Gunpowder, whisky and a prayer to the gods: Thailand’s rocket festival
Thamnong Chaiyanit concentrates as he plunges a metre-long drill bit directly into compressed gunpowder.
Water floods the whirring drill bit, but one spark could be the end of him, and all the other men nearby packing explosive powder and straightening bamboo.
The Angel of Time camp is an open-air workshop in Yasathorn, devoted to making rockets for the annual festivals that roll across northeast Thailand in the weeks before the monsoon.
The rockets come in various sizes — from three to 10 inches in diameter.
They’re made from blue plumbing pipe packed tight with a mix of sulphur, potassium nitrate and charcoal (gunpowder), and fixed to long bamboo tails.
So what makes a good rocket?
“Oh, that’s difficult to answer, because there are many elements,” said Boonpeng Chaiyanit, who runs the Angel of Time camp.
“The most important one is our heart, how brave we will be, will we dare give it a try — it’s a test of our heart,” Mr Boonpeng told ABC.
A mistake during construction could be deadly for the workers and a faulty rocket that explodes on take-off could kill spectators.
But in 40 years of rocket building, Mr Boonpeng has never had an accident.
The danger zone
Under a hot blue sky, men clamber nimbly up the wooden launch pads, lashing down their rockets with tape, leaves and a final prayer at the base of the structure.
There’s a countdown to the launch but it’s always followed by a few more seconds of charged excitement.
Then a roaring hiss as white smoke shoots out the bottom of the rocket until it breaks free and careens into the sky.
The men from the rocket teams — it seems to be only men, sometimes gloriously drunk — raise their hands to the heavens and whoop after a successful launch.
Outside of the 150-metre “danger zone”, spectators gather under marquees and umbrellas in the 43-degree heat.
It’s a jubilant atmosphere, with whisky stands, street food and scantily clad dancers gyrating on stage to the driving psychedelic music of the region, known as molam.
The boon bang fai is a celebration of the fun-loving culture of Isaan, the north-eastern provinces bordering Laos and Cambodia, where people also celebrate rocket festivals.
“I think the rocket in our city [inspired] America to copy [us and] make a big rocket to the moon!” said local resident Wattapat A-tupho with a giggle.
From mud pits to millions
Thais love to gamble on rockets, even if it is illegal.
Friendly competition has long been part of the rocket festival, with losers traditionally thrown into a mud pit.
But the increasingly heavy punting has social impacts.
“It was clear that it created debts, broken families and domestic violence,” said Siriporn Yodkamolsat, a researcher at Chulalongkhorn University’s Center for Gambling Studies.
The centre estimated that in 2010, Thais gambled a staggering $2.9 billion during the 50 days of rocket season — that’s more than four times the spend on the four-day Melbourne Cup carnival.
Siriporn Yodkamolsat says betting at the rocket festival has broken families and caused domestic violence issues. (ABC News: Liam Cochrane)
Thailand’s military junta has tried to curb gambling in the past two years, mostly by restricting the size of rocket.
“For example, people in Sisaket were only allowed to fire 12 rockets of 3 inches diameter,” Ms Siriporn said.
“So people stopped playing because it wasn’t loud enough, it wasn’t fun with small rockets,” she told ABC.
However, there was still plenty of money changing hands at the Yasathorn rocket festival among men with their faces covered.
Experts say the serious money comes from out of town, with bets placed and results tracked using the popular messaging app, Line.
The biggest rockets attract the biggest bets.
Experts say that in the past, single wagers of up to $40,000 have been placed on what locals call Apollos — 10-inch diameter giants, that live up to their NASA-inspired name.
Two hours away from Yasathorn, in Mahasarakam province, a smaller festival has been given rare permission to launch an Apollo.
Crowds gather to watch the final preparations by the team from Angel of Time camp.
Camp boss Boonpeng Chaiyanit and his brother, the fearless driller Thamnong Chaiyanit, are there watching as strips of monks’ orange robes are tied to the rocket for extra luck.
The take-off is huge, with smoke billowing around the launch pad before the five-metre tube flies upwards.
The Apollo stays airborne for 225 seconds, a respectable result but well short of the record-holding flight of more than five minutes.
According to a local folktale, the reason for the rockets goes back to Praya Kankak, a Toad Prince who battled the King of the Sky, when he withheld rain for seven years.
Enlisting an army of termites to build mounds to the heavens and an airforce of hornets, the Toad Prince defeated the Sky King.
So, today rockets are fired either to remind the Sky King of his treaty with the Toad Prince or as a signal to send the rains, depending on the reading of the legend.
In Yasathorn, the story is celebrated with a five-storey giant toad, housing a museum to the legend and showcase of toad species.
After a scorching day of sun, whisky and rockets, the launch of the Apollo marks the end of festivities in Mahasarakam province.
As firemen hose down the blackened launch platform, thousands of spectators vanish.
Then in the late afternoon’s golden light — right on cue — it rains.