One of the most unique, and lively, Thai festivals, is the renowned Bun Bang Fai Skyrocket Festival, or Bamboo Rocket Festival.
While Elon Musk is trying to send rockets up into space, Thais have been sending bamboo rockets up into the stratosphere for centuries, long before NASA nestled into the stars. May - June every year marks the heralding of rainy monsoon season in Northern Thailand, and the crops aren't blessed without a reminder to the Sky King Phaya Thaen, first of his reign.
Watch the live event "Yasothon Fireballs"
What is it?
The Bamboo Rocket Festival, more formally known in Thailand as the Bun Bang Fai Skyrocket Festival is a colourful and lively festival which showcases local Thai cuisine & culture with a loud BANG!
It is one of the noisiest, rowdiest festivals in Thailand, where locals parade through villages drinking & dancing before making huge vertical explosions inside bamboo pipes.
Some Bang Fai Rockets are said to go up to a height of more than 20,000 feet into the stratosphere, and it's a common gambling game the locals play, betting baht on the over/under of how long the rocket stays skyward. If you want to travel off Thailand's Beaten Path, this is one fun social festival that you definitely should not miss.
What is the history of this festival?
Some more eloquent than us would tell popular legends of sending rockets up into space to remind the Sky King Phaya Thaen of his obligations to Lord Buddha in which the Sky King pledged to send rains annually.
It's held right before rainy/monsoon season (May-June) to ensure lots of precipitation for another year of rice crops. These rice fields are harvested when full grown, and the agricultural tools needed to harvest are created out of the clay itself.
It rains so much in the North during these, that most fields and bridges are flooded, often displacing locals in more rural areas. Clearly, it's working!
Why is this festival celebrated?
Bun Bang Fai Skyrocket Festival is held before the monsoons begin as it is believed that the rains are going to be encouraged to fall upon the Kingdom of Thailand which will help the rice crops to grow. It is a festive break for locals before they start the incredibly hard work of planting and harvesting crops, which in turn support their families and villages.
Where & When is it celebrated?
Bun Bang Fai Skyrocket Festival is held for 2-3 days annually in the Isan region. It's usually held between May and June right before the rainy season begins, in areas from Roi Et to Yasothon. Isan, or Isaan, is derived from a old Sanskrit word meaning ‘northeast’ which the area lies. The majority in this part of the country are Lao-Thai speaking people with their own Thai dialect that is a lot of fun to learn. Pick up a few Isaan phrases, and the locals will love you! Bring it back to Bangkok, and Thais will wonder where the heck you've been!
Every Year the Bun Bang Fai Skyrocket Festival is held in different parts of Isan. From Yasothon Province, to Roi Et, Kalasin, Phanom, Pathum, Suwannaphum & Selaphum. We've gone as late as middle of June a few years back, and they start as early as May.
The great thing about the Bamboo Rocket Festivals is that they are held in smaller villages throughout Isaan, as well as the more major heavily advertised ones.
How do you celebrate this festival?
During the festival, locals work in teams to fire homemade rockets into the sky, their own creations. Teams compete with the other to send its rocket to the highest and longest elevation. It becomes a betting game, with baht notes discreetly traded to see whose rocket lasts upward the longest.
Some rockets are over four meters long and may contain over 500 kgs of gunpowder. Ancient times ago, the rockets were made of bamboo but today they are made of steel or plastic PVC pipes.
The rockets are held vertical by huge launch pillars of scaffolding that looks like giant pallets, 60-foot high made from bamboo and local wood.
What happens when a rocket fails to launch itself into the sky? As everyone looks on, each team and owner is judged accordingly. Failures are swiftly grabbed and carried to a pool of mud, where they are thrown in and covered head to toe as festival onlookers laugh hysterically.
It's all in good fun, as the mission of the rocket teams is to avoid this 'public humiliation' at all costs. Playing with bamboo and gun powder doesn't always go according to plan.
How are the rockets made?
In traditional times, rocket makers used long hollow bamboo wood rods. Today they use PVC pipes in most cases although the framework is created using bamboo.
PVC pipes are fashioned to bamboo poles and stuff with explosive gunpowder and fireworks to create spectacular sights when launching the rockets into the sky.
Rocket cases attached to bamboo poles are strapped to bamboo framework, arched to the sky. The team of Thai rocket engineers precariously climb these lanky bamboo structures to tie the rockets securely upwards before initiating a countdown to the joy of the crowd.
Bets are placed on how long the rockets will stay skyward and the losers of the day are willfully thrown in pools of mud.
Here's a neat article that highlights some travel plans to view the Bun Bang Fai festivals in Isaan.