The north-east of Thailand, a region known as Isaan, has traditionally been a pre-dominantly rural farming area and it is this region that holds one of Thailand’s more unusual festivals every May. In particular, the town of Yasothon has become renowned for the Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival to herald the start of the rice-planting season.
Traditional Folk Beliefs
In the agricultural areas of north-east Thailand and Laos, rain arriving at the right time in the rice-planting season can be the difference between success and failure for the rice crop. Old folk beliefs in Isaan say that the rains will only fall when the gods are in the mood for love. To encourage this, festivals and parties have traditionally been held all over Isaan to cajole the gods into a bit of amorous activity during the sixth lunar month (usually in May). This has always involved lots of merry making with food, drink and dancing at the start of the rice-planting season. The ancient fertility rites date back centuries with phallus-shaped bamboo tubes packed with charcoal and nitrates (gunpowder) launched into the skies. This time of the year is also a time to make-merit in the Buddhist tradition and novice monks are often ordained during the festival.
Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival
Although the festivals are held in villages and towns throughout Isaan, it is the Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival that has developed into the biggest and most well-known in Thailand. It is usually held over a three-day period during the second weekend in May. Parties are held throughout the weekend culminating in the rocket launches on the final day. It’s fair to say that Thai people like a bit of ‘sanuk’ and this is especially true in Isaan where the rocket festival heralds the last chance for people to really let their hair down before the back-breaking work begins in the rice-fields. Alcohol, food and sexual innuendo are all central themes to the party atmosphere. There are plenty of phallic symbols or lingams on display and risqué songs and jokes are the order of the day. Beauty pageants, street parades, fun fairs and music concerts all contribute to make this a really colourful event.
Despite the light-hearted nature to the festival, craftsmen and villagers can take months building their rockets which can be beautifully decorated and carved. The rockets are paraded through the streets before they are launched and much kudos is gained by the teams that have the most beautiful rockets as well as the ones which go the highest or produce the most impressive vapour trail. Bamboo is still used for the rockets, but modern concessions mean that plastic or PVC tubing can also be used. Some of these rockets can be over 10 metres high and filled with dozens of kilos of gunpowder. With the aid of launch-pads approaching Cape Canaveral proportions, the biggest rockets can climb thousands of metres into the sky. Surprisingly, given the combination of rocket-propelled devices and throngs of intoxicated people, accidents are still quite rare. Tradition dictates that the owners and teams involved in unsuccessful rocket launches get thrown into a muddy pond, but it’s also sanuk for anybody to jump in.
Getting to Yasothon
Hotels in Yasothon charge much higher rates during the festival and accommodation is usually booked out months in advance. An alternative is to stay in Ubon Ratchathani (98 kms away) and make a day trip to Yasothon. A bus journey from Ubon to Yasothon takes around 1.5 to 2 hours. Ubon Ratchathani is at the end of the north-east rail line with trains taking an average of 9 hours from Bangkok. Flights to Ubon from Bangkok take just over an hour.