Yasothon Rocket Festival
Dates vary slightly for the Yasothon Rocket Festival, also known as the Bun Bang Fai Festival, but it is typically held across a weekend in the second weekend of May. In 2017, the official dates are 11 – 14th May.
This three day festival is certainly one of the most explosive events on the Thai calendar.
The proceedings get underway with a few performances featuring music and dancing. A boisterous parade also takes to the streets, as colourful floats and dancers make their way along accompanied by musicians. Aboard the floats are the mighty rockets themselves, which will soon be let loose. As with most Thai festivals, there’s also a beauty contest bolted on.
The final day of the Bun Bang Fai Festival is when things really… take off. The main event is the rocket-firing competition, which is as dangerous (there have been quite a few casualties over the years, and even some fatalities), as it is exciting. It’s also very, very loud.
Some of the rockets are quite huge, being packed full with up to 120kg of explosives. After taking off from impressively large bamboo launch-pads, they can reach heights of several kilometres, and travel in total for many more. The main criteria for the competition are how high and far the entrant’s rocket flies.
Arguably most entertaining of all, however, is what happens when a rocket fails to take off. The poor, would-be rocketeers are picked up, and unceremoniously dumped into a nearby muddy pond.
At its heart, Bun Bang Fai is a rain festival. In agricultural Isaan (eastern Thailand), the amount of rain can make or break the year’s crops. In most areas in Thailand, rice cultivation is limited to once per year due to limited access to water so the importance of the right amount of rainfall is paramount to a good season. In areas which have access to year round water, these small pockets can
Bun Bang Fai was originally a Lao celebration, before it was brought over to neighbouring eastern Thailand. The festival is held as the rainy season approaches. For centuries, Lao and then Thai people have believed that by firing rockets up towards the heavens, they will encourage the gods to bless them with rain in the coming months, and in turn allow them to reap a good harvest.
If you are looking for a bit more information on this custom, you can check out the article I wrote about Yasothon’s Big Toad.
Although the Bun Bang Fai Festival is celebrated across Isaan, the most spectacular and explosive event take place in Yasothon. Yasothon isn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, and accommodation can be limited, especially when the festival is taking place. The largest hotel in Yasothon is the JP Emerald Hotel while there is also a number of smaller ‘thai orientated’ hotels. While I mention the JP Emerald Hotel, don’t take that as an endorsement as I’ve only stayed there about 8 years ago and even then, it was dated. Don’t expect to much from any hotel in Yasothon and you won’t be disappointed.
If you can’t get a room in Yasothon itself, you could consider staying in Ubon Ratchathani, which is around 100km away, and taking a bus to Yasothon, rent a car, or private taxi for the event itself. The trip takes just over an 1 hour each way. Alternatively, there are a number of “resorts” scattered around which once again are thai orientated. Don’t expect these to be true ‘resorts’, they are just individual cabins.
Ubon Ratchathani is something of a transport hub for eastern Thailand, and is accessible by bus, train, minivan and plane from other major destinations via Bangkok. Wherever you’re staying, it’s best to head for Ubon first, then hire a car at the airport or take local transportation to Yasothon. If you wish to drive, its about a 6 hour drive from Bangkok if you leave early enough to beat the Bangkok traffic.
TIP: While the official Yasothon Rocket Festival takes place in the main town of Yasothon, there are also various smaller Bun Bang Fai events through the month which focus more on rockets than the parade flair. In all honesty, to be able to find these smaller Bun Bang Fai events, you will need a local to first know when and where these are occurring and then to get you there. These smaller events are for the locals and while you would be warmly invited to attend if you showed up, getting there will be the main challenge.