On the night before the rocket launch, I dig into one of her specialties: Exploding Catfish Salad, so named because it involves plunging bits of smoked catfish into hot oil, which rise violently to the rim of the wok. Dressed with lime juice and fish sauce and crowned with a spirited slaw of green mango, cilantro, lemongrass, and chives, it’s a wonderfully complex dish, as is the Lao-style pork larb that follows. A final mysterious salad sings with salt and the citrus lift of lime leaves and lemongrass. The staff smile cheekily on as I eat spoonful after spoonful. Then I see why: my salad was once a flying cloud of emerald-hued ants.
Above, from left: Competitors keeping an eye on their rocket’s trajectory; carrying a rocket to its launch platform; a mud-smeared rocketeer; ready for blastoff.
“Watch me tame the serpent, before they break the rains!” says a snake charmer in a ten-gallon hat, unfurling a sleepy cobra from a burlap sack. It’s the morning of the main event and, thanks to a hangover, I have a diminished appetite for surprise. I sidestep the cobra and head to the rocket-launching area. Then I meet Liang, who reignites my spirits with a sip of rum.
That day, rockets of all shapes and sizes tear through a piercingly blue Thai sky. Some explode without ever lifting off, others spiral and spin earthward, releasing hand-sewn parachutes (a relatively modern safety feature) before hitting the ground. Bookies take bets on the launches (“50 baht if the parachute pops! 100 baht if it explodes!”) and music blares from speakers. Beer is spilled on the thirsty grass. Losing teams, according to custom, are tossed in the mud. Others take shelter—from both the blazing sun and unpredictable projectiles—anywhere they can find it.
As the last trails of smoke disappear into the sunset, the city hears another kind of roar. The Yasothon Annual Rocket Bike Night, a gathering of bikers from across Isan, has arrived for a final blur of eating, drinking, and merit-making. They roll in on beefy machines and grab seats around a wood fire, above which a buffalo carcass turns on a spit. An eight-piece mor lam band takes the stage.
With a gracious wai, one of the bikers invites me to join their party. “16th Chopper Ubon: You Are Never Alone,” read the shirts of my tablemates. We swap smiles and devour slabs of the lean, chewy meat, dipping it in a fiery herbal sauce.
Then the rain finally breaks. Clouds belch lightning and peals of thunder muffle out the sound of the band. I finish my dinner and walk through the deluge barefoot, sandals in hand. I splash past teakwood houses and clapboard shacks, past the parade grounds and my hotel’s now-empty parking lot. Streaks of mud, smeared on my face earlier by losing rocketeers, wash away with the raindrops.
With that downpour, Yasothon returns to its old self: a simple, temple-dotted town with wonderful food and even better people. The gods are pleased. And so I follow the storm back to Bangkok.
There is no direct rail or air link to Yasothon. Instead, fly from Bangkok to the larger Isan city of Ubon Ratchathani and hire a car or taxi to get you the rest of the way—about 100 kilometers northwest along Highway 23.
When to Go
This year, Yasothon’s Bun Bang Fai is scheduled for May 5 to 9, which should coincide with the beginning of the rainy season in northeast Thailand.
Where to Stay
The three-star J.P. Emerald Hotel (36 Prapa Rd.; 66-45/ 724-848; doubles from US$30) in downtown Yasothon is the city’s top billet, not that there’s much in the way of competition. Catering primarily to Thai business travelers, it has 120 comfortable rooms (ask for one with views of the Chee River), a decent international café, and, for partygoers, the Rocket Pub.
Where to Eat
Located at the eastern end of Jangsanit Road, across from Phaya Thaen Park where the rockets are launched, Bruno Prasit’s Mong Saap (66-8/ 5856-9483) is a must for its Isan fare. The surrounds are basic, but the food, particularly the Exploding Catfish Salad, is a delight.
What to Do
Apart from its rocket festival, Yasothon offers little in the way of diversions. One worthy side trip, however, is Pha Nam Yoi, a.k.a. Isan Buddhist Park, in nearby Roi Et province. A lush forest preserve inhabited by wild boar and barking deer, the park is home as well to the 109-meter-tall Phra Maha Chedi Chaimongkon, one of the largest pagodas in Thailand.
Originally appeared in the April/May 2010 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Having Blast”)