ROCKET FEST is everyone going crazy and letting their weird hang out. It’s a lusty, costumed freak-out for young and old alike. Rocket fest is throngs of 50-somethings smashed out on rice whiskey before noon dancing their hearts out. Rocket fest is a kilometer-long Great Wall of Speakers punching you in the head. Rocket fest is igniting fuses in the bed of a moving truck after paying cops not to arrest its drunk driver, despite the things he said to your girlfriend. Rocket fest is waking up with random burns you have no memory of acquiring.
Of course rocket fest, or Boon Bang Fai, is about the rockets, the soaring penises of pre-Buddhism fertility rites sent skyward to welcome monsoon season. The rockets are the peak of awesome, but that doesn’t come until after two days of a massive lao kao-soaked street party.
For 43 years the Mother of All Rocket Festivals has been held in Yasothon province, which has been scientifically proven the happiest fucking place in Thailand. Pay a visit, and you’ll understand why.
Covering rocket fest is a challenge for any member of the Fourth Estate to remain professionally aloof. Not when you’re being hauled onto stages to dance while liquor is poured down your throat and countless selfies are taken.
But Team Coconuts, ever up for a challenge, goes where the story takes us.
It starts with “Raw Friday,” or wan suk dib, after every enormous speaker in the region is piled to wall in both sides of the main road for about a kilometer. Local companies, groups and organizations sponsor stages along the route, where once dark has fallen, they drink and dance their asses off late into the night. (Unbelievably folks said it’s usually louder, but the army told them turn it down from Level 11 to 10 this year.)
Will you find scantily clad, costumed women twerking? Yes. Entire cadres of transgender women getting freaky? Yep. A man saluting the moon in front of a heavy metal band, happy (or oblivious) to the fact he’s pissed his pants with joy? Probably.
Be sure to hydrate – these people can dance. Men dance, women dance, children dance. Many dance with one another, some happily dance with inanimate objects.
Costumes are encouraged. From 19th Century-looking cowgirl-debutantes and metal-robot soldiers to ladyboys summiting the heights of fabulousness. One liquored-up khun yai proved age means nothing as she thrust her hips and swung sexily in what appeared to be her dress from 1929.
Rocket fest is as much Lao – just like a lot in Isaan – including legions of phin twanging out the endless soundtrack of mo lam psychedelia. Of course you’re just as likely fall off the wagon and shake your moneymaker to “Kor Jai Ter Lak Ber Toh” again. And again.
They will keep dancing after you’ve gone to bed and will be found dancing after you manage to creep out again.
Saturday is much the same, except the street gets used for the beauty pageant and a parade. All the would-be Miss Boon Bang Fais sit in the sun, hair in lofty buns, getting final touches to their makeup. Meanwhile Toyota-towed parade floats called bang fai ko roll slowly down the street. It looks kind of like Victory Day in the old Soviet Union, but instead of Topol ICBMs, they’re baroque, gold-foiled heavenly cradles for the glory rockets.
Rest of the parade are phin bands laying down the sound for packs of women in traditional costume swimming through the motions of Serng Isaan, their hair and smiles impeccably fixed.
This is all punctuated by naughty floats of various things shaped like penises. Some of the folklore involves a poison toad getting into a tussle with Naga, so there’s a lot of those. This however does not explain the tortoises with the penises for heads. On some of them you can grasp the penis head and sort of tug it in and out of the shell, while a man works a pump attached to its butt-area for no discernible reason.
Rocket fest is trying to wake up early Sunday morning after blowing your self-imposed Saturday night curfew by a bottle or six. It’s realizing you are totally unprepared for the sun which has come down to help ignite the fuses itself. Stroll past crews of dudes packing their homemade towers of boom with black powder to tiptoe past the helpful sign that warns “Dangerous Zone.”
Now you’re at Ground Zero beneath the six launch towers of fun and occasional death from which the day’s rockets will compete for feats of height and splendor, or at least the minimum number of mishaps. Rocket teams clamber off the scaffolding for final launch prep. There’s no fins on these babies, so banana leaves are lashed on at the last minute to give some guidance.
Rocket fest is running for your fucking life with everyone else when one of those spinning UFO-looking jobs lurches out of control in a pinwheel of flaming death, like the docking sequence from “Interstellar” but without Coop at the stick.
Prepare an umbrella, stock up on hats, slather on the sunscreen and chug ice-water: It’s not going to matter. You are probably going to get delirious from sun stroke somewhere between the heat and the hair-of-the-whiskey. Do not panic, this is normal and a sign that rocket fest is working. Go find a slightly less broiling spot and lie down.
On your way, you may pass the mud pit reserved for dunking losing rocket teams. You may be tempted to leap into that mud pit. Don’t let your bourgeois, urban sensibilities stop you. They’ll love you for it, and it may win another share of that Hong Thong which started tasting pretty good around 10am.
Succumb. Jump in with both feet. Bangkok is less than an hour and THB2,000 flight away. Just be sure to hose off before you wreck the hotel shower later.
Rocket Fest 2016 will be mid-May. See you there.
Written and produced by Todd Ruiz
Photography and videography by Alex Hotz, Katrina Kaufman, Phurin Oey Phongsobhon, Cole Pennington, Richard Marks and Todd Ruiz