Waking the Rain God
The Boon Bang Fai Festival of Thailand
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
In the region of Isan, Thailand, life can be hard, given the frequent poverty and drought.
But the high plains of this most unique portion of northern Thailand are nevertheless rich in local tradition and folkloric ritual, one of the most spectacular of which is no doubt the ritual of the ‘bamboo rockets’.
As in many of the villages of northern Thailand, the festival of Boon Bang Fai in Yasothon is a ceremony performed to implore the heavens for precious rain. And every year, between May and June, the festival of the Boon Bang Fai is one of the region’s most unique attractions.
In one of Thailand’s most-visited regions, a mere stone’s throw from the verdant mountain ranges of the Golden Triangle and just a few kilometres from Chiang Mai, the city of Yasothon does not offer the Western visitor the typical menu of tourist attractions.
There are no picturesque vestiges of Khmer temples here or organised elephant rides. The fact is that Yasothon is not much of a tourist destination in these parts.
Except during the time of year, just before the monsoon, when the seasonal winds of the Indian Ocean come roaring in over southern Asia, bringing with them a phenomenal, continuous deluge of rains and storms, as though the oceans themselves had been turned upside down.
Between the months of May and June, all the villages of northern Thailand are animated by the same festive atmosphere, in the frenetic and joyful celebration of the long-awaited water of the heavens.
But of all the local ceremonies, there is one, in particular, that attracts the most visitors: the Boon Bang Fai festival of Yasothon. For an entire week, as the sky opens and the waters thrash down on the luxuriant tropical plains, huge crowds gather here to take in the fantastic spectacle of the sky exploding into sounds, colours and lights. More than ten times a day, the enormous rumble of exploding fireworks drowns out the sound of drum rolls and an excited crowd. And as the ensuing black cloud of smoke slowly dissipates into the air, the awestruck crowd gradually begins to pick up the conversations cut short by the burst of the fireworks.
Meanwhile, the festival pyrotechnicians are busy readying the next round of fire and colour. Giant rockets, blue, red and yellow are lined up on their launchers; perched on tall, rickety ladders, the men work furiously to finish packing the immense bamboo cylinders with blasting powder.
The people crane their necks to get a better look, guessing on the power and trajectory of the next round of rockets. Once their analyses are made, they run to the little wooden and straw shacks to place their bets.
The luckier gamblers will be able to collect a few hundred baht here later on.
Between the launching of each rocket, the people in the crowd, who’ve come well prepared for the festivities, tend to ignore the original purpose of this fascinating local tradition. Though it may appear to be just an ordinary village festival, the Boon Bang Fai is actually organised by the local temple. A religious ceremony meant to implore the gods to bring clement weather and a healthy monsoon. “This year,” says one local farmer, “the rainfall has been inconsistent: certain regions have received sporadic rainfall, while others have been soaked with unusually heavy deluges.”
Why these changes in rainfall?
A Western meteorologist might tell you that it is a matter of global warming and major climate changes. But the people in northern Thailand will have none of that: for them, the rain falls according to the will of the thevada in their celestial kingdom. In the villages here, certain old people are die-hard believers in the legend that Phaya Thaen, the rain god, long ago became angered by some injustice or wrong committed by mortals.
To punish them, so the legend goes, Phaya Thaen decided to deprive them of rain for seven months out of the year. Drought and famine resulted. Men, animals and trees suffered terribly, and there were much death and destruction.
Those who survived the terrible wrath of the rain god joined forces to figure out a way to appease the gods so that rain would come.
The people put together all the imagination and ingenuity they could muster to gain the favour of the Gods. And this was the tradition of a yearly fireworks festival invented among the people of the villages of northern Thailand, and even further north, all the way into Laos and the Chinese province of Yunnan. The gods would be appeased by the grandiose display of light and fire in the skies.
Organised through the intermediary of the local temples, these ancient rituals generally take place between the sixth and seventh lunar months of the year, which correspond to May and June. The exact origins of the festivals remain, to this day, uncertain. The gunpowder necessary for the making of fireworks was invented, it is believed, as early as the 9th century in China.
An explosive mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal, gunpowder was indeed originally used exclusively for fireworks, and only much later was it adapted for purposes of warfare. But the precise date when gunpowder was introduced into the Boon Bang Fai festival is still not clear. What is certain, however, is that images of Buddha and protective spirits evoking these rituals have existed since the people of Thailand have commonly practised the specific agricultural process of flooding rice paddies, a method that dates back four thousand years.
And so the origins of the Boon Bang Fai remain a mystery to this day. It is in fact virtually impossible to find a local country person capable of producing a rational explanation of all the energy that goes into making the rockets and organising the event. Most people in these parts will simply tell you when asked, that they do it “for the fun of it”.
In a land where bamboo is everywhere and used for everything – from houses to bridges, rafts to weapons, etc. – the rockets of the Boon Bang Fai festival are naturally made of this cheap malleable material. And it is not just because bamboo happens to be so perfectly adapted to the manufacture of fireworks rockets that it is used: all metallic material is, in fact, strictly prohibited during the ceremony. But bamboo does the job just right. A long piece –at least four metres in length – is carefully selected to form the main body of the rocket, while a shorter, thicker section is used at the base for the combustion chamber. Only the finest pieces are selected, and even then they must be blessed in a separate religious ceremony.
The process of filling the two- to three-metre long bamboo tubes with the combustible material is more difficult than it may appear to be. The blasting powder must be perfectly distributed to form the different stages of the rocket. The pyrotechnician must carefully calculate the quantity of powder to be used, depending on the size and weight of the entire rocket. A perfect launch, made possible by packing precisely the right quantities of powder in the right places, consists of a giant eruption of black smoke at the base of the rocket, which then rises vertically on a column of smoke and fire into the sky. The success of the operation depends entirely on the composition of the charge.
The packing of all the powder into the long tube is a meticulous process, requiring an entire team of fireworks experts and, often, several full days of work. Once the charge is tightly packed into the tube, a sort of stopper is attached to the top of the rocket.
Combustion starts just underneath this cone, burning its way down through the multiple stages of powder. Generally, the festival organisers are responsible for determining the exact amount of the rocket’s charge, and thus of its overall power.
The average charge weighs three kilos, a considerable quantity of highly explosive material. Judging by their joking and light-heartedness, the village folk don’t seem to take the dangers of their seasonal profession too seriously.
The fact is that the launch site is actually under heavy security, with a security cordon that extends around the perimeter to keep the public at least 100 metres away at all times. A crucial precaution, as it is not uncommon for unplanned explosions to go off next to the launch site. The organisers also prevent anyone from standing anywhere near where the debris might fall. And to protect surrounding houses and property, the rockets are always launched over deserted fields or the forest.
Once they are sure that all necessary safety measures have been taken, the organisers can themselves take part in the heart of the festival – the party. Every day for the duration of the festival, a special jury awards a prize for the most impressive rocket. At the end of the festival, a grand prize is awarded to the rocket that impressed them most out of all the fireworks launched. The judges on the panel of the jury attribute points according to a list of specific criteria: the smoke, combustion of the explosive charge and the noise the rocket makes. And the Thais manage to use the festival to express their passion for gambling: spectators make huge wagers on the power, trajectory and distance of each rocket launched.
The often extremely sudden arrival of the monsoon puts a quick end to further launches. All at once the festivities are cancelled en masse. At Yasothon, the symphony of exploding fireworks and the pounding of drums last about one week. As soon as the first raindrop falls from the sky, the effervescence of the event is literally washed out: the voice of the crowd goes from an excited roar into a low murmur; the betting booths are quickly dismantled, as well as all the safety equipment. In what seems an instant, the rickety scaffolding and launch pads disappear.
Whatever fireworks that remain are destroyed, as it is strictly forbidden to use the same explosives two years in a row. In a matter of hours, the place where the crowds stood to watch the show is completely deserted, and nothing but a scorched field with scatterings of burned firework debris remains.
After the show, Yasothon will once again become a tranquil little village, and for the masses of tourists who’ve come to watch the show, it becomes the anonymous town it was before the festival. Once again, this year the gods have responded favourably to the people of the village and their bamboo rockets, their spectacular show of fire and light high in the tropical sky. The ensuing deluge erases all traces of the festival and the scorched earth that proved it even happened.
The country folk go back to work; ready to plunge their tools into the fertile and now well-irrigated earth and prepare the season’s harvest of rice.
The rains that flood their rice paddies will continue almost non-stop for five months.
But next year, the Gods will have to be woken up by and be impressed with fire and light once again. Next year’s show will have to be at least as spectacular as this year’s.