Isan Rocket Festival
Isan Rocket Festival (Hae Bang Fai)
At the beginning of May 2010, I stayed with some friends in the small Isan town of Phang Khon not far from Sakhon Nakhon and the Laos border at the time of the local Rocket Festival (Hae Bang Fai).
When I first heard the words Bang Fai - it sounded remarkably like 'Bun Fight' - it turned out to be that and more. I had worked out with a Thai friend that Bang Fai meant something like 'fireworks', so I was expecting a firework display. It turned out that the Bang Fai were enormous home-made rockets made of bamboo or plastic tubing, packed with gunpowder, and up to three meters in length - more like miniature ballistic missiles.
A friend from Udon Thani tells me that, for their festival, the revellers need permission from the local Air Traffic Control before they can launch.
Hae Bang Fai is a Lao rain-making Festival celebrated most famously in Yasothon but also in many towns and villages throughout the Isan Region and the Lao PDR. Some villages prefer the Hae Nang Maew festival, in which a yowling cat is paraded around the village in a basket, the villagers hoping presumably that the gods will take pity on the poor creature and send them rain - at which point I presume they will release the cat.
Many businesses close down for the days of the festival including the lady who did our laundry - compelling us to stay an extra, not unpleasureable, day.
On the first morning of the festival a merit making took place in each of the villages surrounding Phang Khon. At each village center money trees were assembled under the supervision of the village headman (Phuyai Bahn): 20 and 100 Baht bills were inserted into bamboo spills, and the spills pushed into the soft pith of coconuts where the hard shell had been removed from one end. We saw several of these 'Money Trees' being carried in the grand parade later.
The 'Money Tree' can be seen at merit-making events throughout Thailand.
In the afternoon there was a grand parade through the town. The Lord and Lady of the festival came first, perched somewhat precariously on a life-size model elephant, standing (also somewhat precariously) on the back of a three-wheeled cart.
Lord and Lady (and escort)
Large pickup-mounted floats followed, often in the shape of Thai longboats, but with huge not-always imitation rockets, often crowned with a dragon head, stretching from the front to well beyond the tail of the vehicle.
Dragon Rocket - possibly real
Local schools and colleges provided costume parades; vans crammed with amplifiers and huge speakers blared popular Luk Tung and Mor Lam songs for dancers in traditional Isan kilts. Boys dressed as girls and middle aged ladies dressed as tarts provided comedy. Towards the end of the afternoon most of the boys, and some of the girls, appeared to be drunk. The noise was deafening.
Dancers in traditional Isan Kilts
The older ladies of the district clad in traditional silk top and sarong marched more decorously, bearing the earlier prepared money trees as an offering to the local temple.
In the Lao PDR, rockets range from less than 12 kg of gunpowder to a maximum 120kg (about 264 lbs); competition rockets contain about 12kg or around 26.5 lbs. (Source: Illinois University SEAsite Laos
I don't think Thai rockets get quite so big!
The second day was the business end of the festival: in the morning a wooden launching platform, about 12 feet high was set up in the middle of a field, oriented away from the town, and a tented village of market stalls arose on the townward side.
There is much competition among local households as to who can make the most impressive Bang Fai - i.e. the biggest, and whose rocket can fly highest and furthest. During the afternoon lots of these home-made missiles were launched into the sky amid huge clouds of smoke, apparently to attract the attention of the gods, and request rain for the rice planting season.
I hope there were no accidents this year: I am told that two or three years ago a rocket turned back on itself and exploded in the tented village, killing one spectator and injuring several others.
Later that afternoon, we had just returned to a hamlet about 2km away from the field and about 90 degrees off the flight path, when a rocket roared a few feet over the rooftops with a noise like an RAF Tornado: where it came down I have no idea. Truly, Isan festivals are not for the faint hearted.
The Rains Arrive
I have to admit, though, that the day after the festival we drove back to Bangkok through heavy rainfall - maybe the gods did listen, or maybe they were just trying to drown out the Yowling Cat Festival.