Holy skyrockets Batman!
When I was a young boy, I used to save my pocket money to buy fireworks to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night – commemorating the day in 1605 when Fawkes tried to blow up the British Houses of Parliament. In Australia this came to be known as Cracker Night and we had huge and totally irresponsible bonfires with straw-stuffed effigies of Guy Fawkes merrily burning in hell.
A bucket of water usually stood by … just in case.
Sadly, the days of occupational health and safety – and the ever-present danger of bush fires in Australia – brought those childhood days of fun and creativity and danger to an end, and as far as I know, Cracker Night is no longer celebrated in Australia. As a child I don’t think I ever knew or cared who Mr Fawkes was or what he had tried to do … ignorance was bliss … and I bought Catherine wheels, double bungers, Roman candles, Chinese crackers, throw-downs, sparklers … and skyrockets.
Last week I learned what skyrockets really are.
A Thai and Laotian tradition
In many places in Thailand and Laos, skyrockets are fired into the heavens in the middle of May to get the attention of the rain gods. Good and timely rains mean good rice crops and prosperity and good health and good fortune. The Laotians figured that by firing rockets into the heavens was a more effective way of attracting the gods’ attention than by quietly praying and ringing temple bells.
- If I was an ancient Laotian god and suddenly spotted a red hot rocket flying towards my loosely-tied heavenly loin cloth I’d probably be very inclined to listen indeed …
History and tradition and the modern day all come together at Yasothon in Thailand’s far east Isaan province for the annual Boon Bung Fai – or Rocket Festival. It was ironic that the events designed to attract the gods’ attention worked superbly.
Just as the Saturday afternoon parade started its way down Chaeng Sanit Road, the skies opened. Perhaps those gods feared having even more rockets jetting into their underpants … and so gave us torrential rains.
For a few moments the parade fell apart as marchers dashed for shelter.
The rain soon eased and parade marshals got everyone back into place. I was able to walk alongside the procession, ducking into and out of the colourfully dressed locals, and under shelters and other people’s umbrellas, chatting to a man making sticky rice over an open fire on the back of a small wooden cart, photographing troupes of dancers and files of marchers … and generally having great fun.
Beautifully decorated floats dripped dried flowers no longer dried, elaborate rice garlands suddenly showed green sprouts of new spring growth, and those who had not had the forethought to apply water-proof make-up found their eyeliner, mascara and blusher running.
- And that was just the boys
Thailand is a wonderfully gender-inclusive country. LGBT people are welcomed and accepted here possibly more than in any other country. Yasothon is a tiny city of about 20,000 people, and the parade’s hundreds of marchers and dancers were men and women and women and men who dressed as men and women. Many men and women wore traditional royal Thai court dress and also wore heavy cosmetics … before the rains came. The rocket festival included cross-dressing and cross-generational games … and LOTS of booze.
But officer … I was just eating sticky rice …
I’d parked my car near the start of the parade route.
Within twenty metres I was offered my first bowl of sticky rice and a plastic tumbler of warm beer. As the afternoon went on – rain and wind notwithstanding – I was offered many more beers, several Thai whiskies and Thai rums and even more beers. The generosity and friendliness of everyone was wonderful.
Had I accepted even half of the boozy offers I would have found myself joining the deliriously happy – and sozzled – people dancing in the streets in front of the wall-to-wall sound stages.
The noise was phenomenal.
The torrential rains had soaked me from top to toe … but a few seconds in front of one of those sound stages saw the damp driven from my body like a Spielberg exorcism with clumps of sweat and piddles of ooze flying off into the afternoon mists, creating rainbows as they went.
If Judy Garland had been there to sing about rainbows her voice would have been drowned by the palpable noise from the multiple sound stages – an absolute physical presence buffeting passers-by.
Great clumps of rice on floats and in marchers’ hands dripped and sagged. The beautifully decorated rockets being proudly displayed in the parade lost some of their glitter. Young men, young girls, old ladies, trannies, old men, people of no discernable age or sexuality danced and joined in the parade. Music blared. People danced. Rain-soaked floats trundled along. Beautifully dressed men and women marched in the rain. Oh bliss.
It was, perhaps, the most joyous event I have ever been a tiny part of.
Bring on the big guns
In side streets and at the Phraya Thaen Public Park, vendors set up tables offering home-made skyrockets for sale. One hundred Thai baht (about three or four dollars) would buy one large rocket or about twenty smaller ones, but these fireworks were just the Lilliputan versions of their Brobdingnagian cousins weighing about 130 kilograms and over ten metres in length.
A length of bamboo is hollowed out and to make a “bong” which is then squeezed into a three-metre blue PVC pipe. A long bamboo tail is lashed to the plastic and bamboo engine, and then gunpowder is jammed in – in the same way that old cannons were loaded and tamped down before a cannonball was added for good luck.
- Except, perhaps, for the pirates
The rice farmers cum rocket engineers are required by competition rules to mix their own black powder – an unholy blend of sulphur, charcoal and potassium nitrate. I watched one rocket team packing their rocket. There were little piles of gunpowder here and there on the ground, and two men fearlessly smoking cigarettes watching their hard-working gunpowder-toting colleagues.
Small skyrockets have a payload of just one kilogram of gunpowder – and are called Bung Fai Kilos. Larger ones with up to one hundred and twenty kilograms of gunpowder are called Bung Fai Lan or Bung Fai Saen – as “saen” is the Thai word for 100,000. I guess they really should be called Bung Fai Saen Sorng Meun (120,000 grams).
The rockets are lashed to launch pads in an area marked off with DANGER signs declaring a 150-metre exclusion zone – a zone totally ignored by everyone.
These rockets are dangerous and it is surprising that there are not many more accidents. In 1999 a rocket misfired and came crashing back to ground, where it exploded killing four people and injuring eleven others. Airlines are warned of the festival and alter their routes accordingly – although as there is no way of predicting quite where the rockets will go, I guess it is a case of HIT or MISS.
A blaring loudspeaker starts the countdown that is quickly taken up by the crowds:
And then the rocket is ignited.
A small cloud of smoke puffs out its tail and is followed by a growing cyclone of smoke and flame … and if all goes well … the rocket pulls away from the launch pad and heads towards the anxious Laotian gods sitting up there on their clouds, with their hands firmly wrapped around their nether regions.
The rockets’ success is judged by the height they reach, how far they travel and by the beauty of the vapour trail.
If the rocket does not take off, I am told, then the crowd will seize the team members that built the shoddy thing and toss them into a muddly puddle. When I was there, all rockets took off … although one of the smaller ones fell apart mid-flight and came tumbling back to earth. Its little built-in parachutes slowed its fall and it crashed into a tree near the exclusion zone and continued to smoke and puff and pant.
And the crowds went wild
Well – quite surprisingly – no, they did not.
People tended to applaud politely as the large rockets took off, and the rocket engineers tended to jump up and down and wave their hands in the air (delighted, no doubt, that they were not to be tossed into those muddly puddles), but otherwise people just got on with their business of eating and drinking even more booze, buying little rockets and setting them off, chewing on lotus blossoms or fried chicken, or buying lottery tickets.
Again, this was perhaps ironic. A lottery ticket may give you a chance to win thousands of Thai baht but by being present at a rocket festival you are already participating in a sort of lottery: Will the rocket explode? Will its flight path lead it straight into the crowd? You pays your money and you takes your chances.
Yes – the crowds went wild during the Saturday parade and the Saturday booze fest – but Sunday was a remarkably quiet day.
Nothing much happens in Yasothon for about 360 days of the year …
As I drove out of this lovely little town, street sweepers had done a superb job of clearing away the debris from the previous day’s Bacchanal, the eardrum-shattering sound stages had been packed away, anxious water buffalo were munching on dried rice husks while keeping one eye on the heavens for incoming projectiles … and the crowds faded off to their homes to plan the next season’s rockets, new party gowns for the parade and elaborate parade floats.
I want to go again – and next time I promise to wear mascara and blusher and to dance in the rain-drenched streets.
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2019.
Journey May 2019
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight
- Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship