Published in Pattaya Trader, Thailand
A FARMER, his face caked with mud, takes another swig from a whisky bottle and lights the fuse. People around him shuffle back and wait. After a few nervous seconds, the roar from a 30ft rocket fills the air and a cloud of smoke fills the ground.
The rocket, packed with 120 kilograms of nitrate and a fair sprinkling of gunpowder, wavers on the wooden launch pad as it decides whether to explode or fly. It opts for the latter and blasts off.
This is Boon Bang Fai, an ancient Thai ritual which sees enormous home-made rockets sent into the sky to welcome the rainy season. This festival isn’t just about rockets, though. There’s the drinking too. Thais from the north-eastern town of Yasothon party hard for two days before the launches, necking a variety of local whiskies and beers in truly phenomenal quantities.
The rockets pack a punch just as potent as the home-brew. Some have been known to clip passing aircraft, and there is always an element of danger for on-lookers as premature explosions on the ground often send them scurrying for cover.
The origins of Boon Bang Fai date back centuries to a time when farmers desperately needed rain to help their crops. They decided the best way to appeal to the Hindu god of rain would be to send him a rocket. It soon became an excuse for an all-out party, where Thais have one last chance to enjoy themselves before the rice fields need planting. In the town centre, sound stages with banks of 20 giant speakers stacked side by side distribute 200bpm music. Sub-woofers visibly pump and shake as old women, transvestites and teenagers dance in the streets.
This is a time when Hedonism rides into town, checks in for a few nights, and unleashes an array of party pieces. Men with their faces painted a ghostly white dance a macabre jig, girls dressed in golden silk sit regally on floats and old women show a little too much flesh. During the first two days of festivities, floats are prepared and then paraded through the main street in a procession of Mardi Gras proportions. By the third day most have just sobered up enough to head to a remote field where three rickety wooden scaffolds act as launch pads.
Teams competing for cash prizes fuss over their rockets. Fussing is no bad thing here as the wrong mix of nitrate and charcoal can mean a rocket exploding long before it reaches the clouds. And when they cost around $US4,000 each, that’s an expensive mistake. Men hoist the rockets over their shoulders and haul them out to the field. The day’s finale is a 30-ft beast which takes 35 men over an hour to put into place. One group stands behind the scaffold and hoists the rocket into position using rope, while a solitary man holding onto its base is jerked off the ground by the force of their pulls.
After much huffing and pointing, the rocket is vaguely vertical. For the first time in a day of explosions, the crowd is pushed back 100 metres and an elaborate fuse sees sparks jump from one overhead line to the next, until finally it reaches the rocket.
The rocket fizzes and rumbles, and a stream of fire shoots from the base. For several seconds it shudders and we step back a little farther. Then it lifts off, blasting up majestically for 50ft before making an abrupt left turn and heading off into a nearby field. Boon Bang Fai is not the kind of place where you worry about such details though – the rocket-makers are simply dumped into a mud pit and left to ponder on next year’s beast.