YASOTHON, Thailand — For a long half-minute, there was no sky. Only rolling smoke, left behind by a 48-foot homemade rocket screaming into the stratosphere, high above the fields in northeast Thailand.
“Oh, it’s ascending gorgeously!” Beyond the ash cloud, a man with a megaphone provided color commentary in upcountry dialect. The rocket makers — famers, mechanics, carpenters — could barely see their airborne masterpiece through the smoke. But they howled with joy nonetheless, sensing its glorious height. Cinders fluttered down like black snow.
Rockets, danger, whiskey, lust and superstition: there is almost too much to love about the “Rocket Festival” in Thailand’s rural Yasothon province.
For more than a millennium, farmers in this region’s baking flatlands have staged fertility rites to welcome May’s seasonal rains. But sometime after the introduction of gunpowder, people living in modern-day Thailand (and Laos) gained the ability to fire symbolic phalluses — rockets — into the clouds. According to superstition, an astral conception of sorts takes place in the sky, unleashing showers that loosen parched soil so that crop planting can commence.
Today, the mock phalluses are as big as 55 feet long, fashioned from sturdy PVC pipe and packed with more than 130 kilos of gunpowder. “We use a big compressor to push it all in,” said Pon Wannapongse, a day laborer, his cheeks charred black with ash. “It’s fun. Me and these guys, we get together in my backyard and make rockets all night.”
This festival’s thrills, however, run much deeper than amateur rocketry. Just as Catholics enjoy a gluttonous “Fat Tuesday” before Lent’s seasonal fasting, rural Thais are allowed to briefly go wild before the rains come and the months of rice-planting toil begin.
The pouring hand grows heavier. The denim skirts grow shorter. The bottles of rice moonshine and $3 whiskey are opened before noon. And the festival’s preceding weekend turns towns like Yasothon, a quiet farming town of roughly 25,000, into noisy little Babylons. Of all the rocket festivals held throughout Thai-Lao rice country, Yasothon’s is by far the most explosive.
On the town’s main drag, rocket-building crews fire up generator-powered speakers that blast Thai country pop and reggaeton into the night. Giggling aunties press plastic cups of booze into the hands of strange men and grab a handful of butt as a gratuity. Men joyfully parade the streets with comically huge wooden phalluses, aiming them at revelers for laughs.
This amnesty period for various indiscretions frees Thais from a year-round expectation of propriety. Though not perfectly followed, the Thai ideal calls for mannered men and virtuous women. The olden fertility rites — and today’s raucous rocket festival — have long functioned as a much-needed release valve.
“There is no disapproval,” wrote Thailand anthropologist William J. Klausner in 1978. “Such abnormal, proscribed behavior is expected and ever encouraged and carried out with impunity. It is said that, during this festival, those who don’t drink will drink. Those who don’t fight, will fight. Those that don’t flirt, will flirt.”
And those who want glory will craft gigantic rockets.
On the festival’s last day, tens of thousands gather in a scrubby field for the main event: a face-off between men vying to launch the most magnificent rocket. Points are scored for height, distance traveled and eye-catching smoke trails, which trace cartoonish white spirals in the sky.
The grand prize-winning team takes home about $920, more than double the average take-home pay for a worker in the northeast region. The losers are forced to wallow in a muddy lake with their dud rockets.
“These are tough-hearted men, using their nerve and wits,” said Supalak Tammised, a 26-year-old lifelong Yasothon resident. “Through them, we send rockets into the sky to beg the angels for rain,” she said. “These are everyday people doing beautiful things.”
Occasionally, the festival proves deadly. Last year, a rocket slipped from its wooden launching pedestal and struck a circle of men drinking booze, killing one. The mishap, recounted with gory details in the Thai press, took off part of the victim’s head and tore out his right eye. In 1999, during one of the worst Yasothon accidents in living memory, a rocket exploded prematurely above a crowd of spectators. Five were killed.
“I was there and it was terrible. It wasn’t the explosion that killed people. It was the rocket’s falling tail,” said Tai Sawannapet, 52, a Yasothon rocket builder. “But this isn’t all that dangerous. We do have standards. I’ve been doing this since I was a child.”
In a culture where manhood is earned through gunpowder and grit, many young boys view rocketry as a rite of passage. Liveliest amongst one team with hung-over faces was an 11-year-old boy named Watcharapong. He asked to be called “Titan.”
While much of his crew lolled in the shade, Titan would sprint about in the grey smoke and skin-melting heat, lighting a series of 10-foot rockets as a sideline gambling attraction. In a few years, Titan said, he’d be ready the big leagues: helping build 50-footers that make the crowds scream with delight.
“These rockets, I got to light them. I lit them myself,” he said, back straight, struggling to contain nervous excitement. “I feel so proud of what we did today. Our hearts are inside every one of those rockets.”