The Rocket Festival – A Personal Insight
The rocket festival experiences shared below are based on the personal experiences of David. If you would like to share your own experiences of travelling in Laos, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Early Morning Start
I wake up early to discover Vientiane coated in a light haze. Farmers nearby are clearing land to plant rice in the upcoming wet season using the traditional “slash and burn” that Lao farmers have been using for generations. The haze gives the city an other-worldly feeling, which seems appropriate if the stories I’d heard about the rocket festival were true.
I leave my apartment and make my way to the historic Mahasot Hospital, where I am meeting my girlfriend and her colleagues. We have been invited by one of her Lao colleagues to travel to her village and take part in the annual rocket festival. I’m not entirely sure what to expect but I’ve been told we’re going to have a great time, and that’s good enough for me.
When I arrive there are a few expats milling around, and while waiting for our Lao colleagues I make some small talk, and discover that some of them have been to the festival before. I try to find out a bit more about what I can expect from the day but their answers don’t really provide me with much clarity. I’m assured that it will be a good time with plenty of beer and entertainment. Eventually their Lao counterparts arrive and hand us some traditional outfits. This is the first I’m hearing about costumes but I’m happy to take it all in my stride. I find a room to get changed and try to follow the instructions given to me five minutes earlier.
I emerge dressed in what I’m told is a traditional farmer’s bathroom attire, akin to the western equivalent of a bathrobe. I’m wearing a white singlet that has already turned transparent from sweat, and a simple chequered cotton towel, wrapped around my lower half as a simple skirt. I’ve seen men in rural villages wearing similar things as they make their way down to the river to wash, so I guess it’s reasonably close to accurate. I’m still not clear on why I’m wearing this outfit but I hope to be enlightened soon.
The women are all wearing matching old-lady style sinhs (the traditional lao skirt) of bright colours and equally bright tops. They are busy putting each other’s hair into buns and applying comically large amounts of makeup. When they are ready we are bundled into cars and pickup trucks, and start making our way out of Vientiane.
I’m in the car being driven by Anousone, one of my girlfriend’s colleagues and as we are making our way out of town I ask her to explain the festival to me, so she tells me the story of the Toad King.
The Toad King
“Long ago an ugly son was born to a powerful king. The son was so ugly that when he became king he was named the Toad King. Despite his ugliness he was highly respected as great king, with all the animals and people coming from miles around to listen to his sermons. His renown was so great that the Rain God, Phaya Thaen, became jealous of the Toad King’s popularity. Angry with the mortals for abandoning him, Phaya Thaen decided to withhold the life giving rains for seven years, seven months, and seven days. The Naga King, Phaya Naga, declared war on the Rain God and sent his serpent warriors into the sky to battle the Rain God, but were defeated. The Naga King begged the Toad King to lead the armies of the land against the Rain God. Seeing the devastation from the lack of rains the Toad King agreed and came up with a plan. He instructed the termites to build huge mounds that reached all the way to heaven. The termites ascended into heaven and ate the wooden handles of the swords used by the army of the Rain God. Next the Toad King instructed the scorpions to climb the termite towers and hide in the firewood and clothes of the army of the Rain God. On the morning before the battle when the army of the Rain God began their day they were bitten by the hidden scorpions. When they went to pick up their swords, the handles crumbled in their hands. The Toad King used this moment to launch his attack and rushed his armies up the termite mounds, into the realm of the Rain God. Disheartened and afraid, the army of Phaya Thaen was quickly defeated and the Rain God sued for peace. He agreed that once a year he would send rains so that the rice can be planted and the rivers can flow. The Toad King agreed that once a year he would send rockets into the sky to remind the Rain God of his duties and that he and his toad army would sing out when there was enough rain so that the people would know they could plant the rice. Every year the villagers come together to honour the agreement and launch rockets into the sky to ensure that we receive the rains needed for our rice.”
Meeting our Hosts
It’s quite the tale but it doesn’t fully encapsulate the spectacle I’m about to encounter. We arrive in a small village, where a huge party is in full swing. It’s barely 10 AM and I can already see groups of people sitting outside their houses, sipping a seemingly unlimited supply of Beer Lao. Before I can take this all in we are herded into Anounsone’s aunt’s house and greeted by her family with glasses of beer and plates of papaya salad and barbequed pork. The pork is sensational but the papaya salad is so spicy I’m worried it might be the fuel used for the rockets.
All the locals laugh at my inability to handle their ‘mild’ spice levels. I am encouraged to drink more beer to help with the spice, and I take my overflowing glass outside to escape my shame. Out the front of the house I am greeted by more family members who insist that I finish my beer so they can refill my glass, who then promptly insist that I finish that glass as well. This routine plays itself out a few times, accompanied by rousing cheers, before I realise I need to leave if I want to still be standing at the end of the day.
Out on the street I can see some of the rockets that we’ve come to witness. Most of these are behemoths around five meters long and adorned with eclectic collections of flowers, saffron robes, buffalo horns, brightly coloured wrapping paper, and bamboo carved to look like the spikes running down the spine of the nagas.
As I walk through the village looking at these rockets I am dragged into different parties and encouraged to drink more beer and shots of powerful rice whiskey. Every household seems to be in full party mode and is very proud to show off their rocket and point out its features. At least I think this is what’s happening, as my ability to understand the language is diminishing with each shot of Lao Lao. I decide to make my way back to Anousone party while I still can.
When I arrive back at her aunt’s house I am immediately given more beer and a plate of freshly barbequed pork. One of the men of the house speaks excellent English and is excited to tell me about the design of his rocket. His name is Boun, which he takes great joy in telling me is also the Lao word for a party or festival. It turns out that Boun has won the competition many times, but last year his team’s rocket failed to clear the launching pad. He is determined to redeem himself and has spent weeks working on his rocket.
We head over to the rocket sitting on its rickety bamboo stand and his eyes fill with pride as he points out the various bacci strings he says will give the rocket good luck and help it fly higher than the other rockets in the village. He calls over the other men from our host’s party to help him load the rocket into the tray of the pickup truck that will carry it to the launch site. The sight of westerners dressed as farmers while loading a rocket attracts a small crowd of locals laughing good naturedly at our awkward attempts to get the rocket into a satisfactory position. Eventually our host is satisfied and we all toast to the rocket’s success with more glasses of beer.
It seems that our timing is impeccable as the parade is starting. Families are wrapping up their parties and making their way out onto the street as competitors begin escorting their rockets towards the launching area. The festivities seem to kick up a notch as the spectators toast each rocket as it comes past. Amongst the rockets I start to see more and more sexual imagery. I’m about to ask our hosts about it when I’m accosted by an elderly lady brandishing a wooden dildo as thick as my arm. She pokes my bottom with her dildo and laughs hysterically before pretending to enthusiastically give the phallus oral pleasure. Before I can decide how I feel about this she gives me a suggestive wink, laughs again, and disappears into the crowd.
As I look around I noticed more and more sexual imagery. Walking past our party are two young men carrying two puppets making the beast with two backs. It’s been cleverly engineered so that each time they take a step, the puppets thrust their hips into each other. As the men run to catch up with their friends, the puppets reach a fervent pace that draws cheers from the crowd. Or perhaps the cheers are for the pot-bellied man dancing provocatively in the back of a pickup wearing a short red dress and blonde wig. In traditionally conservative Laos this display of hyper sexuality is virtually unheard of, and the villagers are relishing this opportunity to get weird.
I find Anousone and ask about the sexuality behind the festival. She’s not sure of the meaning and explains that the festival pre-dates Buddhism in Laos and was originally a fertility festival as well as a chance for a big party before the hard work of rice planting begins. I make a mental note to try and find out more about the origins when I’m back in Vientiane. I’m unlikely to get much more information out of my hosts as they seem too busy pinching the bottoms of passing cross dressers or admiring their comically oversized wooden dildos.
At some unperceived signal our party all get up and join in the procession heading towards the launch area. The field is full of families partying and the sound of announcements being made over a loud speaker. Along the way I get my bottom pinched by an old lady who laughs at my surprised embarrassment. Her family offers to refill my beer and we cheers each other before I make a hasty retreat.
Back in our group I try to get some more information about the cross dressing and sexual nature of the festival from our hosts but they are also unsure of its origin. They mostly say that it’s always been part of the party or that it’s a good time to make a baby. I’m unclear as to why this is a better time than any other to make a baby and it’s too late to ask as the first big rocket is about to be launched.
There is an air of suspense throughout the field as the PA system warns everyone to stand back from the launch site. There is a brief flurry of movement before a wave of smoke wafts through the crowd and the first rocket shoots off into the sky, blazing a path towards the Rain God. Its rapid ascent is swiftly followed by huge cheers from the crowd.
The smoke clears and the next rocket is hastily attached to the wooden frame acting as a launch pad. Men in flip flops scramble up the rickety scaffold, attaching the PVC pipe full of black powder on to the frame. The loudspeaker blares out some kind of warning as there is a small rush to get clear of the base of the rocket before it too launches itself high into the sky, accompanied cheers from the crowd.
Again and again this process is repeated and each rocket is cheered by the crowd. I spot Boun in the crowd calling me over. He wants me to help carry the rocket over to the launching platform, and I feel honoured to be involved in the process. A small group of us weave the rocket through the drunken crowd towards the launch site. The waiting officials help load the rocket on to the platform and I scurry back to try and find a good vantage for the rocket’s launch.
Boun joins me and frets quietly as the fuse is lit. There is a brief moment of hushed silence before a booming woosh fills the air as the rocket rapidly ascends into the heavens. I snap a few shots before being engulfed in a thick wave of grey smoke. The rocket shoots through the air, ascending higher and higher above the dry rice paddies, until eventually I lose sight of it in the haze.
Boun is overjoyed with the successful launch and we toast his success with more beer. He is sure that this launch will not only win him the competition, but will undoubtedly bring good rains and a bountiful crop for the village. We toast his success again before I return to Anousone and her family.
It’s late in the afternoon by this stage and Anousone is ready to leave. We bid our farewells to our hosts and make our way out of the festival. The noise and visual overload of the festival seems like a distant memory by the time I return to my apartment. The contrast between the pandemonium of the festival and my subdued neighbourhood is striking. I’m still not entirely clear on what I’ve witnessed this day, but I know for certain that I will be back next year to do it all again.
Rocket festivals are typically held in the month of May – June, with specific dates varying village to village.
Story based on the personal experiences of David. If you would like to share your own experiences of a memorable moment in your Laos travels, please get in touch on email@example.com.