It's the heat that hits you before anything else. Thailand's sprawling northeastern Isan region is hot. And I mean really, really hot. In this flat, agrarian corner of Thailand, temperatures climb as high as 37° Celsius in May until the torrential monsoons of the wet season finally cause the heat to break.
In Yasothon province, local farmers aren't content just waiting for the wet season to arrive. Once a year the residents of this flat, swampy patch of Thailand not far from the Laos border shoot massive homemade rockets into the sky as part of a ritual to remind the King of the Sky Phaya Thaen that it's time to let the rains fall. The three-day festival, known as Bun Bang Fai (in English "the rocket merit festival") occurs across the region, but it's the celebrations in Yasothon's provincial capital (also called Yasothon) that everyone told me were the most over-the-top.
The city is a 500 kilometer trip from Bangkok and for three days over the second weekend of May the entire place is all about rockets. The celebration started with a relatively subdued parade of floats that tell the traditional story of the Bun Bang Fai, a legend where the Toad King and the King of the Mekong fought the King of the Sky and won, bringing to an end a period of crippling drought. So every year Thais fire rockets into the sky to remind the sky king of his defeat, and usher in the rains.
By the second day, the festival had turned into a massive party. Loud music blared from the stages set up along the city's main drag, while rocket builders hung out near their own bang fai stages, drinking and partying well into the early morning hours.
"We started a rocket team eight years ago to carry on the practices of our ancestors," Srayuth, one of the young rocket builders, told me.
Srayuth and his fellow team members, all graduates of a local high school, decided to call their team "Intimate Friends," a name that described their close-friendship, but also masked the danger of firing a massive PVC pipe stuffed with gunpowder into the sky. In 1999 a bang fai exploded killing four people and injuring a dozen others in Yasothon. One week after I left the city, ten spectators were injured when a bang fai blew apart shortly after launch in a nearby town and rained debris down on the crowd.
Srayuth told me that the ceremony was too important to the people in Isan to end, regardless of the danger. "The Bun Bang Fai means so much to the local people because of its origins in the stories of past generations," he said. "It lets us tell the gods that we are here waiting for them."
There's another part to the celebrations as well—gambling. I ran into another farang (white guy) in Yasothon who told me to keep an eye out for the amount of 1,000 Thai baht ($29 USD) notes changing hands after each rocket launch. The losers had to pay up and cover themselves in mud. As the day went on, those with worst luck were easy to spot as they wandered through the crowd, clothes covered in a thick layer of caked-on mud. The winning team whose rocket flew highest and farthest walked away 50 thousand Thai baht ($1,465 USD) richer. It's a small fortune for the winners, and nearly four times the average monthly salary in Thailand.
When I arrived in Yasothon, the heat reached 32.7° Celsius and sporadic rain had just started to fall. But despite an entire day of rockets flying and exploding in the sky, it would take another month before the wet season finally arrived in full. Sometimes, even mythical kings are late.