May 15th was a significant day in Nong Khai. Not only was
it Visakha Bucha Day, commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of
Lord Buddha, it was also the first day of the Bun Bang Fai, or Rocket
older men and women wearing striped sarongs, oversized shirts, wide hats and
sunglasses sang and danced to the music, oblivious to the oppressive heat,
passing bottles of whiskey and beer to one another as a young man walked
beside them, keeping up the beat with a hand-held drum.
heard faint traditional Isaan music growing louder and as we looked down the
road we saw two lines of young girls wearing bright pink blouses and yellow
flowers in their hair dancing barefoot towards us.
perched in the back of a pickup truck, surrounded by children, was playing
what appeared to be an electric double-ukulele that had what looked like a
large flame carved onto the headstock.
Every year during the sixth lunar month, the rural people
of northeastern Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia hold an ancient festival to beg
the gods for rain. During this celebration, homemade rockets are fired into
the sky. Some people say the rockets pierce the clouds to allow the rain to
fall, while others claim that the rockets fired into heaven alert the rain
god, who will bless the people on earth with rain and a bountiful rice
harvest. Thus, the festival is a fertility celebration.
Yet Bun Bang Fai is also a time for sanuk, or having fun.
Competitions are often held for the largest rocket, furthest distance, and
largest explosion. These rockets, often 4-5 metres in length, are packed
with gunpowder and can travel up to one kilometre before exploding into a
In Nong Khai, Bun Bang Fai was held over three days. The
first day was designated for the parade, where the rockets were led through
the village on colourful floats to the launch site several kilometers out of
town, while the second and third days were selected for the lighting of the
rockets in rice fields from tall bamboo launch pads.
Having participated in the rocket lighting festivities
previously in Laos, and remembering fearing for my life as dancing drunken
revellers fired rockets indiscriminately along the ground, into crowds of
people, and across the river, narrowly missing boat-loads of partiers - hey,
all in good fun! - I was more than happy to accept my friend’s invitation
to join her and her family to watch the parade, a less dangerous
As we pulled up in front of her elder sister’s home in
a village on the outskirts of Nong Khai, I was quickly introduced to her
numerous brothers, sister, nephews and nieces who spilled out of the doorway
to the patio outside. A mug of liquid the colour of ripe banana peels was
placed in my hand by her elder sister, and I noticed everyone was drinking
the same yellow brew. I asked her what it was and she said,
"Sat-oh." I took a long sip. Instantly, I recognized the familiar
taste of the sweet rice wine, and took another mouthful.
"Arroy mak," I told her and received beams of
pleasure all around.
After sharing several more mugs of sat-oh and many plates
of delicious food we all set off down the soi to Meechai Road, where the
parade was just beginning. My friend and I threaded through the crowd and
stood at the edge of the road to wait for the procession. People young and
old gathered in anticipation. Some waved fans to cool their hot faces, or
held umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun’s strong glare, while
others clumped together under the shade of trees or just braved the heat all
together. Impatient children, tired of standing in the hot sun, sat on the
pavement holding miniature rockets or scampered back and forth across the
road until an adult warned them to stay still as the parade was coming.
Soon we heard faint traditional Isaan music growing
louder and as we looked down the road we saw two lines of young girls
wearing bright pink blouses and yellow flowers in their hair dancing
barefoot towards us. They moved elegantly on the hot pavement, turning their
bodies in time while their arms twisted gracefully in the air, their thumbs
and forefingers touching as their fingers extended back towards their
wrists, their dark faces bathed in sweat.
Following them was the source of the music, a man perched
in the back of a pickup truck, surrounded by children, playing what appeared
to be an electric double-ukulele that had what looked like a large flame
carved onto the headstock. Alongside the truck, several older men and women
wearing striped sarongs, oversized shirts, wide hats and sunglasses sang and
danced to the music, oblivious to the oppressive heat, passing bottles of
whiskey and beer to one another as a young man walked beside them, keeping
up the beat with a hand-held drum.
Next, the floats slowly rolled past us as the music
continued and people danced. A handsome man and beautiful woman dressed in
traditional Thai costumes sat astride a life-size replica of a white horse
in the back of a pickup, while behind them I met the gaze of the rain god.
With a golden face, a wide-open mouth, two huge fang-like teeth and bright
red eyes, surrounded by billowy white and blue painted clouds, its was a
presence one wouldn’t want to mess with. Several more musicians came along
playing traditional Isaan music while villagers followed, dancing and
singing songs that had many in the crowd chuckling.
As the last of the floats rolled past, the crowd began to
disperse and we headed back to her sister’s house. It was then thunder
grumbled low and loud from dark, heavy clouds covering the sun. People
turned their heads to the sky, chattering to each other and smiling. A cool
wind picked up sharply and my friend grabbed my hand, saying we must run as
it was going to rain. As we reached the front door, large droplets began to
pelt our shoulders. For several minutes we stood in the doorway watching the
rain fall in torrents as people dashed for cover, holding bags and newspaper
over their heads and laughing, happy that the heat wave had passed and the
rains had come.
I think the rain god was happy too.