Bun Bang Fai – The Rocket Festival or Thailand’s Bourgeoning Space Programme

Every year at around this time I kick myself and issue forth a stream of expletives because every year around this time I realise I have once again missed the Bun Bang Fai rocket festival.

By | Tue 1 Aug 2017

The last wisps of early morning mist had dissipated. Sunlight now danced across the iridescent waters of the lake. On its shores hundreds had gathered. Local villagers and saffron cloaked monks had spent the last three days making merit at shrines and temples in order to ensure this year’s rice harvest would be in abundance. Food stalls had been erected and the aroma of a thousand spices fused with the strains of traditional folk melodies. Dancers decked in vivid ancestral costume floated past the tepee in which I reclined on silks and satins. Fire-eaters, jugglers, tattooed dwarves and performing bears kept me entertained as I sipped my rice wine eagerly awaiting the first of the rockets that would thunder into the firmament to awaken the sky king and remind him to issue his deluge.

At least this is how I imagine it is for those who manage to attend one of the northern Thai rocket festivals. Every year at around this time I kick myself and issue forth a stream of expletives because every year around this time I realise I have once again missed the Bun Bang Fai rocket festival.

The celebrations typically take place across the north of Thailand and Laos at the beginning of the rainy season, which rather loosely means somewhere between April and June (or a couple of months before I remember to remember it has already happened).

Although, as is usual with festivals like these, the precise origins are lost in the mists of time, it is generally agreed that the rural celebrations are a last shindig before the hard work of rice cultivation begins. The culmination of three days of eating, drinking, singing and dancing is the firing of bamboo rockets filled with black powder. Again there are various myths surrounding why this is done, but most agree that the rockets are sent heavenward to let the gods know it is time for some rain.

Like the water festival of Songkran or the lights festival of Loy Krathong, if one is in Thailand when Bun Bang Fai taking place, then one is a bloody idiot if one manages to miss it. I’m a bloody idiot.

But I do have a tenuous excuse. The problem with articles like this is you are reading it, as I am indeed writing it, well after the fact. The fabulous Bun Bang Fai festival is over and this piece is doing little more than informing you that this is so. I have therefore decided to contact my local representative from the Tourism Authority of Thailand to discuss the brilliant idea I’ve just had. I will propose that no less than six months prior to any of the major festivals in Thailand exactly the same festival should take place. This would allow people like me to have the chance of experiencing the occasion and then writing about it in time for publication so that you, dear reader, can make an informed decision about whether or not you wish to attend.

Because I’m a bloody idiot I have had to enjoy this year’s festivities on the interweb and friends’ (who aren’t bloody idiots) cleverphones. And I can report the Bun Bang Fai looks marvellous. This is not your typical firework display. Some of the rockets are enormous, so big in fact that they can travel for several kilometres and have parachutes attached to slow their descent – presumably so they don’t inadvertently appear in someone’s living room, the admiring crowd or an intersection on the Superhighway.

The launching of the Bang Fai is a serious business. Prizes are awarded for those that fly the highest, the farthest and have the prettiest vapour trails. Penalties are also dished out for those who fail to ignite or prematurely explode on the launch pad. Teams failing to rouse their rockets are often thrown into a mud slick – not so much a forfeit as a sensible place to calm any burns that result from unintentional explosions.

And here’s a thought: At around the same time large bamboo projectiles were rocketing into the skies above the north of Thailand, Kim Jong Un was declaring to the world that North Korea had successfully tested an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of making a large dent in Alaska. In retaliation the US has flexed the muscles of its THAAD missile defence system showing off its ability to shoot down anything big and scary coming from Asia. Although a bamboo rocket launched over a lake in Thailand is capable of hitting little more than that lake, one wonders if this is all simply coincidence?

Perhaps one day in the not too distant future Thailand could join the commercial space race. I’ll bet Richard Branson and Elon Musk haven’t seriously considered the tremendous flexibility of bamboo in terms of aerospace engineering. While China, Japan and India race to reach Mars, Thailand needs to represent its corner of Asia and get involved in firing some people into outer space. After all strapping oneself to a large bamboo rocket and blasting oneself into the cosmos can’t be that much more dangerous than climbing onto a 125 and trying to navigate Chiang Mai’s traffic.

Well, at least I haven’t missed the excitement of the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival. Oh, apparently I have. Bugger.