How do you make it rain when you need it? In a modern country, they would shoot a passing cloud full of silver iodide. In a more traditional one, they would turn to a shaman, like, for example, pawang hujan in Indonesia. But in Laos and the neighboring region of Thailand, Isaan, especially around the city of Yasothon, they tackle the problem simply: make a lot of rockets, shoot them straight up and make holes in the sky, letting the water out. Since this ceremony, Bun Bang Fai or Rocket Festival takes places at the beginning of the rainy season, the method has been proven to be ultimately reliable. Tropical downpours may be a hindrance to a traveler, but for the local farmers, they translate as abundant growth of crops. The festival, therefore, involves a great deal of merriment and, predictably, alcohol. There is also an element of competition: the rockets are judged according to the height of their flight, and specifically in Yasothon - the beauty of decorations, inevitably opulent.
Historically, the rockets used for Bun Bang Fai were hollowed out bamboo trunks stuffed with gunpowder. This old-school approach can still be observed in Laos, but in Thailand, the arrangement is much more modern, official and pompous. Trucks and tractors fill the main road, dragging a procession of overly adorned missiles that resemble portable temple spires more than flying devices. Yet they fly. One by one, the rockets are lifted and mounted on launching scaffolds, and then set off. Series of bangs shake the ground, and the tubes - plastic (the times of bamboo are gone) - burst into heavens like battering rams, trailing smoke and shedding pieces of decorations. Monsoon officially begins.
While not exactly a match for Space-X, the gunpowder rockets are powerful enough. The largest and the most tactically built ones reach the height of a few kilometres before burning out. Accidents are rare, but they happen - if a rocket explodes at launch, people might get injured or killed, and if it simply fails to take off, the tradition dictates that its owner should be dipped in the mud!
While the official explanation for this event is the worship of Phaya Thaen, the god of rain, its cultural roots are simpler. After all, when you use an elongated object to penetrate the giver of life and bring that life force out, the obvious association leaps to the mind. And do not forget, we are talking fertility here. So, in addition to this scaled-down version of the Thai space program, Bun Bang Fai comes with a strong sexual twist. Exaggeratedly playful cross-dressers flirt with each other, locals and tourists alike (Westerners get special attention), and primitive wooden toys made of two moving parts (use your imagination) are sold. Some performers may parade with giant phalli on sticks, and the general air of naughtiness is strong, or perhaps it is just the smell of cheap local booze.
It goes without saying that accommodation in Yasothon should be booked well in advance - the festival draws huge crowds of domestic and foreign tourists. Travelers may feel a bit too welcome - it is nearly impossible to stay sober. The risk of being hit by a piece of a burnt-out rocket falling out of the sky is negligible, but keep your distance from the launching sites: the blasts are real. As often as not, the rains actually begin slightly before Bun Bang Fai, so expect to get muddy. Various cultural events last for three days, with the actual launch taking place on the last one. The dates of the festival vary, but usually, it falls in the second half of May or in early June.
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