After nearly three years in Laos, I’ve been to most of the major local festivals. I’ve given alms at That Luang, tried paddling (but mostly cheering) a Dragonboat, respectfully tied baci strings for babies, at offices, and at weddings, thrown water like a champion at Lao New Year, and so on. But the one festival I’ve been missing out on is boun bang fai, or the annual Rocket Festivals.
These celebrations are harder to track down, because they don’t just happen on one day, but could occur any time between April-June, in the transitional period between the dry and the rainy seasons, and happen on different days in different villages. Generally they occur more in the countryside, rather than in the city-proper (which is for the best for safety reasons), and are said to have a link to ancient fertility ceremonies, which makes sense with the scheduling to signify the coming of the rains, and the beginning of the rice-planting season. In keeping with this theme, rocket festivals can often be a rather raunchy affair, with a fair amount of cross-dressing, drunkenness (okay, well, this is true of all Lao holidays), and phallic rockets or drawings.
After two years of talking about rocket festivals, I knew I had to finally see what it was all about, so when a friend invited me and some of our other friends out to his family’s village in Ban Naxone, about a one hour drive from the city, I was ready to go. After a body-numbing motorbike drive out to the village with my friend Ilse, we knew we had arrived when traffic in an otherwise quiet area drew to a standstill, and loud cowbell music began to resonate in the background. We began just with a quiet lunch at our friend’s house, with the usual fare of papaya salad, small river clams, and beef with chili sauce, before venturing out to check out the scene.
The Ban Naxone rocket festival seemed to be bigger and more official (and therefore less raunchy) than many other rocket festivals. The currently dry rice fields were the site of a massive carnival, with stalls selling grilled meats, homemade slushees, Gangnam Style balloons, and tiny take-home rockets. Families had picnics, and everyone flinched a bit when a rocket went off. The rockets themselves are not exactly anything that would pass a safety inspection in the US. These are PVC bottle rockets (homemade in the village) of varying sizes, from small (do-it-yourself) to big, to VERY big (saved for the grand finale, which we unfortunately missed). The larger-sized ones are set off from a launching platform, and are lit by either brave or stupid men inevitably wearing flip flops, and hurtle in the air with an alarming sound that makes you want to hit the deck to save yourself. The crowd shades their eyes as they smoke high into the air, and then begin their descent…to land wherever they might land. It’s an entertaining festival, but one to be approached with caution.
A few heart-stopping rocket launches was enough for us, as we had to head back to Vientiane before it got too dark, but it was certainly a worthwhile spectacle. Let the rainy season begin!