Thursday, May 26, 2016

21 May 2016 Bun Bang Fai Ban That

Last weekend, we attended the Ban That Rocket Festival.  The Festival started Friday 20 May and finished on Saturday 21 May this year.  However, Saturday was the only 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 Nongwa Bun Bang Fai near my wife's home village.  However large festivals can last longer.  The Ban That Bun Bang Fai Festival is typically one of those longer festivals - historically lasting 5 or 6 days.

This year it was different for Ban That Bun Bang Fai.  The festival was only two days long with only one day of rocket launches.

It has been two years since the military took over governing Thailand.  As is typical in most countries, the military is more conservative and concerned about the morality and safety of the nation and its inhabitants.

Gambling other than the national lottery is illegal in Thailand.  The military has cracked down on the enforcement of the laws against gambling. Under civilian rule, there were "exceptions" and "accommodations" available with local Police authorities.  This is now extremely difficult to obtain.

The military is now also more vigilantly and diligently enforcing the existing laws regarding the purchasing and consumption of alcohol.

Every year people are injured and some are killed in accidents at Bun Bang Fai events.  Two years ago a man and a woman were killed at the Ban That Bun Bang Fei when an errant rocket slammed through the cab of their pick up truck as they arrived at the festival. The military, whose duty is to protect the nation considers that duty to include protecting the inhabitants from themselves.

With the heightened awareness over gambling, drinking, safety, and public misbehavior, there was a concern about the Ban That Bun Bang Fai would even be held this year.  I tried to find out when it was going to be held, typically the first week of May, but could not find out anything - there was no publicity about the event.  I ended up finding a phone number of the subdistrict office for the area where the festival is held.  I had my wife call and although it was not the right place to call for information, the person gave her the phone number for the Ban That administration.  Duang called and we got the information that we need to attend the festival.

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 rooted 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.

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, 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.

Naga Atop A Rocket

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.

Rockets at the Wat before being transported to the launch area
Today, the launching of rockets is a merit making ritual for the the peoples of Isaan and their ethnic, Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) 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.

One Vendor's Stockpile For the Day

The launching of rockets started at 9:00 A.M..  Rockets were roaring up into the sky every thirty seconds.

This year there were no large rockets - just rockets made from 6" or 8" PVC pipe - possibly due to safety considerations but more likely financial realities.

Unlike previous festivals at Ban That there was no play by play of each launch.  There were no officials tracking and announcing 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. I did not see any gambling whatsoever this year.

There were also no launch control this year - no men waving the appropriate red or green flags for launch safety or control.  There was no countdowns broadcast to give warning of impending launches.  The rules this year were like people sometimes say .. "The rules are ... there are no rules."

Rockets were blasting off willy-nilly every 30 seconds.  It was the wild west of rocket launches.  Due to the lack of larger rockets, people had a false sense of security and safety.  A pavilion with tables and chairs was set up about 100 feet from the launch pads.  Although too close to be safe - I enjoyed the shade and chair.  I was also able to get some good shots of an exploding rocket using my 28-70 mm lens.

Ban That ... We have a problem!

Whoops ... This was not planned or meant to be

Scattered about the launch area were pavilions underneath which, rocketeers were making the final adjustments and preparations for their rockets.

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, 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.  There were not as many booths as in previous years and the crowds were far smaller.

I had gone off on my own to take photographs while Duang remained in the shade of a small tree on the edge of the launch area.  When I joined up with her to get cooled off somewhat and have some ice cold water, she told me that many people were complaining - the festivals are funded by grants from the government.  This year the military provided the same amount of money for the entire festival that had been just the amount in prize money for the rocket competition in previous years.  This no doubt was why this year's festival was so much shorter and smaller than previous years.  Fortunately it was just as much fun and exciting as in those earlier years.

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.

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.  Besides we are going to be attending Bun Bang Fai in Kumphawapi on 28 & 29 May and Tambon Nongwa on June 1 & 2!

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.  We may have our priorities and our 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. Life is to be lived, fully experienced and enjoyed.

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