including right through the crowd). Competing rockets are scored for apparent height, distance, and beauty of the vapor trail. A few include skyrocket pyrotechnics. A few also include parachutes for tail assemblies, but most fall where they may.
Yasothon Rocket Festival
Since the March 1, 1972, separation of Yasothon from Ubon Ratchathani Province, with its world-famous Candle Festival, Yasothon’s provincial capital has elaborately staged its now world-famous Rocket Festival annually over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend that falls in the middle of May.
On the festival day, rockets are paraded to the launch site. Villagers dress in colorful traditional costumes, playing, teasing and dancing, to accompany the procession.
The climax of the festival is the launch time. The rockets are fired from their launch platforms one by one. Noisy folk music and cheers can be heard for each liftoff. The rocket that reaches the greatest height is declared the winner. The owner of this rocket dances and pushes for rewards from the crowds. The owners of rockets that exploded or failed to fly are thrown in the mud.
Whether or not their wishes are granted as they believe, the festival helps strengthen and promote harmony among the villagers, which will be needed when the new crop season begins.