April 9, 2016
Reaching for the sky in Thailand’s North East and where the people of Isan have their own way of communicating with the Spirits
Post revised March 2017
While April is undoubtedly the month of Songkran, May in the Kingdom is the month of ‘Rockets’. These huge pyrotechnics are more the ‘WMD’ proportion than the fireworks that most of us would have encountered. They come in all shapes and sizes from the cylindrical to massive sky bound cartwheels that reach high into the day time sky and which in turn seem to get bigger and bigger each year. (You Tube)
Bun Bang Fai
Rocket Festivals (known as Bun Bang Fai) are indigenous to the Isan region and take place throughout North East Thailand, prior to the start of the rainy season, during May-June, with the exact dates specific to each village.
This ancient festival is thought to have originated from neighbouring Lao, (while others say it came from Cambodia), and is believed to predate Buddhism; the festival is also widely believed to be a variant of fertility rites and an offering to the spirits, in particular to “Phaya Thaen”, the god of rain and Phosop the goddess of rice, to ask for both the much needed rain and a bountiful harvest.
See more in our post how Thai farmers are returning to this Thai Goddess, in their fight to feed their families.
Bringing together people from different villages
The event is usually of a communal nature, where local villages will produce at least one rocket, built by the people in the village. Traditionally bamboo is cut and dried, to be later decorated with bright coloured paper, which would in some cases mean the rockets would then be take on the appearance of dragons or even jet planes. Today’s rockets are more likely to be made from UPC.
Once carefully filled with gun powder they are carried to a staging Wat where they are judged, by their peers and those, that want to bet on what rocket will travel the furthest. According to Aerothai, 56.5 billion baht is gambled on Bang Fai each year.
Some-time later within the temple grounds there is a ceremony, where the rockets are carried around the wat three times. Some people carry the priests, while others beat on drums or dance. The shear size of today’s rockets means it can takes many men to carry one rocket, because the rockets are often over four meters long.
The Four largest events are as below, all of which allow you to step back in time to see how the people of Isan have for centuries celebrated this time of year. Click on Yasothon Rocket Festival below, for more details on what is the biggest and without doubt the strangest event.
Nong Khai: Annually in May
Udon Thani: Annually May See our post The Rocket Festival and the Legend of Kham Lai Horse
Some of the smaller Rocket Festivals also held in May are:
Further smaller events held in June:
Suvannabhumi District and Patoomrat District both in the Roi Et Province.
Three days of festivities
Where ever the festivals are held, they almost all follow the same pattern of events and rituals and last for 2-3 days.
The first day is set aside for a merit-making ceremony conducted at the local temple.
The second day revolves around a competitive parade, where highly decorated mock rockets are adorned upon equally elaborate and colourful floats, or Hae Bangfai. (It would not be a good idea to have the actual at times 8 metre length tubes filled with high explosives paraded around the streets).
The principal theme of the floats is the legend of Phadaeng and Nang Ai, the tragic love triangle story of King Phadaeng, Princess Aikham, and the Naga Prince, Phangkhi. These at times massive floats are paraded through their respective towns, accompanied by traditional Isan music played on the flute, long drums, gongs and the electric Phin, (3-stringed lute which is reminiscent of surf rock guitar), along with traditionally dressed Isan dancers.
The Final Day
While the celebrations continue, with normally music concerts and displays featuring local customs and handmade products, the serious business starts of igniting and sending these home-made massive projectiles into the sky. (You Tube)
It is also the point when your ears which will have already taken a beating from the mass of noise from all the live bands and huge loud speakers that accompany the festivities, are now assaulted by the noise from the heaven bound rockets, which can number around 50 and reach altitudes of tens of thousands of metres.
There is a competitive edge to the festival, between the villagers (and other provinces) on who can produce the best float and the best rocket, it is also where the local people will make small wagers on each rocket, on just how long each will stay airborne. While gambling is illegal in Thailand, as with most large events the authorities are conspicuous by their absence.
While rocket festivals by there very nature have to be planned in advance, there are a number of rituals, carried out in the region if the much needed rain does not appear. See more in our post Using cats, porn & snakes to make rain in Thailand.
More on Northeast Thailand (Isan)
Isan’s (also written as Isaan, Isarn, Issarn, Issan, Esan, or Esarn), culture is predominantly Lao, and has much in common with that of the neighboring country of Laos. This affinity is shown in the regions’ cuisine, dress, temple architecture, festival and art.
The Buddhist temple (or Wat) is figuratively speaking the center of most villages, used not only for religious ceremonies, but also for festivals and as assembly halls. They are mostly built in the Lao style, with less ornamentation than in Central Thailand. Lao style Buddha images are also prevalent.
Agriculture is the main economic activity, but due to the socioeconomic conditions and hot, dry climate output lags behind that of other parts of the country. This is Thailand’s poorest and largest region and holds approx. 40% of the total population of Thailand.
The main language of the region is Isan (similar to Lao), followed by Thai while Khmer is spoken in parts of the South, by the likes of the Kuy People of Thailand (Known as the elephant hunters of Southeast Asia). The Kuy follow customs more similar to those of Cambodia than to those of the Thai and Lao, that said most of the population of Isan is of Lao origin
Rocket Festivals in Thailand
Bun Bang Fai is the time when local people will let their hair down and party before the hard work of planting begins. The time is one of joy and merit making with food and drink in evidence everywhere all wrapped up in a carnival atmosphere.
For more on the biggest, loudest, raunchiest and most bizarre Rocket Festival possibly in the world click here
“The events are a must see if you are in this part of the Kingdom with so much history, noise and sheer delight in the faces of those that attend it would almost be a crime if you over looked this festival.”
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