submit to reddit GoNOMAD Travel
Tags: Happenings Asia Laos Southeast Asia Thailand
A successful launch rips into the air near Buddha Park in Vientiane. Photos by Kenton Molloy. Click on photo to enlarge.
A successful launch rips into the air near Buddha park. Photos by Kenton Molloy. Click on photo to enlarge.

Bun Bang Fai: The Rocket Festival of Laos and Thailand

Up, up and away!

While farmers and politicians across Australia battle it out over water allocations, in Southeast Asia, Thais and Laotians are preparing to embrace their water shortages in a style all of their own. 

Dating back to pre-Buddhist times the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival), held around the May full moon, is traditionally based on the notion that launching bamboo rockets skyward will initiate the rainy season and bring much needed relief to the country's rice fields. 

Popular in Thailand’s northeastern Isan province and around the Laos capital of Vientiane, the event continues to maintain a rich cultural significance.

Testament to this is a 3,000-word poem based around the event being translated into the English language and designated as supplementary secondary school reading by the Thai Ministry of Education. 

Tongue firmly in cheek

While respecting the event's traditions, today’s Thais and Laotians embrace the festival with their tongue firmly in their cheek.

Recalling origins of the festival as a fertility rite, and playing on the phallic symbol of the rocket, many take the opportunity to embrace sexual connotations with endearing good humor and camp jocularity. 

Standing in a field near Buddha Park, on the outskirts of the Laos capital of Vientiane, I found it hard not to titter at men parading around in their wives' finery.

Even harder to ignore was the piece of wood, fashioned into a sort of penis-shaped bazooka aimed directly at my head, the latter providing a huge point of amusement for other participants, with me being one of few farang (westerners) at the event.

Children revel in the event, with two days leading up to the main attraction filled with folk theater, dance, music and parades. Youthful faces are filled with wonder as the yonger generation marvel at the rockets, dreaming of becoming Southeast Asia’s version of Buzz Lightyear. 

A major safety issue in any other country but in Laos it's just all part of the fun. Click on photo to enlarge.

Safety issues

This is one festival that could only be held in a developing nation and with only the briefest glance, a plethora of occupational health and safety issues blatantly stare you in the face.

In a first world country the public liability insurance alone would cancel all hope of holding such an event. 

Similarly hazardous is the multitude of small bottle rockets whizzing past one's head as children run around excitedly setting off scaled-down versions of the event's main attraction.

The real rockets are a crude construction using bamboo stems as the main shaft, the largest version being an absurd nine meters in length. The stems are traditionally boiled to prevent insects from decaying the bamboo, with many contemporary models utilizing PVC piping as an extra covering.

The rockets are then packed with up to 120 kilograms of black powder and balanced precariously on a launching tower of bamboo scaffolding. 

Teams of contestants freely climb the scaffolding, placing the rockets into position before attaching wiring to a remote launching device. 

A wooden carved penis-shaped bazooka, just another of many sexual connotations surrounding the phallic symbol of the rocket
A wooden carved penis shaped bazooka just another of many sexual connotations surrounding the phallic symbol of the rocket.

A lot of Lao Lao

I may not be a licensed electrician, but the wiring I’ve seen in various hostel rooms is enough to know that the competitor attaching those wires need only make the slightest slip to launch a rocket positioned only inches from his head.

This takes either a very brave soul or a lot of Lao Lao (rice whiskey). The event did in fact hit a somber note on May 10,1999, when a 120 kg rocket exploded 50 meters above ground, just two seconds after launch, killing five persons and wounding 11. 

When triggered, a deafening roar echoes over the field, sending a jolt through the spectators whose eyes are instantaneously glued to the sky for the rocket's journey.

The events are judged by a panel seated in a small bamboo marquee. Flights are assessed in various categories including height and distance travelled as well as less prestigious but noteworthy commendations for spectacular vapour trails. 

For those less successful team members whose rocket falls short of leaving the launch pad, tradition has it that these participants are to be tossed into a nearby pool of mud (the same mud often providing quick relief to minor burns). 

It’s at this stage that the event begins to resemble something of the crazy Japanese game shows posted on YouTube, and you begin to wonder exactly how you stumbled across such a bizarre event. 

A roaring trade

Like all good events in Southeast Asia, the region's ubiquitous street vendors do a roaring trade as punters snack on everything from spicey meats on skewers to chili grasshoppers.

An unsuccessful launch and a team soon to be throw into the pool of mud themselves
An unsuccessful launch and a team soon to be throw into the pool of mud themselves.

They certainly aren’t the slightest bit reserved in their consumption of Beerlao or Lao Lao either with traditional drinking games being a regular sight.

One such game involves a single cup being passed around a circle of friends. The basic concept being that it’s impolite to refuse what is poured for you and similarly impolite to hinder the next person by making them wait for their share.

Basically the end result is that everyone gets very intoxicated very quickly and in very good spirits.

Although the rockets take center stage, it is the hedonistic attitude of the Thais and Laotians that embrace the frivolity of the event to its fullest that is trully unforgettable. 

For more information on the Bun Bang Fai (Rocket Festival) contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand or the Lao National Tourism Authorisation


Exciting, but maybe at times a little too loud
Exciting, but maybe at times a little too loud


Kenton Molloy



Kenton Molloy is a freelance travel writer/photographer and PR professional. Having travelled through 17 countries and across five continents, Kenton has an undying curiosity to gain insights into the world's many and varied cultures. Kenton holds a Bachelor of Business with majors in Media Studies and Marketing and a Minor in eMarketing.


Read more about Laos and Thailand

Laos, Thailand

Across the Friendship Bridge: A An Alternative Way to get from Thailand to Laos By Jack Clontz
on photo to enlarge. Bun Bang Fai: The Rocket Festival of Laos and Thailand By Kenton
. Sleeping with Akha Hill Tribes in Northern Laos By Holly Cave I was getting more tenacious after
colonial architecture in Laos, near the borders of Thailand and Vietnam, and, best of all, hardly any other
, it occurred to us that visiting Laos was, perhaps, like seeing Thailand a generation ago. We had just John Seely writes from Chang-Rai, Thailand. A Read more GoNOMAD stories about Laos A
money for weapons and supplies? Laos, along with Thailand and Myanmar, is part of AThe Golden
Hiking to the rock climbing area near Vang Vieng, Laos. Photo by Christine Horvat. Click
from/to Vietiane, Laos; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Siem Reap, Cambodia
Monks by a rice paddy in Thailand. Photo by Bill Reyland. Click on photo to return
overnight train, bound for the Laos border. I had boarded in Bangkok, Thailand, where I began my
. A Forgotten Land Laos is a beautiful country; unlike neighboring Thailand, it remains relatively unspoiled
Doi Chaang, Thailand. Photo by Matthew Kadey. Click on photo to return to Matthew
Arriving at Muang Ngoi on the Nam Ou River in Laos. Photos by ZoA<< Smith. Discovering
A boy from the Akha tribe in northern Thailand. Photo by Matthew Kadey. Click on photo


New Travel Articles


Subscribe to GoNOMAD's monthly enewsletter for all of our new travel articles
Get our free monthly travel newsletter
and help support sustainable and responsible tourism.
No spam, no selling
your email, we promise!

Subscribe to our email newsletter!

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter!

csa-03 300x250-04