Above: The Bun Bang Fai parade.
Northeast thailand’s biggest rocket festival provides a jolly good excuse for a party
By Jarrett Wrisley
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
“America has Apollo!” says a swaying, off-duty policeman who introduces himself as Liang. “And Russia, Russia has Cosmonaut!” The whites of Liang’s eyes look scrambled and bloodshot, like a fried Thai omelet drizzled in chili sauce. His tattooed fist is wrapped round a plastic cup of Sang Som rum. It’s only 9 a.m. “Welcome to Isan, my friend,” he guffaws, clapping my back with a mischievous grin. “Here, we have Bun Bang Fai!” As if on cue, I hear a ferocious rumble pierced by a high-pitched, ear-splitting whistle—the sound of 120 kilograms of gunpowder igniting inside a PVC pipe. That pipe is lashed to a nine-meter-long skewer of bamboo and propped against a rickety scaffold 20 meters away. Acrid blue smoke engulfs us as the homemade rocket shoots skyward, tracing a corkscrew trajectory before exploding several thousand meters above an astounded crowd.
Liang cackles and hands me his cup. Ears ringing, I take a long pull.
Northeast Thailand, or Isan as it’s usually called, is bounded by Cambodia to the south and by Laos to the north and east. But you could say that it begins or ends in places like Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. That’s because people from this hardscrabble, relatively undeveloped region make up much of Thailand’s laboring soul, having migrated throughout the country in search of employment.
In dialect, cuisine, and build, most Isaners have more in common with Laotians than they do with the folk of Thailand’s central plains. Yet they hold great sway over mainstream Thai culture. Across the kingdom, Isan’s sturdy-armed cooks flip grilling chickens and transform tomatoes, chilies, garlic, and green papaya with fishy alchemy into Thailand’s iconic som tam salad. Its street vendors peddle fried locusts, crickets, and ants—famine food turned fashionable. Its kickboxers clobber away in Bangkok’s riotous stadiums; its bargirls preen at pubs and discos. And its taxi drivers, draped in amulets, drive through the Thai night, with mor lam—Isan’s riveting folk rock—blaring from tinny speakers.
On my trip, Isan begins in a Bangkok bus station on a warm May night. It happens to be the eve of Visakha Bucha, the Buddha’s birthday, and thousands of people are milling about in front of the schedule boards. I join a busload of them bound for Yasothon, some 500 kilometers to the northeast. This small provincial capital hosts the region’s biggest annual rocket festival, and for many of Isan’s diaspora it provides a good excuse to return home and join in the fun.
Eight hours later, we roll into Yasothon’s gathering gray dawn. The first thing I see is an elephant’s sagging haunches; I follow them into the waking morning market, where plump women squat on bamboo platforms amid piles of ripening mangoes that fill the air with a peachy, vanilla sweetness. Baby frogs, giant catfish, sour ant eggs, and pla ra—the region’s famously pungent fermented fish sauce—are on fastidious display.
A beekeeper approaches with a slab of freshly cut honeycomb and offers me a bite. I slip it into my mouth, and then realize it’s packed with soft, white bee larvae. They pop between my teeth, tasting like sweet boiled peanuts in the thick, floral honey. Bangkok suddenly seems a world away.
Later that day I find Adisak Wongsaran. Forty-eight years old, the poultry farmer has a purposeful stare and a nose that appears to have been broken more than once. Unlike most Thais, Adisak rarely smiles. He raises chickens for food and fights cocks for a living; in the yard beside his teakwood house are two cockpits made of plastic and rubber tubing, about a meter high and two and a half across. They look like small swimming pools waiting for water. Empty whiskey bottles from forgotten bouts litter the patchwork of grass. Roosters, proud and battle-scarred, strut over them.
I’m here because Adisak is one of Isan’s foremost rocket builders. At the back of his yard, nestled in the fork of an enormous banyan tree, is a tall wooden scaffold, which holds what looks like a primitive oil drill. It’s actually a five-meter length of wide-gauge PVC pipe packed with a blend of ground charcoal and nitrate. Slowly, delicately, Adisak has spent days tamping down the powder. Three other rockets lie beneath a tarpaulin off to the side.
“I’ve traveled all over Isan, and I’ve studied other rocket builders’ techniques,” he tells me. “It’s not easy to build a rocket that flies true and far; it takes time and patience, and a large amount of money. There are 20 people on my team, and they all depend on me—on my technique—to win.”
Bun Bang Fai, celebrated in both Thailand and Laos, probably began as a pre-Buddhist fertility rite, held ahead of the planting season to encourage the onset of the rains. Later it evolved into a Buddhist festival, as that religion crept east from India, and finally one with rockets, as that technology spread south from China. The rockets, originally built solely of bamboo, were believed to please the fire-loving rain god Vassakan, who would reciprocate by bringing precipitation to these sparse, dusty plains.
Today, teams from towns and villages across Isan compete at Yasothon’s Bun Bang Fai. They bring with them projectiles categorized according to the amount of gunpowder they hold: meun rockets, for example, carry about 12 kilograms of nitrate, while saen rockets can be packed with more than 10 times that amount. For this year’s festival, Adisak has built four saen-sized rockets—a combined 480 kilograms of charge that rests just a few meters away from where we’re crouching.
“What about the danger?” I ask Adisak as his assistant nonchalantly lights little piles of gunpowder, showing me the ferocious speed at which it combusts. He just shakes his head. “I build these rockets to harness power. If my rocket flies straight tomorrow, and it flies for the longest time and wins, I will have achieved that. And I will feel that power inside me.”