- Rocket Festival
:"This article is about the traditional Rocket Festival of Laos and Thailand; for another meaning, see
Rocket Festival Spain"
A Rocket Festival ( _th. ประเพณีบุญบั้งไฟ Prapheni Bun Bang Fai , _lo. ) is a merit-making ceremony traditionally practiced throughout much of
northeast Thailandand Laos, by numerous villages and municipalities near the beginning of the rainy season. Celebrations typically include preliminary music and dance performances, competive processions of floats, dancers and musicians on the second day, and culminating on the third day in competive firings of home-made rockets. Local participants and sponsors use the occasion to enhance their social prestige, as is customary in traditional Buddhist folk festivals throughout Southeast Asia. See also Gift culture[cite book
last= Kammerer, Cornelia Ann and Tannenbaum
title= MERIT AND BLESSING: In Mainland Southeast Asian Comparative Perspective.
publisher= Southeast Asia Studies (Monograph 45).
location= New Haven (Connecticut): Yale University.
isbn= ISBN 0-93869261-5 ] .
Scholars study the centuries old rocket festival tradition today as it may be significant to the history of
rocketryin the East, [Frank H. Winter, curator of the Rocketry Division of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., "The `Bun Bang Fai' Rockets of Thailand and Laos: Possible Key to determining the Spread of Rocketry in the Orient," in Lloyd H. Cornett, Jr., ed., History of Rocketry and Astronautics - Proceedings of the Twentieth and Twenty-First History Symposia of the International Academy of Astronautics, AAS History Series, Vol. 15 (Univelt Inc.: San Diego, 1993), pp. 3-24.] and perhaps also significant in the postcolonial socio-political development of the Southeast Asian nation states. Economically, villages and sponsors bear the costs in many locations in Laosand in northern Isan(Northeast Thailand). The festivals typically begin at the beginning of the Rainy Season, in the sixth or seventh lunar months.
These festivals are presumed to have evolved from pre-Buddhist
fertility rites held to celebrate and encourage the coming of the rains, from before the 9th Century discovery of black powder. It may also be said that Lao culture is not lacking in earthy, bawdy themes, with rockets festivals the most sexually oriented and bawdy of the lot. Coming immediately prior to the planting season, the festivals offer an excellent chance to make merry before the hard work begins; as well as enhancing communal prestige, and attracting and redistributing wealth as in any Gift culture.
Anthropology Professor Charles F. Keyes advises, "In recognition of the deep-seated meaning of certain traditions for the peoples of the societies of mainland Southeast Asia, the rulers of these societies have incorporated some indigenous symbols into the national cultures that they have worked to construct in the postcolonial period. [cite book
first= Charles F.
title= The golden peninsula : culture and adaptation in mainland Southeast Asia. Includes bibliographical references and index.
publisher= (SHAPS library of Asian studies) University of Hawai'i Press
isbn= 082481696x, p. 285.] Giving the "Bun Bang Fai or fire rocket festival of Laos" as one example, he adds that it remains "…far more elaborate in the villages than in the cities…."
Today, it is not so likely for the villages to stage "Bun Bang Fai" more elaborate than highly promoted
Yasothon's. However, even villages may have themed floats conveying government messages, as Keys advises. They may also include fairs. In recent years the Tourism Authority of Thailand has helped promote these events, particularly the festivals in the Thai provinces of Nong Khaiand Yasothon-- the latter boasting the largest and most elaborate of these festivals.
March 1, 1972, separation of Yasothon from Ubon Ratchathani Province, with its world-famous Candle Festival, Yasothon's provincial capital has elaborately staged its now world-famous Rocket Festival annually over the Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend that falls in the middle of May.
: หมอลำซิ่ง), which continue intermittently into the wee hours of Monday. Mor Lam Sing is a type of "morlam" that is very popular among the local Isan-Lao population. The performance goes on all night and the locals have great fun. Outsiders have a hard time understanding the humour, which is often rather bawdy.
s. Bangfai Ko are richly decorated rockets mounted on traditional but highly decorated oxcarts, or modern floats. Most but not all bold "Bangfai Ko " are for show and not actually capable of flight. Many sport the heads of
Nāgas; if equipped with water pumps and swivels, they "are" actually capable of spitting on spectators.
The principle theme of any "Hae Bangfai" is the Nāng Ai Phādāēng legend (below), so many floats (or highly decorated oxcarts) also depict the couple and their retinue. Other modern themes present as well, as suggested by Keyes (ibid.) Participating groups compete for prizes within their categories. "Hàe" typically end in a
wat, where dancers and accompanying musicians may further compete in traditional folk dance. All groups prominently display the names of their major sponsors.
Festivities also include
cross-dressing, both cross-sex and cross-generational, and great quantities of alcohol. Perhaps the most popular beverage, both because it is cheaper than beerand has a higher, 40-percent alcohol content, is a neutral grain spiritcalled Sura ( _th. สุรา), but more generally known as "Lao Whiskey" ( _th. เหล้าลาว, "Lao lao" in Laos and "Lao Khao" ( _th. เหล้าขาว, "white alcohol") in Thailand. Sato ( _th. สาโท), a brewed rice beverage similar to Japanese sake, may also be on offer; sweet-flavored "sato" may be as little as seven-percent alcohol, but it packs a surprising punch.
Sunday competition moves on to the launching of Bangfai, judged, in various categories, for apparent height and distance travelled, with extra points for exceptionally beautiful vapor trails Those whose rockets misfire are either covered with
mud, or thrown into a mud puddle (that also serve a safety function, as immediate application of cooling mud can reduce severity of burns). While popular and entertaining, the festival is also dangerous, with participants and spectators alike occasionally being injured or even killed. On May 10, 1999, a "Lan" 120 kg rocket exploded 50 meters above ground, just two seconds after launch, killing five persons and wounding 11. ["The Nation (Thailand)", 05-10-1999]
"Bang Fai" (the rockets)
"Jaruat" ( _th. จรวด) is the proper term for
rockets used as missiles or weapons, but Bang Fai ( _th. บั้งไฟ) skyrockets are gigantic black-powder bottle rockets. Tiny Bottle rockets are so called because they may be launched from a bottle. In the case of the similar appearing "Bang Fai", also spelled 'Bong Fai' ( _th. บ้องไฟ), the 'bottle' is a "bong" ( _th. บ้อง), a section of bambooculm used as a container or pipe (and only colloquially as a pipe for smoking marijuana.) [cite book
title= New Model Thai-English Dictionary
publisher= So Sethaputra Press
location= Bangkok, Thailand
isbn= 9-7493-5098-7 ]
Bang Fai come in various sizes, competing in several categories. Small ones are called Bang Fai Noi ( _th. น้อย). Larger categories are designated by the counting words for 10,000, 100,000 and 1,000,000: "Meun" ( _th. หมื่น) "Saen" ( _th. แสน) and the largest Bang Fai, the "Lan" ( _th. ล้าน). These counting words see use in many contexts to indicate increasing size or value. "Lan" in this context may be taken to mean "extremely large" as well as extremely expensive and extremely dangerous: "Bang Fai Lan" are nine metres long and charged with 120 kg of
black powder. These may reach altitudes reckoned in kilometers, and travel dozens of kilometers down range (loosely speaking, as they can go in any direction, including right through the crowd). Competing rockets are scored for apparent height, distance, and beauty of the vapor trail ( _th. ไอ). A few include skyrocket pyrotechnics. A few also include parachutes for tail assemblies, but most fall where they may.
Nang Ai, Phadaeng, and Phangkhi
Nang Ai ( _th. นางไอ่) , in full, Nang Ai Kham ( _th. นางไอ่คำ) is queen of the pageant and Phadaeng ( _th. ผาแดง) is her
champion. She is famed as the most beautiful girl. He, an outsider, comes to see for himself, lavishes her with gifts and wins her heart; but must win a rocket festival tournamentto win her hand. Unwittingly, he becomes part of a love triangle. has long since been forgotten and all disputants must let bygones be bygone.
The legend is retold in many regional variations, all of which are equally true for they relate events in different existences. One 3000-word poem translated to English [cite book
title= Phādāēng Nāng Ai : a translation of a Thai-Isan folk epic in verse. Includes bibliographical references
publisher= Bucknell University Press
location= London and Toronto
isbn= 0838751393 ] from this rich Thai-Isan tradition, "…is especially well known to the Thai audience, having been designated as secondary school supplementary reading by the Thai Ministry of Education, with publication in 1978. There is even a Thai popular song about the leading characters." [ [http://www.nanzan-u.ac.jp/SHUBUNKEN/publications/afs/pdf/a904.pdf Diller, Anthony. Review of: Wajuppa Tossa, Phadaeng Nang Ai] ] The original was written in a Lao-Isan verse called Khong saan, replete with sexual
innuendo, puns, and double entendre.
Keyes (op. cit., p. 67, citing George Coedès [cite book
title= The Indianized states of Southeast Asia, tr. by Susan Brown Cowing, ed. by Walter F. Vella
publisher=Research Publications and Translations Program of the Institute of Advanced Projects, East-West Center, University of Hawaii
isbn= ] ) p. 48, says "Phra Daeng Nang Ai" is a version of the myth of an Indian Brahman by the name of
Kaundinya, legendary founder of Funan, and Soma, the daughter of the king of the Nāga.
The Myth of the Toad King
Almost everyone, native and visitor alike, will say Bang Fai are launched to bring rain, as in the Tourism Authority of Thailand link, below. However, a careful reading of the underlying myth, as presented in Yasothon and Nong Khai, implies the opposite: the rains bring on the rockets. Their version of the myth:
When the Lord Buddha was in his bodhisatta (
Pali) (Thai: โพธิสัตว์ , "phothisat") incarnation as King of the Toads Phaya Khang Khok ( _th. พญาคางคก), and married to Udon Khuruthawip ( _th. อุดรคู่รู้ทวิป, Northern Partner-Knowing-Continent), his sermons drew everyone, creatures and sky-dwellers alike, away from Phaya Thaen ( _th. พญาแถน), King of the Sky) [http://www.thai2english.com/dictionary/6347.html] . Angry Phaya Thaen withheld life-giving rains from the earth for seven years, seven months and seven days. Acting against the advice of the Toad King, Phaya Naga( _th. พญานาค "Phayanak"), King of the Nāga(and personification of the Mekong) declared war on Phaya Thaen -- and lost.
against Phaya Thaen in his own element had proved futile; but even the Sky must come down to the ground. On the ground the war was won, and Phaya Thaen sued for peace.
Naga Rockets fired in the air at the end of the hot,
dry seasonare not to threaten Phaya Thaen, but to serve as a reminder to him of his treaty obligations made to Lord Bodhisatta Phaya Khang Khok, King of the Toads, down on the ground. For his part Phaya Nak was rewarded by being given the duty of Honor Guard at most Thai and Lao temples.
. They are also called Túi-tiù ( _th. ตุ๋ยตุ่ย, singing kite), from the sound of the bowstring singing in the wind, which sing all through the night, to signal Phaya Thaen that he has sent enough rain.
All participants (including a wow thanoo) were depicted on murals on the front of the former Yasothon Municipal Bang Fai Museum, but were removed when it was remodeled as a learning centre.
An English-language translation of a Thai report on "Bang Fai Phaya Nark
Naga fireballs" at Nong Khaigives essentially the same myth (without the hornets and wow) from Thai folk : The knowledge of Thai life-style [http://www.thaifolk.com/doc/literate/payanak/payanak_e.htm] . For an alternate English-language version, see Tossa, Wajuppa and Phra 'Ariyānuwat ; "Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King: A Translation of an Isan Fertility Myth in Verse" ; Lewisburg : Bucknell University Press London ; Cranbury, NJ : Associated University Presses ©1996 ISBN 083875306X.
* Bun ( _lo. , _th. บุญ )
merit (Buddhism)[ [http://rirs3.royin.go.th/dictionary.asp On-line Royal Institute Dictionary] ] is from PaliPuñña merit, meritorious action, virtue [ [http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/search3advanced?dbname=soas&query=Pu%C3%B1%C3%B1a+&matchtype=exact&display=utf8 A comparative dictionary of Indo-Aryan languages] ] , and Sanskritपुण्य puṇya virtuous or meritorious act, good or virtuous works [ [http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/contextualize.pl?p.3.apte3.2518624 Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary] ] .
* Bang ( _lo. , _th. บั้ง) (alternative spelling "bong" บ้อง,) is a cutting, specifically of bamboo [ [http://rirs3.royin.go.th/dictionary.asp On-line Royal Institute Dictionary] ] .
* Fy ( _lo. , _th. ไฟ), is
Fire (classical element)[ [http://rirs3.royin.go.th/dictionary.asp On-line Royal Institute Dictionary] ] .
* Prapheni _th. ประเพณี), tradition [ [http://rirs3.royin.go.th/dictionary.asp On-line Royal Institute Dictionary] ] , is from Sanskrit परंपर "parampara", an uninterrupted series, regular series, succession 'to be handed down in regular succession' [ [http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/contextualize.pl?p.3.apte3.2328740 Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary] ] ; from Pali paraṁparā 7795 paraṁparā series, tradition [ [http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/contextualize.pl?p.2.soas.937652 paraṁparā 7795] ] .
In popular culture
The 2006 Thai
martial arts film, "Kon Fai Bin", depicts the Rocket Festival. Set in 1890s Siam, the movie's hero, Jone Bang Fai ("Fireball Bandit"), is an expert at building the traditional bamboo rockets, which he uses in conjunction with Muay Thaimartial arts to defeat his opponents.
* Chinese Fire Arrow for "Flying Firelances", bamboo tubes stuffed with black powder; the tube was ignited and used as a flamethrower.
References & Notes
*Gray, Paul and Ridout, Lucy. "Rough Guide to Thailand". Rough Guides,
2004. ISBN 1-84353-273-5.
* [http://www.tatnews.org/emagazine/2488.asp Tourist Authority of Thailand]
* [http://www.bunbangfai.com Thailand Rocket Festival] in Yasothon (English)
* [http://www.rocketfestival.info Rocket Festival] in Yasothon (English/Thai)
* [http://www.nasm.si.edu/research/dsh/artifacts/RM-BounBangFai.htm Bang Fai at the Smithsonian] , which shows a Bang Fai Ko, not a flyable rocket
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