Thursday, April 29, 2010

Baan That International Rocket Festival - Rocket Builders


Tuesday, 27 April, was the first full day schedule of the Ban That International Rocket Festival. It had opened the evening before with a beauty contest. Since the festival is about 45 minutes from our home and in an area that we had not been to before, we decided until morning to check out the festival. It was a wise decision, Monday night the area was hit by very strong thunderstorms. Here in Udonthani, we lost our electrical power momentarily three separate times and we lost Internet access until the next morning.

We stopped in central Udonthani to pick up Duang's youngest brother AKA "#4". He wanted to attend the festival and had once been to the area to perform a show. All along the way from our home out to Ban That we saw evidence of the ferocity of the previous night's storms. Trees and tree limbs littered the ground. Large billboards had been toppled. Remnants of large fabric billboards fluttered in the morning's little breeze like frayed and tattered battle flags.

We parked at the Chumchon Banthat School which is one of the main centers of the festival. Workmen were busy with a combination of tasks. The festival was still being set up. Vendors were setting up their booths. On the Wat grounds next door to the school, a gang of workers were offloading several trucks and commencing to erect another stage for performances. However most of the people were occupied with clean up from the previous night's storm. A large tree had been blown over so six workers were busy cutting it up with a very large electrical chain saw in order to remove the debris.

There were large signs indicating participation in the festival by Russia, China, Japan, USA, and India - all pylon signs blown over by the wind and now lying on the wet ground.

An extremely large sign advertising the schedule of festival events had been blown over. The mass of scaffolding frames and weatherproof sign was lying twisted, folded and crumpled along side the narrow village street between the school and the Wat.

It appeared that not much was going to be happening that morning or even during the afternoon. There were some large stage musical events planned for the night which would definitely be interesting but we limit our nighttime travels. It appeared that our trip was a wasted effort. However, this is Thailand and things are not what they always seem.

Duang and her brother stopped at a couple food carts to buy their breakfast. I wandered over to the Wat. Wat Sri Ja Rern is at the heart of the festival. The Wat had been home to a local Monk who first arrived when he was 9 years old and remained there until his death at 84 years old. The fact that he had never been married or known a woman adds to his perceived powers and esteem. Monks are not allowed to touch women once they become Monks but since men are ordained as Monks in their 20s or 30s, some Monks have known women. People have had dreams about the Monk in which he has made it known that he wanted a "big house". Apparently the deceased Monk has issued many requests from people who have prayed to him. All this has led to the Wat being a very popular place of worship for people throughout Isaan. The Monk when he was alive and apparently now that he is deceased, enjoyed "bang fei" - rockets.


His enjoyment of firing gunpowder rockets into the sky and his prowess in responding positively to prayers has lead to the development of a sort of rocket cult in the area. The Monk's ashes are interned in a chedi on the Wat's grounds. A very large area surrounding the chedi was surrounded by a low decorative concrete wall. Several large rockets, 6" diameter and approximately 5 feet long with a long bamboo pole tail, leaned on the low wall with their nose pointed towards the inside of the compound. Cotton strings from the chedi were wrapped around the nose of each rocket. Inside of the wall there were hundreds of offerings such as candles, floral garlands, sprigs of small green plants, miniature Pahm Bii Khwan and joss (incense) sticks. The previous night's rains had made pretty much of a mess of the offerings. Undeterred by the physical state around the chedi, many people were busy praying and making new offerings to the deceased Monk.


Several vendors on the Wat grounds were selling fireworks - good sized bottle rockets. Worshippers purchased the rockets as offerings prior to entering the chedi compound. Along with the standard offerings of small yellow birthday cake sized candles, jasmine blossoms, and incense, the rockets are offered to the Monk's spirit. Duang purchased four rockets apparently only an even number of rockets is acceptable as offerings. She entered the chedi compound to pray and make her offerings. Like most Lao Loum people she prayed for money to come, good health, work for her son, work for us, work for her parents, work for her parents, health for her in-laws. Duang also prayed that she would be granted a visa to visit the USA this year. She promised that if these wishes were granted that she would return in one year to fire a rocket or rockets in thanksgiving and tribute. She left her rocket offerings inside the compound along with the others. Later village children will gather the rockets and fire them into the sky to complete the ritual. I always considered myself as having a wonderful childhood but the opportunity to legally fire rockets into the sky would have only made it more wonderful.

As Duang was performing her devotion, I wandered around the perimeter of the chedi. A pick up truck arrived with three rockets in the back. Men offloaded them and placed them against the concrete wall prior to connecting string to them from the chedi. I noticed three young men each gathering a large rocket and heading out of the Wat. I am comfortable here so I followed the young men determined to take photographs of what was going to happen next. We walked through the village and turned down a narrow street where the young men entered onto the grounds of a local home. I immediately realized that I had hit the jackpot - this place although it was some one's home was also the factory where the rockets were fabricated!

My arrival at the Peenemunde (Nazi Germany's rocket center during WWII) of Isaan was not unannounced. I had not seen another falang (foreigner) all morning so my presence in the village was a source of curiosity and no secret. As I walked towards the fabrication yard local dogs were barking but not threatening me. Neighbors were yelling to the rocketeers that they were being followed by a falang with a big camera. There are no secrets in Isaan and when it involves a falang it is doubly true. I can not speak much Thai and less Essan but I am starting to understand more and more - sort of like my 14 month old grandson. I knew there were no issues and that the people were more teasing their neighbors than anything else. I stopped outside the property gate and asked the people in Thai if I could take photographs. They said there was no problem.

In no time at all I was shooting away at all aspects of the rocket production. After about three minutes, one of the men came over to me with a bottle of Lao Kao, the Lao Loum version of moonshine whiskey ($3.30 USD for a liter), and a small glass. I had seen this drill before many times in Vietnam, Laos, as well as Isaan. What I was not prepared for was the amount of whiskey that was going to be poured into the glass for me to drink. The man poured twice the typical amount of whiskey into the glass. I knew the pressure was on me. I was being offered their hospitality and I wanted to show the proper respect to the people. I wanted to stay and keep photographing. I was worried. I wasn't worried about contracting anything from the common drinking glass for I am convinced that no bacteria, virus, or amoeba could possibly survive the Lao Kao. I was concerned that what down might quickly go up. Steeling myself and rising to the challenge, I gave a toast in Essan language and downed the whiskey in one gulp. Relieved, the whiskey stayed down. I have heard about how artists have suffered for their art. I don't consider myself to be an artist but I strive to be a photojournalist. Now I have suffered for my work if not art. After downing the whiskey, I indicated to the people that I was now ready to blast off - much to their amusement.


The rocket making was a family business with the work being performed by family members in the front and side yard of home. Much to my relief, unlike the rocketeers in Tahsang Village they did not allow smoking around the rockets. Smoking was only allowed outside of their fenced property.

After about ten minutes on my own, I called Duang on the cell phone to tell her where I was. In the haze of my excitement at the wealth of photo opportunities and undoubtedly the effects of the whiskey, I was unable to guide her to my location. She had been worried about me and had started looking for me with her brother but to no avail. People had told them where they saw me but they couldn't find me. I left my new friends and brought Duang and #4 back to the "factory" This being Isaan, in no time at all, Duang and her brother were like long lost relatives with the relatives. They were sharing lunch with the extended family. With Duang available to translate, I had many more questions for the people. The family build rockets year around and complete approximately 1,000 rockets. Rockets are sold for 1,800 Baht ($60 USD)for the smaller ones and 3,000 Baht ($90 USD)for the larger ones. People call the family to order rockets for occasions such as weddings, funerals, and Monk ordinations. I asked the man if he had any requests for rockets from the UDD (Red Shirts) for their "demonstrations" in Bangkok. Everyone laughed and he said "No".

While we were there, a fresh delivery of rocket casings was delivered to the home. A pickup truck brought several lengths of blue PVC 6" diameter pipe. The PVC pipe is hand worked to form a rounded nose cone, packed with solid fuel, bored out, plugged and then attached to a long bamboo pole for stabilization.

The first step in fabricating a rocket is to form the nose cone on the end of the selected PVC pipe. A truncated wood tapered plug is driven into the end of the PVC pipe to stabilize the open end. The end of the pipe is then heated over a charcoal fire in the family's paint can sized cooking stove. The worker after heating the PVC tube to the required temperature, takes the pipe to a concrete slab under the family's elevated house and manual presses the heated end against the level surface. This is repeated several times and in combination with the skillful use of his bare hands, an open ended dome is formed at this end of the pipe. Satisfied with the shape of the pipe, a worker cuts the pipe to the required length and drives the tapered plug through the pipe and out the unformed end of the casing.


Off to the side of the nose cone fabrication, another family member is cutting flat disks out of blue PVC. He does not use a disk cutter. He does not use a milling machine. He does not even use a coping saw let alone an electric jigsaw. He shapes the flat plastic into a circle using only a typical heavy field knife used in harvesting sugar cane. Most impressively of all is the fact that he does not layout the circle on the square piece of plastic prior to commencing his cutting. He completes each and every disk without taking a measurement. This must be a skill that he has acquired from the fabrication of thousands and thousands of rockets. A completed disk is used to seal off the open end of the rocket nose cone.



A disk is placed in the unshaped end of the tube and allowed to settle down the pipe to the partially closed nose of the rocket casing. The next step in the rocket production is to load the solid fuel. The fueling of the rocket casing is the most highly mechanized step of the production process. Loading of the fuel requires the use of a hydraulic press to compress the fuel inside the casing. To the side of the family home, an approximately 4 foot high elevated wood platform has been set up for fueling the rockets. The platform has a tin roof to provide shelter from the sun and rain except for the many small holes where the corrugated metal roof has corroded away. The elevated platform supports an electrically powered hydraulic pump system. An external metal frame runs from the heavy timbers supporting the roof down to the ground. A hydraulic cylinder is mounted to a sliding arm off of the vertical frame. The lower portion of the external frame is a section of 10" carbon steel pipe that can be pivoted from vertical to horizontal. The 10" diameter steel casing allows 6' and 8" rocket casings to be placed inside the pivoting section of the frame.

To load a rocket casing, the rocket is placed inside the steel casing which has been pivoted towards horizontal from the original vertical position. After the complete insertion of the casing, nose cone down, inside the steel tube, the assembly is returned to the vertical position. Very fine sand, a special type sand that the fabricator must purchase, is then poured in the annular space between the steel pipe and PVC pipe. This prevents the PVC pipe from bulging or perhaps cracking when the internal components are compressed by the hydraulic cylinder and steel mandrel assembly. The protective sand is not placed along the entire length of the rocket casing all at once but is placed in stages. Once the sand protective barrier is in place the appropriate internal material is poured inside of the rocket casing. It was at this point that I got my first surprise in constructing rockets. The rockets are not completely filled with gunpowder. They are filled with a combination of gunpowder and the same very fine sand used in the annular space of the fueling assembly. There are four sections of gunpowder alternating with five sections of sand with the first section at the nose cone being sand. I joked with the people that I would build my rocket with just gunpowder so that it would be yai yai fei (big big fire)! We all laughed - I suspect that my super rocket would actually be a pipe bomb.


Once the required material for the section was poured into the rocket casing using a scoop created out of a recycled plastic soda bottle, a heavy steel mandrel was raised by hand and lowered inside of the rocket casing. The hydraulic cylinder was then slide along its arm to center it over the mandrel. As required due to the changing internal length of the rocket casing sections of the mandrel are removed and steel shims are used to make full use of the hydraulic cylinder to compact the material inside of the casing. After compacting the section, the mandrel is raise d by hand using a polypropylene rope that has short pieces of bamboo tied along its length to create handholds. I actually helped several times to fill a rocket by lifting and lowering the mandrel much to everyone's amusement.


The hydraulic cylinder operator had a large bag of premixed gunpowder and a tub of the fine sand next to him for filling the rocket. At one point, the supply of gunpowder was running low. Two other family members, first a young man and then a middle aged Aunt went to the side of the loading station and mixed up more rocket fuel. The rocket fuel was a gunpowder that they made out of Potassium Nitrate and Charcoal. The Potassium Nitrate, KNO3, was commercial fertilizer, 13-0-46 prills. The product that the family used was produced by Haifa Chemicals in Israel. This was another surprise to me but on further reflection it may not be so surprising. Many farmers from Isaan work on farms in Israel. They can earn much more money in Israel than they can here. It only seems logical that their experience with Haifa Chemicals would translate into importing the products here for domestic use.


The white Potassium Nitrate was weighed on a spring scale and poured into a medium sized plastic tub. Water was added and the ingredients mixed with the people's bare hands to form a very thick paste. I had questioned the clear fluid that was added to the fertilizer and I asked if it was Lao Kao. They told me it was water. I told them that I would use Lao Kao (alcohol) in my rocket to make it go faster and higher. They had a good laugh but I really would like to try it - someday. After the paste was the right consistency, they added powdered charcoal to the mix. The powdered charcoal was originally household charcoal that they had ground into a powder using a stone motar and pestle. The powdered charcoal was weighed and mixed into the paste once agqain with bare hands. My science training has taught me that their fuel should include some sulfur but I did not witness any being added to the fuel mixture. Out of respect for their trade I did not pay particular attention to the weighing of the fuel components. I did not want to learn any of their secret formulas for their fuel.


After all the internal sections had been installed and compacted, the rocket casing was carefully removed from the external frame. Care was taken to recapture for recycling the special sand for use on future rockets. The filled rocket casing was then placed in a jig where a small diameter hole was drilled along the casing's length through the centerline of the rocket using a customized long drill bit and small electric hand drill. As part of the drilling jig, water was gravity fed around the drill bit to cool it and to remove the shavings. The hole will serve as a pilot hole for the carving of the combustion chamber in the next process step. The mixture of water, gunpowder, and sand flowed off the property into the street drainage ditch outside of the property.



After the pilot hole was completed, the rocket casing was returned to another area of the fuel filling station. The casing was strapped nose down into a frame which allowed another family member to carve a larger hole along the centerline length of the rocket by twisting an approximately 1" wide curved chisel bit welded at the end of a long tee handled metal rod. Both the small diameter drill bit and the wider chisel bit had to be periodically sharpened using a hand held grinder and abrasive wheel with no safety equipment or devices such as gloves, face shields, or safety goggles. Normal safety practices and equipment is very often lacking in rural Isaan.

The final stage of the rocket production is to attach the completed rocket casing to the long bamboo pole which provides aerodynamic stability to the rocket during flight. In a expression of artistic verve that I had not seen before, the rocket casings were wrapped with colorful foil.

Completed rockets where stored horizontally on racks underneath the house. We ended up spending 2-1/2 hours at this fascinating place. Duang had bought some soft drinks and ice for everyone to share on a hot and sweltering morning. From the family we learned the rockets would be launched commencing at 8:00 A.M. until around 3:00 P.M. on May 1. Interestingly , the Festival ends on April 29th. Apparently the festival is mainly a music and cutural event rather than an actual launching of rockets. There are some rockets launched but the big launch is on May 1 according to the professionals, the ones in the know. We thanked them for their time, hospitality and vowed to return on May 1.

For a day that had started out without much promise, we had experienced a wonderful day. Once again things were not as they first appeared to be. Just as anywhere in the world there are opportunities for learning, and making new friends for anyone willing to make just a little effort. Often the effort is no more than leaving the main road or event to check out what make be on the periphery.

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