Muang Sing – Boung Bang Fai

Boun Bang Fai “rocket festival” is a merit-making ceremony traditionally practiced by ethnic Lao people throughout Thailands Isaan region and especially Laos. It has been believed to be helpful in terms of agricultural aspects – Phaya Thaen, the God of Rain is asked by the help of gunpowder to deliver a decent amount of rain. Celebrations typically include music and dance performances, competitive processions of floats and the competitive firings of home-made rockets. Local participants and sponsors use the occasion to enhance their social prestige. Northern Lao (border area to Chinas Yunnan Province) is popular for it’s variety of ethnic minorities. Akha, Tai Lue-, Tai Neua- or Yao ethnic groups inhabit towns like Muang Sing and its countryside for decades. As for the event, everything was well prepared, ethinc minorities performed traditional dances or just danced for the fun.

The rockets are usually bought from a team, since it’s quite pricy (2-500 USD a rocket). Once a team leader decides to purchase, he’s carried around on a howdah (chairlike thing) and gets the honor to launch the rocket. The farer the rocket raises, the luckier the upcoming year. It’s considered bad luck if the rocket explodes at the launching spot or crashes down soon after the launch. To launch the rockets the locals constructing huge ramps, also made of bamboo. They fire the rockets by pulling the trigger at the bottom.

In other areas, the festivities start a day earlier, and the Laotians (either on floats, trucks, tractors or trailers) present their self made rockets or venture around from door to door, blessing and collecting money or rice wine.

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More? Feel free to read full story about my experience in Muang Sing!

Dawn in Muang Sing – a hick town in Lao neighboring China’s Yunnan province. I wander through the alleys as the late afternoon winds swirl up all the dust Muang Sing has on offer. Some neon letters of Chinese characters flicker through the haze, along the wayside blackened chicken is in stock, as well as skewered animals of indefinable kind. „Welcome to the wild west of Asia“ – I’m sighing, and suddenly regret not stopping in nearby hiker’s paradise Luang Namtha, where the boss of the woodoven pizzaria beckoned and tons of travel agencies advertise their adventurous hikes by a satisfaction guarantee on top. The place seemed just too convenient, too well established. Hence, I’m strolling through dusty Muang Sing in search of something like food and eventually a bed.

Seconds later, an Akha-woman, disguised in a traditional dress seeks my attention by pointing at her abandoned century years old body, then at her merchandise. Unfortunately, she does mind a deep conversation about the ethnic issues up here. She only wants to get rid of her bracelets. Or even better, her Opium. Or, if I’d be keen enough, Opium secretly hidden in her bracelets. She is by far the oldest drug laboratory sales representative I ever came across. Who would have thought that it would be easier to find opium, rather than food. From distance I can hear promising laughters, I walk over and ask. Immediately I’m invited to stay and enjoy the feast honoring the 80-year old grandfather and his next three generations. Som Dy, the 50-year-old son of granpa points at stool near his table. “I’m a teacherrrrr” – he proudly introduces himself while rolling the “R”, as if he would just have invented it. Since the “R” does not belong to the phonetic repertoire of the Laotians (back then, it was not even existing in the alphabet!), he actually would deserve roaring applause. However, more interesting than his tongue, is his former work as a tour guide for the only travel agency in Muang Sing. Where he brought drug tourists up to the Opium laboratories led by the ethnic Akha tribe. Unitl he lost his job because of it. The era of opium tourism is over, supponsendly two small laboratories near the Mekong river hold their position successfully. But only because they are secret enough. Or because the authorities profit from it. Som Dy doesn’t want to dig into any deeper, so we close the topic with another Lao Lao. Long time ago, I have given up refusing to drink with locals, because the host’s facial expression after receiving a „no“ when offering a home-brewed rice whiskey is definitely more numbing than the booze itself (by the way; the typical Lao liquor is supposed to be the cheapest alcohol worldwide – based on a comparison website.)

Muang Sing was once considered a jumping-off point for exploring the charming villages of Akha, Tai Lue, Tai Neua or Yao ethnicities. “But since the Chinese flocked into town for business opportunities, only very few tourist want to venture around in ther border region,“ complains Chiofin, a local I have been interviewing. Chiofin joined the booming tourism industry a while back and wittnessed as well its dissappearance again. Nevertheless, if I’d be interested it’s still possible to see the typical culture out there. The only must have; a “motorrrrrrbike” (obviously, Chiofin went to Som Dy’s english classes ) and a self-drawed map. Deal! A few hours later, I end up in a remote Yao village. One particular Yao lady seems to be very pleased about my appearance, and commands me into her hut for a personal fashion show. Confessing her, I do not really care about reinforcing old fashion traditions, she immediately looses interest and retires back to her room. Even better, she immediately changes her traditional costume against the ragged bugs bunny panties and an advertisement-shirt from a company named Kenbo Trucks. No purchase, no look at our dissapearing tradition.

Through rough mountain slopes and banana plantations leads an inconspicuous dirt road to Laokhao – Akha Territory. “Hooow are you?“ I’m greeted when rolling into the small village. (I certainly love such unexpected moments, being in such distand lands and welcomed by someone who shares the same foreign language). Pone studied Tourism and became a guide for a short time. Due to the depression in tourism he is now selling again bits and pieces and waits for better times. I ask him, what thinks about the Chinese agricultural invasion in the region? “Good question,” replies Pone, and delivers the explanation straight away. „Yunnan wants bananas, this creates jobs. For some years everyone had been working on the Chinese plantations in the area of Muang Sing. But the problem is the contaminated Soil, because the bananas grow in the north of Laos only thanks to a proper mix of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides (supplied from China). How the ground will look like after more years, can already be forseen. On top of that, many fellow villagers are already concerned about their health working in this toxic environment. But China seems to have a solution for that. Because of fear the workforce could die in teir fields, the employment contracts simply expire after three years.

Rockets for the Rain God! Back in Muang Sing. Final preparations are taking place. The ramp is again checked for its static reliablity, Som Dy smiles over from the jury’s table and some ethnic groups start dressing up for their performance. Fanfare sounds along. The township mayor climbs up the podium to address his guests. „The Buon Bang Fai shall start,“ he announces. Celebrated annualy throughout Lao bamboo rockets are launched to welcome the rainy season. It’s the time of massive euphoria, because without the long-awaited rain, the entire rural population (almost 90 per cent of the country’s inhabitants) would starve without it – No rain, no lush rice fields. This peasant cunning is already going on since centuries, the rockets are said to tickle the rain god Phaya Thaen and to motivate the downpours. Mr. Tin Pong asks me to join his rocket team. From now on I would belong to them. The ugly scar on Tin’s left forearm makes me curious. Tin talks without hesitation. As so many of his countrymen, he wanted to escape the strictly communist Lao in the late Seventies by crossing the Mekong to neighboring Thailand. He and his three friends made it already close Vientiane, Lao’s capital, as their driver fell asleep and then parked the car in a tree. Tin was the only survivor of the accident but therefore had to stay in Lao because of his injuries. Shortly after, he starts studying buddhism and disappears for a few decades in a local monastery. „Probably the reason I survived the mess,“ he sighs.

Nowadays he’s working in the town hall and once a year as a professional rocket maker. We both go inspect The range of bamboo rockets. Two security guards armed with assault rifles as well as a beer contribute to the importance of the seriosity. With eight meters in length and 90 kilos of black powder, their bamboo rocket is considered to be among the larger calibres within the collection. Usually a patron invests about 480 USD (4 million Lao Kip) for one rocket. Roughly the quarterly income of an average Laotian. The rockets will then be judged by the jury according to the achieved height, distance as well as the elegance of the smoke trail. However, there are also personal implications for the investor – the reach of the rocket is equivalent to the expected happiness in the upcoming year. After a few small rockets had been launched, it’s now the turn of Tin’s team. The buyer, son of a Chinese trader, is carried on a wooden palanquin over to the launch pad, while the team tows the rocket onto the ramp and connects the ignition cable. The folks are awaiting the launch in desperation. The rocket explodes right at the ground.