The Rocket Festival (Boun Bang Fai) is a merit-making ceremony traditionally practiced by ethnic Lao people near the beginning of the wet season in numerous villages and municipalities, in the regions of Northeastern Thailand and Laos. 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.

The festival in Thailand also includes special programs and specific local patterns like Bung Fai (Parade dance) and a Beautiful Bung Fai float such as Yasothon the third weekend of May, and continues Suwannaphum District, Roi Et on the first weekend of June, Phanom Phrai District Roi Et during the full moon of the seventh month in Lunar year's calendar each year. The Bung Fai festival is not only found in Isan or Northeasthern Thailand and North Thailand and Laos, but also in Amphoe Sukhirin, Narathiwat.

The story of Rocket Festival

These 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 (northeast Thailand). 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…."

The legend of Rocket Festival

There are 2 legends associated with this festival: the legendof Nang Ai, Phadaeng, and Phangkhi; and the myth of the Toad King.

Nang Ai, Phadaeng, and Phangkhi

Nang Ai, in full, Nang Ai Kham is queen of the pageant and Phadaeng is her champion. She is famed as the most beautiful girl. He, an outsider, comes to see for himself, lavishes her with gifts and wins her heart; but must win a rocket festival tournament to win her hand. 

Unwittingly, he becomes part of a love triangle. Phangkhi and Nang Ai have been fated by their karma to have been reborn throughout many past existences as soul mates. Stories about the couple, however, say they have not exactly been lovers: in many a past existence, she has been a dutiful wife, but would not yield an inch in an argument to anyone and he only wanted to satisfy himself. She becomes fed up and prays never to be paired with him, ever again. 

Nang Ai is reborn as the daughter of Phraya Khom, (which means Lord Khmer; but even if her father was a Cambodian overlord, Nang Ai Kham is still the genuine article), while Phangki is reborn as the son of Phaya Nak, the Grand Nāga who rules the Deeps. (He is depicted in parades in the guise of a prince, riding alone, dogging the new pair.) 

Phangki isn't invited to the tournament, and Phadaeng's rocket fizzles. Nang Ai's uncle is the winner, so her father calls the whole thing off, which is considered to be a very bad omen, indeed. 

Pangkhii shape-shifts into a white squirrel to spy on Nang Ai, but she espies him and has him killed by a royal hunter. Pangkhii's flesh magically transforms into meat equal to 8,000 cartloads. Nang Ai and many of her countrymen ate of this tainted flesh, and Phaya Nak vows to allow no one to remain living who had eaten of the flesh of his son. 

Aroused from the Deeps, he and his watery myrmidons rise and turn the land into a vast swamp. Nagas personifies waters running both above and below ground, and nagas run amok are rivers in spate: all Isan is flooded. 

Phadaeng flees the rising flood with Nang Ai on his white stallion, Bak Sam (Mr. Three), but she is swept off by a Naga's tail, not to be seen again. (Bak Sam is seen in parades sporting his stallion's equipage (awaiyawa pet kong ma) that legend says dug a lick called Lam Huay Sam (which may be seen to this day in Ban Sammo-Nonthan, Tambon Pho Chai, Amphoe Khok Pho Chai. 

The legend also tells that receding waters left behind the Nong Han Kumphawapi Lake of the Kumphawapi District marsh, which, too, may be seen to this very day.) Phadaeng escapes, but pines away for his lost love. His ghost then raises an army of the spirits of the air to wage war on the nagas below. 

The war continues until both sides are exhausted, and the dispute is submitted to King Wetsawan, king of the North, for arbitration. His decision: the cause of the feud has long since been forgotten and all disputants must let bygones be bygone.

The legend is retold in many regional variations, all of which are equally true for they relate events in different existences. One 3000-word poem translated to English from this rich Thai-Isan tradition, "…is especially well known to the Thai audience, having been designated as secondary school supplementary reading by the Thai Ministry of Education, with publication in 1978. There is even a Thai popular song about the leading characters." The original was written in a Lao-Isan verse called Khong saan, replete with sexual innuendo, puns, and double entendre.

Keyes (op. cit., p. 67, citing George Coedès) p. 48, says "Phra Daeng Nang Ai" is a version of the Kaundinya, legendary founder of Funan; and Soma, the daughter of the king of the Nāga. Keyes also wrote that such legends may prove a valuable source of toponyms

The Myth of the Toad King

Almost everyone, native and visitor alike, will say Bang Fai are launched to bring rain. However, a careful reading of the underlying myth, as presented in Yasothon and Nong Khai, implies the opposite: the rains bring on the rockets. Their version of the myth:

When the Lord Buddha was in his Bodhisattva (Pali) incarnation as King of the Toads Phaya Khang Khok, and married to Udon Khuruthawip (Northern Partner-Knowing-Continent), his sermons drew everyone, creatures and sky-dwellers alike, away from Phaya Thaen (King of the Sky). Angry Phaya Thaen withheld life-giving rains from the earth for seven years, seven months and seven days. Acting against the advice of the Toad King, Phaya Naga, King of the Nāga (and personification of the Mekong) declared war on Phaya Thaen—and lost.

Persuaded by Phaya Naga to assume command, King Toad enlisted the aid of termites to build mounds reaching to the heavens, and of venomous scorpions and centipedes to attack Phaya Thaen's feet, and of hornets for air support. Previous attempts at aerial warfare against Phaya Thaen in his own element had proved futile; but even the Sky must come down to the ground. On the ground the war was won, and Phaya Thaen sued for peace.

Naga Rockets fired in the air at the end of the hot, dry season are not to threaten Phaya Thaen, but to serve as a reminder to him of his treaty obligations made to Lord Bodhisatta Phaya Khang Khok, King of the Toads, down on the ground. For his part Phaya Nak was rewarded by being given the duty of Honor Guard at most Thai and Lao temples.

After the harvest of the resulting crops, Wow thanoo, man-sized kites with a strung bow, are staked out in winter monsoon winds. They are also called Túi-tiù (singing kite), from the sound of the bowstring singing in the wind, which sing all through the night, to signal Phaya Thaen that he has sent enough rain.

All participants (including a wow thanoo) were depicted on murals on the front of the former Yasothon Municipal Bang Fai Museum, but were removed when it was remodelled as a learning centre.

An English-language translation of a Thai report on Bang Fai Phaya Nark Naga fireballs at Nong Khai gives essentially the same myth (without the hornets and wow) from Thai folk: The knowledge of Thai life-style. 

Present day

Villages no longer stage "Bun Bang Fai" festivals 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 these festivals. The Bun bang fai celebration in the past and up till now are not only in Yasothorn, but also in many other provinces in Isan, such as Roi Et, Kalasin, Srisaket, Mahasarakham and Udon Thani. 

In Suwannaphum of Roi Et Province is one of the most magnificent and beautiful of Thailand's Bang Fai parades that is called "Bang fai eh" or "Bangfai ko" (Bang Fai Parade are decorated in the form of Thai traditional artwork or Line Thai).

Yasothon's festival

Since the March 1, 1972, separation of Yasothon from Ubon Ratchathani Province, with its world-famous Candle Festival, Yasothon's provincial capital has elaborately staged its now one of three famous Rocket Festival in Thailand ( Yasothon, Suwannaphume, and Phanom Prai both are locate in Roi Et province ) annually over the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday weekend that falls in the middle of May.

Raw Friday (Wan Sook Dip) features all-night performances of Mor Lam Sing, which continue intermittently into the early hours of Monday. Mor Lam Sing is a type of morlam that is very popular among the local Isan-Lao population. The performance goes on all night and the locals have great fun. Outsiders have a hard time understanding the humour, which is often rather bawdy.

Saturday brings on the competitions for Hae Bangfai Ko. "Hàe" are street parades or demonstrations usually featuring traditional dance and accompanying musicians, typically with khaen, Gongs, Lao-Isan Klong Yao, long drum), and an electric guitar, powered by an inverter and car batteries in a handcart that also mounts horn loudspeakers. 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.

The principal theme of any Hae Bangfai is the Phadaeng and Nang Ai legend (below), so many floats (or highly decorated oxcarts) also depict the couple and their retinue. Other modern themes present as well, as suggested by Keyes (ibid.) Participating groups compete for prizes within their categories. Hàe typically end in a wat, where dancers and accompanying musicians may further compete in traditional folk dance. All groups prominently display the names of their major sponsors.

Recalling the fertility rite origins of the festival, parade ornaments and floats often sport phallic symbols and imagery. Amid the festive atmosphere, dirty humour 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, but more generally known as Lao Whiskey (Lao lao) in Laos and Lao Khao (white alcohol) in Thailand. Sato, 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.

Sunday competition moves on to the launching of Bangfai, judged, in various categories, for apparent height and distance travelled, with extra points for exceptionally beautiful vapour 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 dangerous, with participants and spectators alike occasionally being injured or even killed. On 9 May 1999, a Lan 120 kg rocket exploded 50 metres above ground, just two seconds after launch, killing four persons and wounding 11.

Roi Et's festival

Bang Fai Festival is traditional of Isan and Laotian peoples culture that could be found this festival throughout a country where living place of Northeastern Thai people. In Roi Et province have two places which widely known and favorite festival in term of the most number of Bang Fai Ei or Bung Fai decorated car in Thailand in Suwannaphume district. 

In Suwannaphume not only found the number of the most beautiful Bang Fai and the most number of beautiful Bung Fai parade dance by dramatic art college student but also the only one community that made and Bung Fai decoration by a papers cutting technique call "Lai Sri Phume". 

In the other hand Roi Et province is well known for Isan peoples which the most favorite in term of originally of local culture with preserve traditional pattern of Bang Fai Festival and the most number of Rocket or Bang Fai in the world in Phanom Prai both are locate in Roi Et province. 

Today the beautiful Bung Fai float car which show in Yasothon Bang Fai Festival 8 in 9 float cars are made in Roi Et province ( At Samat District, Selaphume District, Thawat Buri District, et al.) and them rent form Roi Et more than 40 years ago.

Rocket Festival’s Celebration in Laos

Prior to Boun Bang Fai, each village puts together a committee to organize all aspects of the festival, including inviting other villages, introducing rules and safety measures and organizing pirzes for the best rockets.

On the day of the festival, the Boun Bang Fai becomes a toughly contested completion, which generally only bamboo rockets are allowed to enter. First, each rocket is inspected and categorized. Scores are given for the highest flyer, the most beautiful decoration, and the most entertaining team; a category in which just about anything goes, from elaborate masks to men wearing women’s clothes, while women dance and sing. If any of the rockets fail to explode, the team’s technician and leader are forced to drink muddy water or Satho (rice whisky).

Throughout the celebrations, hosts prepare a variety of traditional food for their guests.

These days, the size and location of the event is controlled due to numerous safety concern, including limited space and overlaps with aircraft routes. But nevertheless, most continue to celebrate the festival in one way or another.

In Vientiane Capital, Boun Bang Fai is organized in the outskirts of the city of avoid damage to property and help keep participants safe. The most famous events are held in the surrounding villages of Nason, Natham, Thongmang, Kern, Pakhanhoung and many others.

Bang Fai (the rockets)

Jaruat is the proper term for rockets used as missiles or weapons, but Bang Fai 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', the 'bottle' is a bong, 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, Larger categories are designated by the counting words for 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000: Meun, "Saen" and the largest Bang Fai, the Lan. 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 metres long and charged with 120 kg of black powder. These may reach altitudes reckoned in kilometres, and travel dozens of kilometres 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 vapour trail. A few include skyrocket pyrotechnics. A few also include parachutes for tail assemblies, but most fall where they may.

Travel Safety Tips

Bun Bang Fai is a fun, silly and somewhat "naughty" festival. Don't go if you are offended by a bit of potty humor!

On a serious note though, the (cheap) alcohol flows quite freely at this festive event - so expect the kind of generalized bawdiness and mischief associated with lots of booze, as well as tumbles, slips, stumbles and falls. Be prepared for anything - and if your preparations involve you taking it easy on the drink, then you will be in a safer position than a drunken lout - common sense really!

As for the rockets, well, let’s be honest, it's dangerous - especially if you are unlucky enough to have debris fall on you as a result. (Although having said that - you do have to be pretty unlucky for that to happen). If you are witnessing the climax of the festival, try and do so under some shelter if you can - it could save your head!

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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