These photos are from the Boon Bang Fai (บุญบั้งไฟ) celebration in Ban Nong Na Kham, Amphoe Nong Na Kham, Khon Kaen province on May 24-26, 2019. Thanks especially to Suriya Wongjum for answering my questions, Somporn Poltham for showing me around, and the owners of Sarali Resort for driving me into town. For more information, there's an explanation of Boon Bang Fai and an overview of heet sip-song, the twelve Isan merit-making traditions.
While the rockets (bang fai) are the most important part of a rocket festival, more time and work went into the parade held the day before the rocket launching.
The floats are put together over several days, with final assembly happening on Saturday morning before the afternoon parade. They're made with just a simple metal or bamboo frame set on top of a truck and draped with colorful cloth.
The rockets on top of the floats are purely decorative (they're way larger than the real rockets) and have naga heads because nagas are associated with water. All three of Ban Nong Na Kham's floats had squirrels on the rockets' tails, a nod to the popular legend of princess Nang Ai, which in some versions is also related to requesting rain.
All of this parade preparation was fueled by lahp and lao kao (high-octane rice whisky) – lots and lots of lao kao.
While men (mostly) made the parade floats, the people who would be in the parade were almost all women. They practiced their lam dance moves the night before and got dolled up on the morning of.
Around 2pm parade participants began gathering in the park. Only three mu (neighborhoods) made floats, but people from the entire town and many villages around it joined in.
From 3pm to 5pm the parade took a one-kilometer circuit through the village, with non-stop dancing the whole way. Though rocket festivals often feature sexual symbolism due to the fertility/rain-making aspect, Ban Nong Na Kham's didn't other than one old lady imitating pregnancy with pillow under her shirt. There was also some suggestive dancing during the parade, but this was done by young people for their own enjoyment, not for the sake of summoning rain.
The parade ended back in the park where it started. After local big-wigs spoke about the meaning of Boon Bang Fai and gave out a 2,000-baht prize to mu 1, which was chosen the parade winner because their dancing was very good, each of the three parade groups did a short dance show. And then everyone went home.
That morning, starting around 9am, people slowly gathered alongside a lake outside of town where the day's two activities – the rocket launching and a mo lam sing concert – were going to take place. While the men started decorated the bang fai rockets with silver foil, kids ran around launching their own little ones, which were being sold for 5 baht each.
Ban Nong Na Kham didn't do any large rockets, just bang fai muen, one and a half meters long (plus another four meters of bamboo tail) and stuffed with about fifteen kilograms of gunpowder. They were paid for by donations (generally about 300-500 baht) from people throughout the village.
Before the rockets can be fired, they need to be armed, which requires three steps. First, water is poured into the gunpowder. The moisture causes a slow burn: without it you have a bomb, not a rocket. Then a hole is bored through the gunpowder almost down to the rocket's tip using a set of metal spikes and progressively thicker wooden sticks. The diameter is carefully managed by wrapping wet fabric tightly around the ends of the sticks and inserting them into the hole, this slowly pulls the powder out and leaves a smooth surface. Finally, electric wires attached to a long thin piece of bamboo are inserted so the fire begins at the rocket's tip and burns down the barrel. Altogether, this takes about an hour per rocket.
While some communities perform a ceremony at the city pillar shrine before the rocket launches, Ban Nong Na Kham does not. Although before the rockets were shot off here, a small, simple offering of flowers was made at the launch pad by the rocket-maker to ask Phaya Taen, the sky god who the rockets are intended for, to not let any of them explode or land on a house.
The rockets are tied to the wooden launch pad with rope and clumps of grass providing a tight, but largely frictionless grip. A car battery ignites the spark that sends the rockets several kilometers into the sky, leaving winding smoke trails in their wake.
While the main reason the rockets are launched is to remind Phaya Taen that it's time to send rain, Ban Nong Na Kham (and virtually, if not literally, every other place) also made a contest out of the festival with 2,000-baht prizes for the three neighborhoods whose rockets stayed aloft the longest. There were also side bets between friends, and rumor was that some of them reached 10,000 baht.
Following the rocket's path through the sky is easy until the smoke stops, and then they are really hard to spot, especially this day because it was partly cloudy. Even people using binoculars lost track of some of the rockets. This year's winner was airborne for five minutes and twenty seconds. Second place lasted five minutes and sixteen seconds and third place was four minutes forty-seven seconds. One rocket was disqualified because it came down in the village (nobody was injured and nothing was damaged), which is against the rules, even though the landing spots are almost entirely a matter of chance.
Nine rockets were shot off between 11am and 4.30pm, and the mo lam band played nonstop the whole time – swapping musicians and dancers throughout the day to give them a needed break – not calling it quits until 5.30pm.
Near the middle of the show, a fire truck shot its entire load of water onto the crowd at the front of the stage, providing welcome relief from the heat and prompting people to give their friends mud baths through the rest of the day. People were having so much fun that there's no doubt they would have stayed well into the night had the band kept playing.