Photo Essays | Society | Southeast Asia

Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Glimpses of the annual Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival in northeastern Thailand.

By Adryel Talamantes for
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Men celebrate as they watch a large sen class rocket fly into the sky.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

People stand on a footbridge over the Khwang canal as the final preparations are finished for the festival. Three platforms for large rockets stand in the distance.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A man carries a small fancy class rocket toward the launch platform as his teammates follow behind him.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Two men position a small fancy class rocket onto a launch platform before ignition.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A vendor stands with her table full of small rockets for sale in Phaya Thaen Park.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Teams of men raise large sen class rockets onto launch platforms in the distance as a man stands pointing on a small platform for small fancy class rockets.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A small fancy class rocket is strapped to a launch platform by a man in the final preparations before ignition.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A man smiles as another prepares small smoke flares and rockets used for signaling the start of different stages of the festival.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Spectators stand and watch the launch of a small fancy class rocket on the grounds of Phaya Thaen Park.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Men stand at the ready to move their large sen class rocket onto a platform as a boy shields his ears from the sound of a rocket launch.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Three men guide a large sen class rocket up onto a platform as it is hoisted by rope before launch.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

The sun beats down on a team of men as they raise a large sen class rocket onto a launch platform.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Men pull a rope to hoist a large sen class rocket to the top of a launch platform before ignition.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Men watch and take cell phone pictures while a rocket team carefully raises a large sen class rocket onto a launch platform.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A man raises his arms in exultation as others watch a large sen class rocket fly into the sky after launch.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

Spectators watch and take pictures and videos with their smartphones as a large sen class rocket takes off into the sky.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes
Rockets for Thailand’s Gods

A man covered in mud stands near the rocket launch platforms as a large sen class rocket is prepared for ignition.

Credit: Adryel Talamantes

YASOTHON, THAILAND — For centuries the people of northeast Thailand, or the Issan region, have conducted Bun Bang Fai rocket ceremonies both to hasten the coming of the rainy season and to earn merit in the Buddhist tradition. The god of rain, Phaya Thaen, and goddess of rice, Phra Mae Phosop, are implored to produce an adequate rainy season and abundant harvest with these festivals. The region’s economy is almost solely reliant on agriculture, with rice as the main crop. Parades and all-night parties precede the launch ceremonies, which in the city of Yasothon take place on the second Sunday of May every year. The Yasothon event, conducted on the Phaya Thaen Park grounds, is widely regarded as the largest bun bang fai festival.

Rockets ranging in size from a few centimeters long all the way to massive missiles of several meters in length constructed in modern times out of plastic PVC pipes are prepared for launch during the festival. They are carefully made by groups from different neighborhoods and villages with much pride being put into the construction of the rockets, or bang fai in Thai. Today there are three size classes of rockets launched at the festival: small “fancy” class rockets, large “sen” (100,000 in Thai) rockets several meters long, and huge “lan” (1,000,000 in Thai) rockets, though the latter are seldom made due to the dangers they pose if detonated prematurely. Though the launching of rockets has in the past resulted in fatal accidents the practice continues, albeit with more concern given to safety.

In addition to having a cultural and religious meaning, the launching of the rockets is also a competition between the various groups who make them. The rockets are launched in pairs, one after another, and judged by the height they reach, the direction they fly, as well as other parameters. The winning teams are awarded prizes ranging from 50,000 Thai baht ($1,450) to 1,000 Thai baht ($29), though a fair amount of betting takes place as well, with much money changing hands after each rocket launch. The losing parties are often seen jumping in ponds of mud, dancing, and drinking their sorrows away after the end of the competition.

Adryel Talamantes is a photojournalist and writer originally from the United States, now based in Bangkok, Thailand.  The focus of his coverage centers on current events and cultural interests in Southeast Asia.  His work has been published by the Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, The Diplomat, The Nikkei Asian Review, The Global Post/PRI, War Is Boring, and elsewhere.