Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ban That Rocket Launches


Gunpowder Rockets Streak Skyward Over Ban That
 Yesterday, we attended the first day of the rocket launches of the Ban That Rocket Festival.  The Festival started 22 may and will finish on 28 May this year.  However yesterday, Saturday 25th, was the first day of the rockets actually being launched.

May is the month for rocket festivals as well as just local people firing homemade gunpowder propelled rockets into the sky of Northeast Thailand (Isaan) and neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic.

The typical rocket festival lasts for two days, with the rocket launching being set for the second day like the Tambon Nongwha Bun Bang Fai that my wife and I participated in, however large festivals can last longer.  The Ban That Bun Bang Fai Festival is one of those longer festivals.

What is a rocket festival?  Why make and launch rockets into the sky?  Why doesn't every country do it?

Well, first of all it is a cultural thing routed in religious belief.

It is believed that these Buddhist festivals evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rituals to bring the return of the Monsoon rains.  The festivals are held just before the start of the planting season.  It also is one last opportunity for the people to blow off some steam before the exhaustive rice planting season starts.  Some aspects of the fertility rites is retained in the current rocket festivals in that there typically are floats with animals with engorged genitals.  Some men match carrying a bow powered machination - it is wood figurines of a woman on her back and a man on top of her spread legs.  It is very realistic down to the details of pubic hair.  Well close to reality - other than the size of the man's "equipment" or "package".  As the man flexes the bow, the figurines perform the "horizontal mambo", "the nasty", "do it", "hump", "humpty dance", "slapping uglies" or whatever euphemism of your choice and preference.  All this is done to the delight of the crowd people of all ages.  Either to cool off the wood "action" figures or to assist in lubricating them, people walk up and pour whiskey or beer on the moving parts.

Once the Buddhist religion was established in the area, Buddhist believes supplemented and complimented the fertility rites but never replaced them.  A Long time ago, during one of Buddha's many reincarnations, this time as a toad, the rain god (King of the Sky), Phaya Tan  (Taen)was angry with the people and animals. Buddha, Phaya Khang Khok, sermons were drawing people and creatures from earth and sky away from the King of the Sky.  He decided to punish them by withholding the necessary life giving and sustaining rains.  After seven years,seven months, and seven days of drought, the surviving people and animals got together and consulted with Buddha.  After much deliberations, they decided that Phaya Nak (Naga), the giant snake, would lead them in war against the rain god, Phaya Tan.  Phaya Tan defeated the giant snake and his troops.  Buddha and the survivors then sent Phaya Dtaw, the wasp along with Phaya Dtan, the hornet, to battle the rain god.  Phaya Tan was once again victorious and the surviving people and animals returned home to wait for their inevitable death from the lack of water.

Buddha, the toad, developed a plan to attack the rain god by using termites to build mounds up to the sky so that scorpions and centipedes could climb up to battle Phaya Tan and his forces.  Moths assisted the attack against the forces of the King of the Sky by eating away the handles of the enemy's weapons. Buddha accepted Phaya Tan's surrender on condition that the King of the Sky immediately provide the rains and in the future.  If the King of the Sky should forget, the people will remind him by launching rockets at which time he will start the rains.

A Multiple Rocket Launch Into Overcast Sky
Today, the launching of rockets is a merit making ritual for the the peoples of Isaan and their cousins across the Mekong River in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos).  Monks are often involved in the construction and observation of the rocket launches.

Rocket Launching Along the Lake
Our weather is unsettled now with widespread local thundershowers.  As such the area for the launching of the rockets was wet and in many places very muddy.  In the best of Isaan tradition of making do with what they have, the mud puddles have been incorporated into the festival.  Crews whose rockets fail to launch, are picked up by their competitors or friends and dumped into the mud.  With this being Isaan and with the heavy consumption of the moonshine whiskey, Lao Kao and Lao Lao, many people wallow in the mud just for the sheer fun of it all.

Crews Prepare Rockets for Launch

The launching of rockets was scheduled to start at 8:00 A.M..  We arrived at 9:00 A.M. and found the launching of rockets well underway.  Rockets were roaring up into the sky every thirty seconds.  Shortly after we arrived, one of the largest rockets was launched.

Large Rocket Building Up Thrust
Lesson for watching rocket launches - the larger the rocket the greater amount of smoke generated during the launch.  I had moved in close to take a shot of this large rocket launch.  Besides being fairly close, I was also downwind of the launch.  I managed to get a couple of shots of the rocket ignition but I was quickly engulfed along with everyone else in a thick choking blanket of smoke as the rocket was held in place by vines to achieve maximum thrust before climbing skyward.  The roar of the rocket was deafening, a deep and thundering continuous blast.  Smaller rockets were a sharper raspier sound.

A Whole Lot of Smoking Going On
Besides launches of single rockets there were several multiple launches.  Some of the multiple launches were by a team firing up to three rockets from the same launch pad.  Other multiple launches involved several teams launching one of their rockets concurrently.

Besides the roar of the rockets, there were the sounds of the announcer blaring out the play by play of each launch.  Play by Play?  Yes, rocket launching is a big deal in Isaan.  Officials track and announce the time for each rocket to reach its apogee and total elapsed time from launch to return to the ground.  The total time is important as well as smoothness of flight along with stylistic points for the smoke plume are important in determining the winner of the prizes for the festival not to mention the side action.  There is no gambling in Thailand but you can see many people with wads of cash in the hand despite not being anywhere near booths selling food or drinks.

Scattered about the launch area were pavilions underneath which, rocketeers were making the final adjustments and preparations for their rockets.  Many of the rocketeers were being assisted by Monks.

Using Remnants of Monk's Robe Has Got to be Helpful

Reaming Out the Rocket's Combustion Chamber
Both sides of the roadway along the perimeter of the land side of the launch area were lined with booths selling all kinds of food as well as drink - fruit, beer, whiskey, donuts, corn on the cob, water, fruit juices, soft drinks, fried shrimp. noodle soup, chicken feet, grilled dried squid, and other ethnic delights.  Other booths were selling umbrellas, hats, clothing, balloons, and inflatable toys.  It was a grand atmosphere made even more stimulating by the motorbikes trying to navigate what remained of the street available to the shoulder to shoulder phalanx of pedestrians many who were already drunk and some covered in fresh mud.

At the far end of the launch complex there was a large stage were a grand show commenced at 11:00 A.M.  I made it to 11:30 A.M. when I gave in because I was having too much fun.  I was hot and sweaty - although it was very cloudy the temperature was around 95F and the humidity was up.  My eyes were stinging from the sweat of my brow.  My shoes and trousers were muddy.  When I told Duang that I wanted to go home, she was also more than ready to head home.  Although it was a short time, we had enjoyed our stay at the rocket launches and there was no sense in risking it all due to a false sense of time being important in this endeavor.

As we walked along a narrow side street to get back to our truck, I discovered a scene that I could not ignore.  Off to the side, across a ditch filled with water, were some Monks sitting out on a dike around a rice paddy under the shade of a tree watching the rocket launches.  The colors of their skin, their robes, and the newly germinating rice, to me, were striking.  I pulled off my camera backpack, pulled out my camera once again and set across the bamboo bridge to get better access to the area where the Monks were seated.

Monks Watching the Rocket Launches

I go out on every photo shoot with a goal in mind.  The goal typically is the type of shots that I want to focus on, mood or moods that I would like to capture and a story or stories that I want to tell with or through the photographs.  Well life at times is very much like photography.  You may have your priorities and your goals which are all good and necessary.  However we can not let our goals and priorities blind us from seeing, experiencing and enjoying the unexpected opportunities that present themselves along the sides or margins of our awareness.  Often  it is these unexpected moments, situations, and opportunities that can give us the greatest pleasures.

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