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Explosives galore at Laos’ annual Firework Festival

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 being translated into the English language and 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 sexual connotations with endearing good humour and camp jocularity.

Standing in a field near Buddha 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 (westerners) at the event.

Children revel in the event, with two days leading up to the main attraction filled with folk theatre, dance, music and parades. Youthful faces are filled with wonder as the yonger generation marvel at the rockets dreaming of becoming South East Asia’s version of Buzz Lightyear.

This is one festival that could only be held in a developing nation and with only the briefest glance a plethora of occupational 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.

Teams of contestants freely climb the scaffolding placing the rockets into position before attaching wiring to a remote launching device. I may not be a licensed electrician but the wiring I’ve seen in various hostel rooms is enough to know that the competitor attaching those wires need only make the slightest slip to launch a rocket positioned only inches from his head. This takes either a very brave soul or a lot of Lao Lao (rice whiskey). The event did in fact hit a sombre note on May 10,1999, when a 120 kg rocket exploded 50 meters above ground, just two seconds after launch, killing five persons and wounding 11.

When triggered, a deafening roar echoes over the field sending a jolt through the spectators whose eyes are instantaneously glued to the sky for the rockets journey.

Judging of the event takes place by a panel seated in a small bamboo marquee. Flights are assessed in various categories including height and distance travelled as well as less prestigious but noteworthy commendations for spectacular vapour trails. For those less successful team members whose rocket falls short of leaving the launch pad, tradition has it that these participants are to be tossed into a nearby pool of mud (the same mud often providing quick relief to minor burns). It’s at this stage that the event begins to resemble something of the crazy Japanese game shows posted on YouTube and you begin to wonder exactly how you stumbled across such a bizarre event.

Like all good events in South East Asia the regions ubiquitous street vendors do a roaring trade as punters snack on everything from spicey meats on skewers to chillie grasshoppers. They certainly aren’t the slightest bit reserved in their consumption of Beerlao or Lao Lao either with traditional drinking games being a regular sight. One such game involves a single cup being passed around a circle of friends. The basic concept being that it’s impolite to refuse what is poured for you and similarly impolite to hinder the next person by making them wait for their share. Basically the end result is that everyone gets very intoxicated very quickly and in very good spirits.

Although the rockets take centre stage, it is the headonistic attitude of the Thais and Laoations that embrace the frivolity of the event to its fullest that is trully unforgettable.

For more information on the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand or the Lao National Tourism Authorisation.

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