There are a few versions of ‘Bang Fai – history of the Rocket Festival ceremony in Laos’ that are somewhat similar to this, but I found this one while visiting a local Wat (temple). It’s well written, easy to read, and understand, it was written to commemorate the presentation of the Traditional Lao Rocket to the National Air and Space Museum by the community of the Wat Lao Buddhavong, Washington, DC on October 29, 2005.
Laos, located in the heart of Indochina, is a country of great natural beauty and abundant natural resources. In the past, Laos was known as ‘Souvannaphum,’ meaning ‘Golden Land.’ Laos lies between 14 and 23 degrees northern latitude and between 100 and 108 degrees eastern longitude. It has a land area of 236,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 6 million. There are 3 major ethnic groups and 68 tribal groups. Each of these groups has its own distinct language, culture, tradition, and set of beliefs. But these elements are similar among the groups. The Lowland Lao group, which is one of three larger and more developed groups, has a more diverse set of traditions and cultural elements than the other groups.
Background of the Traditional Rocket Festival in Laos
This Festival is one of the twelve traditional festivals celebrated in Laos. It is usually held during the 6th lunar month, at the beginning of the rainy season (usually in May or early June) to coincide with the planting season. The annual Rocket Festival is held to beseech the God of Rain, called ‘Phraya Thaen,’ to have the rains arrive in a timely fashion for cultivation. The Rocket Festival is considered by the Lao people to be a joyful and fun-filled celebration.
The Festival includes a procession of groups of villagers carrying rockets while singing in a ‘call and response’ style. Their songs are poetic in nature and use sexual themes that symbolize fertility. The humor used in the songs brings laughter to the spectators. The songs symbolize the relationships between heaven and earth as well as between men and women. The songs celebrate the forces of procreation and the abundance of life. They all relate to the need for the annual rains to fall at the proper times to support the growth of the yearly crops.
The Rocket Festival is derived from historical times and mentioned in tales such as ‘The Tale of Pha Daeng-Nang Ai’ and ‘The Tale of Phraya Khankhak (Lord of the Toads).’ Both stories refer to the firing of rockets to the heavens to ask the God of Rain to magically make the rains begin each year. The Lao people consider this Festival to be a very important tradition that must be observed. They believe that in any year that the Rocket Festival is not held, there could be disasters such as crop failures and famine. More about these stories can be found below.
The origin of the Rocket Festival dates back to ancient times. This important tradition has been celebrated by the Lao people for centuries. The Festival combines the energy and unity of the people in beseeching the heavens for ample and timely rainfall to prevent drought and famine.
Even though the level of belief in asking the God of rain for rainfall has declined over time, nevertheless the Lao people still believe in the importance of holding the Rocket Festival so that the rains will fall before the planting season. Besides the Rocket Festival, religious ceremonies in which senior Buddhist monks pour holy water on local Buddha statues are also held at this time.
The Shape and Composition of Lao Rockets
Lao rockets come in many shapes and sizes. Each rocket has five components:
- A bamboo cylinder, which forms the main body of the rocket, is ‘cured’ over a fire until dry. Holes are then drilled in it and filled with gunpowder;
- The tail of the rocket is made of a long length of bamboo of a smaller diameter than the main cylinder; it is also cured over a fire and made perfectly straight; it is then bound tightly to the main rocket cylinder;
- A special piece of wood is attached to the body of the rocket; when the rocket is launched, this piece helps amplify the sound of the rocket;
- The rocket is brightly decorated with a ‘Naga’ (snake) picture on top, flower leis or wreaths, and colored paper, to make it beautiful;
- The propellant is homemade gunpowder, which is made of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal pounded together, then dried and tested for power under the supervision of an expert; the final product is loaded in the main rocket cylinder;
- The final step in constructing a rocket is for a fuse to be inserted in the front end of the rocket’s main cylinder to prepare it for launch.
Categories of Lao Rockets
The following are the various types of rockets used during the Rocket Festival competition.
There are two categories of rockets, with and without tails, designed by Lao master craftsmen. There are many different styles and colors to please the spectators of the Festival. The first category, without tails, includes the Phu, Pha Niang, Talai, Dok Mai, Kong Khao, and Ma Laen Styles.
The second category of rockets, those with tails, is broken into four groups based on weight; the different weight classes hold separate competitions.
- The first is the Noy rocket, a mall rocket used in a ceremony to test gunpowder; if this soars high into the sky, there will be plentiful rain, but if the rocket explodes, the rains will not fall correctly.
- Hong rockets hold less than 12 kilograms of gunpowder.
- Moun rockets hold between 12 to 119 kilograms of gunpowder.
- Saen rockets are the largest and hold 120 or more kilograms of gunpowder.
The Rocket Festival Procession
According to Lao tradition, many elements of the Festival occur before the competition itself begins. Villagers who decide to compete must first consult with their local senior Buddhist monk about how to build their rocket. After the rocket is successfully built, they take it to the Festival site and set it up on the launching pad according to the contest regulations in preparation for firing.
There are also chanters and dancers who participate in the Rocket Festival procession; they must practice in advance to learn the rhythms of their dance and the rhymes of their chant. On the day of the festival, they will dress in colorful costumes and paint their faces in a comical fashion. In addition, they will carry humorous props and carved figures with sexual themes, which they push and pull to the rhythm of their chant. The groups in the procession taunt the spectators to get them to laugh at their chants in order to bring them into the mood of the Festival and join in the fun. Included in the procession are judges who rate the quality of the dancing of the various groups and give prizes as souvenirs of that year’s festival.
The Lyrics of One Rocket Festival Chant
The lyrics of the Rocket Festival Chant are characterized by humor and focus on sexual themes. The chanting follows the rhythm of the dancing. One person leads the chant, and the group members respond in the correct rhythm.
The following is one verse of a typical Rocket Festival Chant:
Ohh, how-oh, how-oh, how-ohh,
Please give us a glass of Lao alcohol
And then give us a bowl of Lao Tho Wine
It’s oh so sweet in your nephew’s mouth
Scoop some up for each of us
If you don’t give us any, we are not leaving
If we die here and become ghosts, we’ll haunt you, throwing dirt so the sound scares you as you leave your house*
If we die here and become birds, we’ll perch on your betel nut leaf plants so they die
If we die and become rats, we’ll chew up the weaving strings on your loom
If we die, we’ll become your babies, and we will hang on your breasts for suckling
Ohh, how-oh, how-oh, how-ohh, (chant continues in this way until the procession ends)
* Note: the sound of dirt being thrown or stirred up for the Lao people is parallel to the sound of rattling chains accompanied by the appearance of ghosts for Westerners.
Ancient Tales of the Lao Rocket Festival
There are two traditional stories that, even though they exist in many different versions, both cite the same origin for Rocket Festival. The first tale is called ‘Phraya Khankhak’ or ‘Lord of the Toads.’ The other is called ‘Thao Pha Daeng – Nang Ai.’ The stories go as follows.
The Tale of ‘Phraya Khankhak’ or ‘Lord of the Toads’
Long, long ago, before the Lord Buddha had reached enlightenment, he went through a series of reincarnations to accumulate virtue sufficient to become the Buddha. In one of these lives, he was born as Phraya Khankhak (the Toad King). Because of the merit, he had already accumulated his generosity, and loving-kindness, humans, and animals both respected him. His reputation eventually reached Phraya Thaen (Lord of the Rains) causing Phraya Thaen to become jealous of the higher status that Phraya Khankhak enjoyed on earth.
To spoil the reputation of Phraya Khankhak, Phraya Thaen refused to send rains to fall on the earth for 8 years and 8 months. The people had no water to drink or to use for cultivation. The people became weak, and large numbers of animals died. Only the strong survived.
At that point, the people and all living creatures remaining on the earth gathered and decided to fight together against Phrya Thaen. Phraya Nak (the Naga King) and his Army of Snakes, first volunteered to help in the war against Phraya Thaen. In their battles, however, the Naga King and his serpent army were defeated suffering heavy injuries. When their wounds healed, it turned out that the bodies of the Naga King and his troops became multi-colored. After that, Phraya Pheung (the King of the Bees) volunteered to continue the fight with his army. The fighting continued for many days, and large numbers of the bee soldiers were killed. In the end, the King of the Bees and his troops met the same fate as the Naga King and his army; after they recovered from their defeat, their bodies also became multi-colored.
The remaining creatures were frightened by these events. In the end, the Toad King decided to take the front with a clever three-part plan. First, he sent the Termite Army to gnaw away the handles of the weapons of Phraya Thaen and his soldiers. As a second step, he sent the Scorpion King and his force up to the sky to hind in the firewood and clothing of Phraya Thaen and his troops, ready to bite them at any available opportunity. The next morning, when Phraya Thaen and his soldiers woke up, they were bitten when they went for firewood or reached for their clothing. When Phraya Thaen’s troops finally took up their weapons, they found that the handles had been completely destroyed by the termites. The third step in the Toad King’s plan was for the Toad King to lead his troops to launch and attack. Because Phraya Thaen’s soldiers were suffering from scorpion bites, they had no strength to fight. At the same time, their weapons could not be used. The Toad King chased after Phraya Thaen on horseback. In the end, the Toad King won the war, and Phraya Thaen was captured. While Phraya Thaen was in captivity, he and the Toad King (Phraya Khankhak) achieved an important treaty.
The Peace Treaty specified the following:
- Rockets must be used as a method of communication between the peoples of the earth and Phraya Thaen. Every year, before the beginning of the rainy season, people will be required to fire rockets into the sky to remind Phraya Thaen to send abundant rains for the rice fields and other crops.
- The Sound of frogs singing will symbolize that the rains have begun to fall. When enough rain has fallen for that period, the frogs must sing out loudly to let Phraya Thaen know that enough rain has been released for the period.
- The flying of kites and the sounds of flutes will signify that harvest season is about to arrive and that rain is no longer needed. When Phraya Thaen sees the kites flying in the sky and hears the sound of flutes, he will stop sending the rain until he sees the rockets again the following year. (some people cleverly built the flutes in with the kite, called Vow Thanou)
The Tale of Thao Pha Daeng – Nang Ai (Prince Pha Daeng and Princess Ai)
Once upon a time, there was a king named Phraya Khom, who peacefully ruled the city of Nonghan, also known as Thi Thanakhorn. The people were happy and content. But through misfortune or bad luck, the regular rains stopped falling on schedule for 8 years and 8 months. This was the worst calamity to have ever befallen the people. People and animals died in large numbers. Because Phraya Thaen was very angry, he refused to send the rains, causing this drought.
In order to make the rains fall, Phraya Khom sent out his officials to announce that the people should build rockets for a competition. The winner of the competition would be granted half of the kingdom and the hand of Phraya Khankhank’s daughter, Princess Ai. This news was spread in all directions. So many kings, such as Thao Siang Hien, Siang Da, the King of Muang Sua, and the King of Chawa, brought entourages to participate in the rocket festival that the site became jam-packed. Joining in the procession of Kings was Thao Pha Daeng of Nakhorn Pha Fong. Of course, everyone wished to win the competition in order to claim half of the kingdom as well as the beautiful young Princess as his wife.
Thao Phang Khi, the son of the Naga King, when hearing the news of the charming beauty of Princess Ai, fell madly in love with her. Thao Phang Khi then decided to change himself into an albino squirrel with a golden necklace. Every morning and evening, Thao Phang Khi, in his squirrel form, jumped on the branches of the fig tree near Princess Ai’s residence in the Palace. When Princess Ai saw the albino squirrel, she fell in love with it and wanted to keep it as a pet.
On the day of the Rocket Festival competition, many rockets were launched. Some rose skyward, while others near left the launch pad. The rocket of King Siang Hien rose high into the sky, the highest of all the rockets. The rocket of Pha Daeng, however, blow up after being lit. Phraya Khom presided over the competition for 3 days and nights until the contest ended. According to the results, princess Ai should have become the wife of King Siang Hien. King Siang Hien should also have received half of the kingdom as promised. However, Princess Ai had fallen in love with Pha Daeng and was very sad and heartbroken. (This is only one section of a much longer story. Interested readers should read the book of ‘Thao Pha Daeng – Nang Ai’ in its entirety.)
In conclusion, the Rocket Festival is considered to be one of the most important festivals of the Lao people, one which has been celebrated from ancient times to the present day. Even though different aspects of the Festival are not maintained today with the same richness as in the past, it remains an important national tradition. How long this tradition will continue depends fully on the younger generation of the Lao people, who will have to be the ones to carry it forward and preserve it for the future.
As a whole, the Lao people believe that celebrating the Rocket Festival has benefits worthy of consideration as follows.
- The promotion of unity and friendship within and among village communities, since old friends can come together at the time of the annual Rocket Festivals, maintaining their close relationships.
- It is important to maintain this tradition, which is a valuable treasure of the Lao people, similar to other fine traditions of Laos.
- Many Lao people still believe that Phraya Thaen does send the rain needed for drinking and cultivation throughout the year.
- The Festival reduces tensions by allowing the people to do good deeds and have fun.
- The Festival has become a popular attraction among the Lao people and for tourists.
- The Festival creates market opportunities for vendors to increase their revenues.
Note: This history of the annual Rocket Festival is only a summary. More extensive details can be obtained from senior Lao people who have had experience in being directly involved in these Festivals in the past. Therefore, if you wish to know more about the Festival, please ask Lao elders that you meet about their experiences, and you will surely have a clearer understanding. We thank you for your interest in this traditional Lao Rocket Festival celebration.
Compiled by Wat Lao Buddhavong of Washington D.C.
Research and story by: Maha Thongdy Sirikoun, Southalavong Bouta, Phouviravong Hommachanh
Layout by: Souksomboun Sayasithsena, Phantarattana Phrasavath
Additional drafting, editing, proofreading, and translation: Souksomboun Sayasithsena, Phantarattana Phrasavath, Mike Sweeney, Harvey Somers, Sourasy Khamvongsa