Photo: Eyes skyward.

Yasothon Rocket Festival (Bung Fai)

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Yasothon’s Bung Fai (“Firing Rockets”) festival is a wild and spectacular event that’s well worth experiencing if you’re in the vicinity. It’s the most famous of many rocket-launching celebrations held in cities and villages all around Isaan during the sixth lunar month.

Usually held at the tail end of dry season over the second weekend in May, Yasothon’s festival attracts pyromaniacs and amateur rocketeers from around Thailand and beyond. It kicks off with dancing and a parade featuring the largest rockets carried on elaborate floats to the festival grounds at Phaya Thaen Park. Expect plenty of drinking during the only weekend per year—other than Songkran—when sleepy Yaso lets loose.

At the rocket factory in Ban Sa Kaeo. Photo taken in or around Yasothon Rocket Festival  (Bung Fai), Yasothon, Thailand by David Luekens.

At the rocket factory in Ban Sa Kaeo. Photo: David Luekens

The festival is based on the god of rain, Phaya Thaen, who gets distracted in his heavenly realm during dry season and needs to be reminded that the water he controls is needed for cultivating rice down on earth. What better way to get his attention than to launch hundreds of rockets into his clouds?

Joining the rockets are phallic symbols signifying abundance along with depictions of the toad king, Phaya Khan Khak, who hangs out with Phaya Thaen. Yasothon’s main toad sits just north of the festival grounds and we suspect it’s the largest depiction of a toad found anywhere in the world. In its belly is a museum explaining the relationship between toads and rockets and rice.

The festival has parades as well as rocket shows. (2003) Photo taken in or around Yasothon Rocket Festival  (Bung Fai), Yasothon, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

The festival has parades as well as rocket shows. (2003) Photo: Stuart McDonald

The festival spans five days but the real shebang takes place on the final two days, with the parade taking place on a Saturday and rockets launched throughout the following Sunday. Each of the districts in Yasothon province enter their own rockets in the hope of winning the prize awarded to the one that stays in the air the longest. It’s about more than pride—the competition brings its share of gambling as well.

Some rockets are built to go as high as possible while others sport unusual designs created purely for the spectacle. Generally made of a PVC pipe or bamboo stuffed with a mix of nitrate and charcoal, the cores are outfitted with shells resembling normal rockets or naga-fronted sleighs, among others. They compete in classes, with the smallest containing just one kilo of the mixture and the largest stuffed with 120 kilos. Sold along roadsides for as little as 10 baht, small sparkler-like “rockets” also add to the atmosphere.

The launching grid. (2003) Photo taken in or around Yasothon Rocket Festival  (Bung Fai), Yasothon, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

The launching grid. (2003) Photo: Stuart McDonald

We’re not talking NASA technology here: the rockets occasionally explode before, during and after takeoff, and some shoot off in random directions rather than going straight up and down. Throw in the alcohol along with minimal crowd control and it’s no surprise that deaths and lost limbs have occurred—you are well advised to not stand too close to the launching area.

Loads of work goes into building the rockets and it’s a big business; locals at one workshop told us that a single large rocket fetches 15,000 baht. While only small rocket studios are found in Yasothon town, the village of Ban Sa Kaeo in nearby Phanom Phrai district is a good place to watch the rockets being finished during the weeks before festival time. Just don’t smoke in the workshops!

Another successful launch. (2003) Photo taken in or around Yasothon Rocket Festival  (Bung Fai), Yasothon, Thailand by Stuart McDonald.

Another successful launch. (2003) Photo: Stuart McDonald

Phanom Phrai’s own rocket festival competes with Yasothon’s and another held in Suwannaphum district as the largest rocket launches in Thailand—locals in each of these areas claim that their models fly the highest. Both part of Roi Et province, these rival districts hold their festivals later in May or early June and we reckon they’re worth a look if you find Yasothon’s too mainstream.

In 2018, Yasothon’s Bung Fai festival is scheduled for 12-13 May, while Phanom Phrai’s will lift off on 29-30 May.

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Yasothon Rocket Festival (Bung Fai)
Phaya Thaen Park, Yasothon
May 9-11, 2014
Admission: Free

Location map for Yasothon Rocket Festival (Bung Fai)

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