Seven men were chanting while carrying a homemade rocket up to the makeshift launch pad at a remote village in Vientiane province last Saturday. Amid the drizzle, they managed to climb the big wooden ladder, which was as high as a three-story building, where the rocket would take off 10 minutes later.
The rocket was made of hard plastic pipe and was full of gun powder, with a bamboo stick used as the tail. As it was gradually mounted, hundreds of people on the ground were holding their breath and waiting for it to cast a line of smoke in the sky.
A group of young men played their band instruments while others were preparing their rockets, waiting for their turns.
At least 20 rockets, whose sizes ranged from the width of a wine bottle to that of an electricity post, had been launched in Nonhinhae village in Meuangfeuang district, a three-hour drive away from the capital, to celebrate the biggest Boun Bang Fai or rocket festival in the country so far.
It was not an ordinary afternoon as the wide acres of empty rice paddies were patched with colorful tents and tables, and village folk and visitors drank beer, enjoying the sumptuous dishes prepared by the community.
It was a unique day as some men dressed like women, while others painted themselves black. These black-colored bodies and faces made the monks in their orange gowns stand out in the crowd.
Preceding the long queue of parked vehicles was an array of stalls, where vendors sold barbecued chicken, grilled fish, boiled eggs on sticks, dried sea food, refreshments and plastic wares.
The unpaved roads saw bunches of balloons printed with cartoon characters for sale and ice cream in carts for those needing to cool down.
It was a special day for children as the land where their parents used to plow and harvest turned into a little carnival.
Laughter went around and around in an old-fashioned carousel-like ride, blending with the grown-ups’ cheers for each successful rocket launched.
The swish of the rockets accompanied the sounds of pounding rain on the roofs and the loud music of the band in a temporary stage on the barren rice field.
The brown land, which degraded into a muddy trail for those who dared to go near the launching area, will surely turn green next month.
It is common knowledge or, should I say, a common hope that rains will give life to this land with the rise of the rockets. Therefore, these festivals are an age-old tradition.
Of rockets, frogs and flute
Folklore tells the story of why human beings send rockets to the rain god, Phya Thaen, for his gift of water.
Of all the kings who fought Phya Thaen to send down rain so people could start planting rice – including the Naga King and the King of Bees – it was the Toad King who conquered the rain god.
The night before the fight, the Toad King sent termites to eat the sword handles of the rain god’s soldiers and scorpions to bite them. The next day, they were not able to fight the troops of the Toad King.
The king caught and tied up Phya Thaen, and convinced him to make a pact in exchange for his freedom.
They agreed that Phya Thaen would send the rain every year to supply water for the rice farms and other plants. But humans had to send a rocket first so that the rain god would know it was time to deliver.
The frogs will then shout in chorus as the rain arrives, sending a message to farmers that the rice planting may begin.
When the harvest season comes around, people must then play a flute so that Phya Thaen will know it is time to stop the rain. He will only send the rains again when he sees the familiar rockets.
Tradition lives on
Nobody knows when the first rocket festival was held in Laos, but everybody believes that such tradition will continue.
Technological advancement is supposed to have made us more scientific, instead of holding on to myths and legends. However, sending rockets before the rainy season continues as an annual event in the country.
Thanks must be paid to science and technology as the rockets become more sophisticated and bigger as time goes by.
The most eagerly awaited part of the festival last Saturday was the launch of the biggest rocket in Laos, according to the event organizers. It was 5.5 metres long, with 900 kg of gun powder. A crane was used to position it on the launch pad.
The Vientiane Times team had left before it was sent skywards but it was successful in its mission and no accidents have been reported.
The festival became a showcase for the best and biggest rockets, which displays the producers’ creativity and advanced knowledge.
Whether or not it was the primary reason why people, including foreigners, gathered to join the festival, it had served its purpose as they were able to experience the culture and traditions of ordinary Lao people.
The attendees were able to see the Buddhist temple and offer prayers and alms to monks, who also whispered prayers for the givers, while tying white strings around their wrists.
Smiling villagers got reflective responses from visitors who came from different walks of life.
The one day affair offered a complete experience – spiritual, social and gastronomical.
Yes! A bite of sticky rice, which was cooked inside a bamboo stalk, dipped into spicy papaya salad (tamma-houng) and followed by a barbecued native chicken, exploded in the mouth like a rocket.
(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)