Every year from April until June, the skies over the vast northeastern region of Thailand known as Isan fills with the smoke of rockets rising up over the rice fields. The rockets range from the traditional cylindrical missiles to rotating contraptions that are as dangerous as they look. Welcome to the annual Bun Bang Fai Festival (ประเพณีบุญบั้งไฟ — Prapheni Bun Bang Fai), where the superstition of firing locally-made bamboo rockets towards the heavens in hopes of beckoning the rain-gods before crop season draws huge crowds of locals and adventurous travelers alike. The most popular is these is that held in Yasothon’s provincial capital of the same name. The Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Festival usually falls in the middle of May, or just before the start of rainy season and crop planting. In 2018, the event took place from May 11 to 13.
The merit-making ceremony is traditionally practiced by ethnic Lao people throughout much of Isan and Laos, in numerous villages and municipalities near the beginning of the wet season. Celebrations typically include preliminary music and dance performances, competitive processions of floats, dancers and musicians on the second day, and culminating on the third day in competitive firings of home-made rockets. Local participants and sponsors use the occasion to enhance their social prestige, as is customary in traditional Buddhist folk festivals throughout Southeast Asia.
Bun (บุญ) — merit (Buddhism) is from Pali Puñña merit, meritorious action, virtue, and Sanskrit पुण्य puṇya virtuous or meritorious act, good or virtuous works
Bang (บั้ง), alternative spelling bong บ้อง,) — a cutting, specifically of bamboo.
Fai (ไฟ) — fire (classical element)
Prapheni (ประเพณี) — tradition, from the Sanskrit परंपर parampara, an uninterrupted series, regular series, succession ‘to be handed down in regular succession
The Rocket Festival and other similar Buddhist festivals are presumed to have evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rites held to celebrate and encourage the coming of the rains, from before the 9th century invention of black powder. This festival displays some earthy elements of Lao folklore. Coming immediately prior to the planting season, the festivals offer an excellent chance to make merry before the hard work begins, as well as enhancing communal prestige, and attracting and redistributing wealth as in any gift culture.
Scholars study the centuries-old rocket festival tradition today as it may be significant to the history of rocketry in the East, and perhaps also significant in the postcolonial socio-political development of the Southeast Asian nation states. Economically, villages and sponsors bear the costs in many locations in Laos and in northern Isan. The festivals typically begin at the beginning of the rainy season, in the sixth or seventh lunar months.
Anthropology Professor Charles F. Keyes advises, “In recognition of the deep-seated meaning of certain traditions for the peoples of the societies of mainland Southeast Asia, the rulers of these societies have incorporated some indigenous symbols into the national cultures that they have worked to construct in the postcolonial period. Giving the “Bun Bang Fai or fire rocket festival of Laos” as one example, he adds that it remains “…far more elaborate in the villages than in the cities….”
Villages no longer stage Bun Bang Fai celebrations on the scale of Yasothon’s famous event. However, villages may have floats conveying government messages. They may also include fairs. In recent years the Tourism Authority of Thailand has helped promote these events, particularly the festivals in the Thai provinces of Nong Khai and Yasothon, the latter boasting the largest and most elaborate of all the rocket festivals. The Bun Bang Fai celebrations are not only in Yasothorn Province, but also in many other locations in the region such as Roi Et, Kalasin, Srisaket, and Mahasarakham. The Bang Fai parade in Suwannaphum, Roi Et Province, is one the most magnificent and beautiful of what are called “Bang fai eh” or “Bang fai ko“. Bang Fai parades are decorated in the form of Thai traditional artwork or Line Thai.
Yasothon bun Bang Fai Festival
Yasothon (ยโสธร) is a province of Thailand in the northeast on the Chi River. The province was established by the revolutionary council of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, after its Announcement No. 70 which came into force on March 3, 1972, separating it from Ubon Ratchathani Province. Neighboring provinces are (from north clockwise) Mukdahan, Amnat Charoen, Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, and Roi Et. The northern part of the province consists of plains with low hills, while the southern part is the river lowland of the River Chi, with ponds and swamps.
Yasothon the town lies on the Chi River and is the capital and administrative center of Yasothon Province and seat of its City District. Within this district, the subdistrict Nai Mueang (ในเมือง. “in town”) comprises the bounds of the town proper, which had a population of 21,134 in 2005. It lies 330 miles (531 km) north-east of Bangkok. In 1811 (2354 B.E.), Chao (“Lord”) Racha Wong Singh led a number of people to a bluff by a deserted temple on the River Chi in order to found a town which was first called Ban Sing Kow (บ้านสิงห์เก่า, Old Lion Village). While there are numerous Khmer artifacts in and around the city, no written history is known prior to Singh’s arrival.
King Rama II announced a change in the town’s name to Mueang Yasothon (เมืองยโสธร) in 1814 (2357 B.E.). The Yaso ยโส part of the name translates as “arrogant”. This may not have been the intention. At the same time, the Chao of Yasothon received a new manner of address: Phra Sunthorn Racha Wongsa (พระสุนทรราชวงศา)
Since the 1972 separation of Yasothon from Ubon Ratchathani, with its world-famous Candle Festival, the provincial capital has staged what has become one of the three most famous Bun Bang Fai festivals in Thailand; the other two — at Suwannaphume and Phanom Prai — are located in Roi Et Province. Yasothon’s festival is held each year over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend that falls in the middle of May.
On the first day, villagers bring their homemade bamboo rockets to the city pillar shrine in order to pay respect. Called Wan Sook Dip (วันศุกร์ดิบ, Raw Friday), it features performances of a type of music called Mor Lam Sing (หมอลำซิ่ง) that is very popular among the local Isan-Lao population. The performance goes on all night, continuing intermittently into the early hours of Monday. While the the locals have great fun, outsiders often have a hard time understanding the humor, which is often rather bawdy.
On the second day, there will be a Buddhist merit-making ceremony, followed by a spectacular procession of Bang Fai floats and folk dances that represent teams from local villages or temples. The Saturday competitions for Hae Bangfai Ko (แห่บั้งไฟโก้) include street parades or demonstrations usually featuring traditional dance and accompanying musicians, typically with khaen (แคน, a mouth organ of Lao origin whose pipes are usually made of bamboo), Gongs, Lao-Isan Klong Yao (กลองยาว, a kind of goblet drum), and an electric guitar powered by an inverter and car batteries in a handcart that also mounts horn loudspeakers.
Thailand – Thailand Post #TH-1145 (2018) – Design #2 featuring Bangfai Ko or “Skyrocket Float”, photographed at Ban Kut Wa, Kalasin Province, Thailand.
The Bangfai Ko are richly decorated rockets mounted on traditional but highly decorated oxcarts, or modern floats. Most, but not all, bold Bangfai Ko are for show and not actually capable of flight. Many sport the heads of Nāgas; if equipped with water pumps and swivels, they are actually capable of spitting on spectators. Recalling the fertility rite origins of the festival, parade ornaments and floats often sport phallic symbols and imagery. Participating groups compete for prizes within their categories. Hàe typically end in a Thai temple (wat, วัด,), where dancers and accompanying musicians may further compete in traditional folk dance. All groups prominently display the names of their major sponsors. Amid the festive atmosphere, dirty humor is widespread.
Festivities also include cross-dressing, both cross-sex and cross-generational, and great quantities of alcohol. Perhaps the most popular beverage, both because it is cheaper than beer and has a higher, 40-percent alcohol content, is a neutral grain spirit called Sura (สุรา), but more generally known as Lao Whiskey (เหล้าลาว, Lao lao) in Laos and Lao Khao (เหล้าขาว, white alcohol) in Thailand. Sato (สาโท), a brewed rice beverage similar to Japanese sake, may also be on offer; sweet-flavored sato may be as little as seven-percent alcohol, but it packs a surprising punch.
Saturday’s festivities conclude with another ritual to pay respect to the city’s pillar shrine.
The final day will again start with a Buddhist merit-making ceremony, followed by another procession of Bang Fai floats and folk dances but will conclude at Phaya Thaen Park. This moves on to the launching of the Bang Fai, the rockets themselves, in various categories. The rockets are fired into the skies with the belief that the villagers’ prayers for abundant rain and a bountiful harvest will be answered. Teams compete for apparent height and distance travelled with extra points for exceptionally beautiful vapor trails Those whose rockets misfire are either covered with mud, or thrown into a mud puddle that also serves a safety function, as immediate application of cooling mud can reduce severity of burns. While popular and entertaining, the festival is also extremely dangerous with participants and spectators alike occasionally being injured or even killed. On May 9, 1999, a Lan 120 kg rocket exploded 50 meters above ground, just two seconds after launch, killing four persons and wounding 11.
Bang Fai (The Rockets)
Jaruat (จรวด) is the proper term for rockets used as missiles or weapons, but Bang Fai (บั้งไฟ) skyrockets are gigantic black-powder bottle rockets. Tiny bottle rockets are so-called because they may be launched from a bottle. In the case of the similar appearing Bang Fai, also spelled Bong Fai (บ้องไฟ), the “bottle” is a bong (บ้อง), a section of bamboo Culm used as a container or pipe (and only colloquially as a pipe for smoking marijuana.)
Related to the Chinese Fire Arrow, Bang Fai are made from bamboo bongs. Most contemporary ones, however, are enclosed in PVC piping, making them less dangerous by standardizing their sizes and black-powder charges (which contest rules require be compounded by the rocketeers, themselves). Baking or boiling a bong kills insect eggs that otherwise hatch in dead bamboo and eat it, inside out. Skipping this step may cause the bong to disintegrate and melt the PVC piping. Vines tie long bamboo tails to launching racks. The time it takes for the exhaust to burn through the vines (usually) allows a motor to build up to full thrust; then the tails impart in-flight stability. Ignition comes from a burning fuse or electric match.
Bang Fai come in various sizes, competing in several categories. Small ones are called Bang Fai Noi (น้อย). Larger categories are designated by the counting words for 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000: Meun (หมื่น) Saen (แสน) and the largest Bang Fai, the Lan (ล้าน). These counting words see use in many contexts to indicate increasing size or value. Lan in this context may be taken to mean extremely large as well as extremely expensive and extremely dangerous: Bang Fai Lan are nine meters long and charged with 120 kg of black powder. These may reach altitudes reckoned in kilometers, and travel dozens of kilometers down range (loosely speaking, as they can go in any direction, including right through the crowd). Competing rockets are scored for apparent height, distance, and beauty of the vapor trail (ไอ). A few include skyrocket pyrotechnics. A few also include parachutes for tail assemblies, but most fall where they may.
The 2006 Thai martial arts film, Kon Fai Bin, set in 1890s Siam, depicts the Rocket Festival. The movie’s hero, Jone Bang Fai (“Fireball Bandit”), is an expert at building the traditional bamboo rockets which he uses in conjunction with Muay Thai martial arts to defeat his opponents. Thai political protests in April 2010 similarly had members on the side of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (แนวร่วมประชาธิปไตยต่อต้านเผด็จการแห่งชาติ; nicknamed the “red shirts”) firing Bang Fai in downtown Bangkok, setting some 27 buildings ablaze in the process including the huge 7-floor Central World shopping mall.
On April 7, 2015, Thailand Post released a set of four stamps and one souvenir sheet to celebrate the Thai New Year (Songkran) which begins each year on April 13. These had the Thailand Post issue number of TH-1067) and featured designs portraying the “peaceful” traditions of the festival including making merit by lightly sprinkling scented water onto Buddhist statues and elders (the reality is that it’s become an all-out water battle in recent years although 2018 did see a crackdown on the mayhem). A further Songkran Festival set was released on April 7, 2017 (Thailand Post #TH-1104) as a mini-sheet of eight stamp designs depicting scenes from Thai fairy tales revolving around the Water Princess legend. The four stamps issued the following year on April 7, 2017, saw a name change to the “Thai Traditional Festival” stamp series and pictured beautiful photographs of long boat racing (#TH-1126).
For the 2018 installment in the Thai Traditional Festivals series, four stamps were issued on April 4 with the spectacular Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival as the subject. The 3-baht stamps were designed by Mr. Pisit Prasitthanadoon of Thailand Post Company Limited and were printed by T.K.S. Technologies (a name I don’t recognize as having previously printed Thai stamps). The photographs used in the designs were taken during the Bun Bang Fai Festival at Ban Kut Wa in Kuchinarai District, Kalasin Province rather that at Yasothon. Given the issue number of TH-1147, the designs picture the Hae Bangfai Ko (skyrocket parade), a decorated Bangfai Ko (skyrocket float), preparing a rocket for launch, and the launch itself.
The release of these stamps last months reminded me that this is yet another interesting festival in my adopted country of Thailand that I have yet to attend. I did make an effort this year but the timing right at the beginning of the new school year made it impossible to travel such a great distance without a great disruption to my work schedule (at least 24 hours on bus or train and about the same by plane with a layover in Bangkok when coming from the south where I live). I’ll get there someday; the risk doesn’t bother me as I feel it can’t any more dangerous than Phuket’s own Vegetarian Festival each Fall. Perhaps Thailand Post will mark that event with a future issue in their Thai Traditional Festival series. Time will tell.