While farmers and politicians across Australia battle it out over water allocations, in South East Asia Thais and Laotians are preparing to embrace their water shortages in a style all of their own.
Dating back to pre-Buddhist times the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival), held around the May full moon, is traditionally based on the notion that launching bamboo rockets skyward will initiate the rainy season and bring much needed relief to the countries rice fields. Popular in Thailand’s North Eastern Isan province and around the Laos capital of Vientiane, the event continues to maintain a rich cultural significance. Testament to this a 3000-word poem based around the event has been translated into the English language and is designated as supplementary secondary school reading by the Thai Ministry of Education.
While respecting the events traditions, today’s Thais and Laotians embrace the festival with their tongue firmly in their cheek. Recalling the fertility rite origins of the festival and playing on the phallic symbol of the rocket, many take the opportunity to embrace such sexual connotations with endearing good humour and camp jocularity.
Standing in a field near Buddhist Park, on the outskirts of the Laos capital of Vientiane, I found it hard not to titter at men parading around in their wives finery. Even harder to ignore was the piece of wood, fashioned into a sort of penis shaped bazooka aimed directly at my head. The later providing a huge point of amusement for other participants, with me being one of few farang (foreigners) at the event.
Children revel in the festival, with two days of folk theater, dance, music and parades leading up to the main event. Youthful faces are filled with wonder as the yonger generation marvel at the rockets dreaming of becoming South East Asias version of Buzz Lightyear.
This is one festival that could only be held in a developing nation, as with only the briefest glance a plethora of health and safety issues blatantly stare you in the face. In a first world country the public liability insurance alone would cancel all hope of holding such an event. Similarly hazardous is the multitude of small bottle rockets whizzing past ones head as children run around excitedly setting off scaled down versions of the events main attraction.
The real rockets are a crude construction using bamboo stems as the main shaft, the largest version being an absurd 9 meters in length. The stems are traditionally boiled to prevent insects from decaying the bamboo with many contemporary models utilising PVC piping as an extra covering. The rockets are then packed with up to 120 kg of black powder and balanced precariously on a launching tower of bamboo scaffolding.