Thursday, May 8, 2014

It's that time of the year ... again. Bun Bang Fei

The beginning of May marks the start of our rainy season here in Isaan.  It also logically coincides with the start of the "Rocket Season" here and across the Mekong River in Lao People's Democratic Republic.

A Multiple Launch In Ban That, Phen District - 2013 (2556BE)

Launching of homemade gunpowder filled PVC rockets is a unique aspect of Lao culture in the region.  The custom is tied to the legend of one of Buddha's many previous lives.

It is believed that these Buddhist festivals of launching rockets 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 consisting of 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 beliefs 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's, 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.

The largest and best internationally known rocket festival is in Yasothon.  Our favorite location for Bun Bang Fai is in the village of Ban That in Phen District located northeast of our home in Udonthani.

This year we have already attended a small Bun Bang Fai in a small village outside of Kumphawapi.  Rather than a full fledged festival , the occasion outside of Kumphawapi was more of a local rocket competition - launching of smaller rockets for trophies and ... betting.  Gambling is not legal in Thailand however I have always seen money changing hands at these rocket launches.  Duang left the rocket competition with 900 baht more than she had arrived with.

Launch Row - Ban That
The Bun Bang Fai Festival in Ban That is our favorite location.  This year the festival is being held from 11 May to 17 May.  I was able to obtain a schedule of events that Duang translated for my benefit.  We will be attending the festival on Monday, May 12th - getting there at 7:00 A.M. for the procession along with a show that evening and Thursday, May 15th - for the start of launching 200 rockets for the day.  Throughout each day of the festival there is entertainment, launches and plenty of food and drink ... for many people there is too much to drink but then again that is what helps make it a festival.

Float for Afternoon Procession
We went two days last year and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The festival concluded early after our attendance for the second day when a rocket went stray after launch and went into the cab of a pickup truck that was entering the parking lot - instantly killing the female occupant with the male driver dying on his way to the hospital.  There is always a certain danger at these events with excessive drinking and launching of gunpowder packed PVC tubes into the sky.

Finishing Up One of the Larger Rockets
Monks are often involved in the rocket building process
We are both looking forward to this year's festival in Ban That.  After that festival there is a smaller festival at Tambon Nongwha on 22 May.

It is that time of year again - busy times of festivals, rocket launches, music, dancing, fighting (some organized but many not planned) and merriment prior to the planting season.

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