In the rural heartlands of Thailand, the timely arrival of the rains is crucial to the rice crop. And in a tradition that dates back centuries, Thai people encourage the rains by launching home-made rockets into the sky at the start of the rice-planting season in May.
Encouraging the rains
Rocket Festivals are held at various locations across Thailand, but is the north-east region of Isaan where the tradition is strongest. There are different interpretations of Isaan folklore with one version stating that the rains will only arrive when the gods are in the mood for love. To encourage some celestial romance, raucous parties are held at the start of the rice-planting season. As part of the Bung Ban Fai Rocket Festival shenanigans, phallus-shaped bamboo tubes packed with charcoal and gunpowder are launched into the skies. These are often decorated with nagas, a serpent-like creature which features in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and is said to keep away bad spirits.
Making the rockets
Some of the rockets are massive, standing over 30 feet high (10 metres) and packed with more than 100 kg of gunpowder. Fired from makeshift launch-pads, the most powerful rockets can climb thousands of feet into the sky. In days gone by, the rockets were made out of only bamboo and although that is still the main material used, some of the larger projectiles may also use PVC tubing or plastic.
There is much local pride at stake with craftsmen from different villages spending months perfecting and decorating their rockets. Ahead of the bung fai (rocket firing), the rockets are mounted on chariots and paraded through the streets of towns and villages. Awards are given not just to the rocket which climbs the highest, but also to the team that produces the most attractive looking rocket or most impressive vapour trail.
Not all rockets launch as planned and any team involved in a dud launch runs the risk of getting thrown into a muddy pond by the other teams. It’s all light-hearted sanuk with lots of alcohol, food and loud music (featuring mor lam country songs) forming part of the bawdy festivities. Planting rice is hard work and the Rocket Festivals represents the last chance for rice farmers to let their hair down before the more serious business ahead. As part of the fertility rites, there is a lot of sexual innuendo with plenty of phallic symbols and lingams on display to prompt the gods into getting frisky and producing the rains.
What are the dates for the Rocket Festivals?
Exact dates can vary from region to region, but the Rocket Festivals are held from late April through to early June. Underlining the importance of rice to Thailand, the Royal Ploughing Ceremony takes place in Bangkok as another part of the tradition to encourage a good rice planting season.
Where to see the Rocket Festivals
Rocket Festivals take place at a number of locations in the central, north, and north-east provinces. But it is those in the north-east region of Isaan which are the best-known. And of all the Rocket Festivals in Thailand, the town of Yasothon holds the most famous Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival.
Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival
The Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival normally takes place over the second weekend in May with parties and street parades ahead of the launching of the rockets. Accommodation in Yasothon is usually fully booked well in advance of the festival and it can be difficult to find a room. As an alternative, you can stay in the city of Ubon Ratchathani (60 km away) and make a day trip to Yasothon.