Sunday, May 2, 2010

Baan That Rocket Launches

Sunday, 01 May, was a holiday here in Thailand just as in many other countries in the world. It was also the day that the rocket builders of Baan That had told us that they would be launching their rockets. We left our home in Udonthani around 8:00 A.M. with a special guest to accompany us. Peelawat, our 15 month old grandson, had spent the night along with his mother at our home. I suggested that it might be nice for them to join us along with #4, Duang's youngest brother, on our day trip out to Baan That. We headed out under an overcast sky, hot, and rather humid conditions. May is the start of rainy season and true to form we had had another big thunderstorm the previous evening. During the rainy season our precipitation typically is in the form of afternoon or night thunderstorms.

On the road north towards the Lao border we encountered some sprinkles. The very slight shower did not deter us. Weather around here is always interesting as well as unpredictable. There are many micro climates which vary greatly resulting in torrential downpour in one area and dry as a bone weather no more than 1/2 mile away. Once in Pattaya south of here and on the coast, I saw a downpour on one side of a road and not a drop of rain on the other side. True to our hopes, the slight shower, several kilometers from Baan That was just localized.

We retraced our way from the previous trip. The village school, where the International Rocket Festival was staged , had all traces of the festival removed except for the trash. The school grounds were littered with plastic - plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic cups, and plastic ground clothes. It was a real mess. Hopefully it will be cleaned up after the holiday.

As we approached the center of the village, our destination became apparent. A spiralling plume of smoke streaked from the ground high into the sky. A rocket had been launched revealing to us where we needed to drive to. In no time we were at the launch site. This was another area covered with litter. There were 15 launch pads set up on the edge of a flood plain. Three of the launch pads were for very large rockets with the remaining twelve pads more suitable for launching 6" diameter by 5 foot long rockets that we watched being fabricated on our previous visit. The launch pads were made of prefabricated reinforced concrete columns and were heavily blackened - evidence of many previous launches undoubtedly associated with the rocket festival. The launch ramps were slightly angled from vertical to ensure that the rockets were fired over the empty flood plain rather than directly above the launch area. There was a large elevated stage at the far end of the rocket launch area. We pulled into the unpaved grounds and parked to the left of the stage. We found out that a Mahlam Lao stage show was going to be starting soon. Rockets, Rocket Launches, Mahlam Lao show, and Go-Go Girls - this had the makings of a very interesting day.

The dirt road that ran along the length of the launching area was lined on both sides with booths and motorcycle push cart vendors. The booths as well as the push carts sold soft drinks, ice cubes, beer, ice cream, whiskey, cooked foods, fruits, and snacks - everything that you would need for a good time. We walked down towards the launch pads but Peelawat was not thrilled with the rockets. When the rockets are launched there is a large plume of smoke along with a loud roar. Although Peelawat did not cry, his eyes and body language indicated that he was afraid. Duang, her daughter, Peelawat, and #4 returned to the area around the stage. This was good for Peelawat in that next to the location where they decided to sit there was a booth where people could throw darts at balloons to earn prizes. #4 quickly won a large stuffed toy almost as big as Peelawat. This kept Peelawat occupied for much of the day. He is babbling quite a bit now and for most of the trip to Baan That he had been "talking" to a pillow in the back seat of the truck. At least now he could talk to an object that had a face and ears.

I wandered about the actual launch area and was quickly reunited with the rocket building family. They recognized me and brought a metal cup of Lao Kao, moonshine whiskey, for me to drink. They were having a family outing - three generations out to enjoy launching their rockets. Like all the other rocketeers that day, they had a canopy to provide protection from the sun, rain, or possible falling objects. While the men put the finishing touches on each of the rockets, the women and children sat underneath the canopy on sahts.

The rockets arrive to the launch facility without their ignitors and fuses installed. The rockets have a temporary cover removed from their nozzle to allow the men to slightly ream out the rocket fuel. Water and cotton swaps are used to prepare the rocket for the fuse/ignitor assembly. The rockets are ignited with a truck battery near the base of the launch pad. Each team provides their own battery for launching their rockets. Thin wires run from the battery up the launch ramp and into the rocket. The fuse which has been installed inside of the rocket is a thin strip of fabric that has been soaked in the tailings of gunpowder and water tailings from reaming the rocket. The nozzle of the rocket is plugged with a bunched up rag that has also been saturated in the fuel tailings. The Battery heats up a wire which ignites the fuse which in turn ignites the rocket solid fuel. The process of preparing the rockets and strapping them to the launch pads is a very dirty business as the day wore on the rocketeer's arms, hands, as well as clothing became covered in heavy black soot. Whereas there was no smoking at the rocket production facility, just as previous launches in Tahsang Village, most of the men were smoking as they worked on their rockets.

When we first arrived there were not many people at the launch area. As the morning turned more into afternoon, more and more launch teams as well as spectators arrived. There were not many falangs, foreigners, at the event. I saw four other foreigners in attendance. They appeared to be local residents rather than tourists so the event was a local celebration as opposed to the previous festival. I prefer the local events rather than tourist focused festivals. I find it to be much more interesting as well as educational to observe and sometimes to even participate in the local focused events. The Lao Loum people are very friendly and curious. Yesterday the rocketeers were busy drinking, mainly their version of moonshine whiskey, so as the day wore on they became even more friendly. Many of the booths located around the launch area sold bottles of the whiskey.

Rockets were constantly being launched. Several times two rockets were launched at the same time. Once three rockets were launched simultaneously. So many rockets were being launched that from his position near the stage, Peelawat overcame most of his fear. When a rocket was launched he would look to see it, point at it, and issue a little sound that seemed to mean "Look".

One of the rockets blew up on the launch pad. The explosion covered the ground with burning fuel, bamboo splinters and shards of PVC while filling the area with large billows of heavy smoke. Men on the nearby launch pad continued preparing their rocket seeming oblivious to the excitement below them. I had squatted down for a better perspective of the launch. Through my lens I could see the shards and burning fragments flying through the air and rolling along the ground. It definitely got my attention. Back at the stage area, Duang had noticed the explosion and was soon at my side, telling me not to get so close to the launch pads. I didn't tell her that she didn't need to tell me. I had already learned my lesson but I appreciated her concern. My friends the rocket builders offered me some more whiskey but I declined and indicated that with more whiskey I would blow up just like the rocket.

Shortly after noon, the mother of all rockets was launched. This rocket was approximately 14 inches in diameter and 10 feet long. It was massive. Upon launch, the rocket sat on the ramp burning fuel, blowing heavy clouds of smoke and flame behind it. After a long while it sped up the ramp. The rocket cleared the launch pad with a load roar, rose vertically for a short period of time and fell into more of a horizontal flight out over the flooded plain. At the far end of the flood plain, the rocket exploded sending burning debris towards the ground amongst various smoke trails. Despite the delayed flight, low altitude achieved, and short duration of the rocket's flight, the spectators as well as rocket builders were ecstatic about the launch. Apparently unlike some things in life, size does matter for rockets. The smaller rockets flew faster, longer and higher but not as loudly or impressively as the mother of all rockets. Several minutes later, the debris was still sending smoke up into the sky. I pointed this out to one of its builders and he indicated that it was smoking because that is where the rocket exploded. No one seemed concerned. I thought about the consequences if it had been in America and smiled to myself as I remembered what Duang often tells me "Darling, Isaan not the same as America". It is on days like Sunday that I am aware of that truth and happy for that.

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