We were in Laos and Vientiane for the first time, and only had a couple of days there. So we booked a car and driver and a guide, and left the city for a day. On the way back, we drove down a road filled with stands selling food and drinks. “It’s a rocket festival,” our guide exclaimed. “Would you like to stop and see it?”
Hell yes, we’d like to stop and see it! A cardinal rule of travel is that when the unexpected beckons, follow your curiosity….
We got closer and the scene grew busier, and more and more interesting. A platform had been erected and people danced as musicians played.
What really drew our interest were the large numbers of men in dresses and skirts, wearing make-up. It was still the afternoon, and most of them were already hammered.
We’d stumbled into a Bun Bang Fai. The title breaks down this way:
- Bun (Lao: wikt:ບຸນ) merit (Buddhism) is from Pali Puñña merit, meritorious action, virtue, and Sanskrit पुण्य puṇya virtuous or meritorious act, good or virtuous works.
- Bang (Lao: wikt:ບັ້ງ) (alternative spelling bong บ้อง,) is a cutting, specifically of bamboo.
- Fai (Lao: ໄຟ), is Fire (classical element). 
The Bun Bang Fai is a 3-day traditional festival that takes place just before the rainy season throughout Laos and eastern Thailand (the Isan Thai). The highlight is on the final day – the day we stumbled in – when rockets are shot off. But the rockets have to be home made (“Honey, do you remember where I put the gunpowder?”), and teams compete to shoot off the best rocket, with prizes given out for beauty of vapor trail, height, and size.
No. I’m not going there.
However, you as the reader can and should, because this is one bawdy fest.
Students had dressed up as reporters and ran around the grounds ‘interviewing’ the crowd. They were interrupted by a group of women parading by, repeating a phrase over and over in loud voices. Our guide grinned as he translated. “They’re saying, ‘Ladies rocket! Ladies’ rocket!'” he told us. Since the rocket competitors are usually men, they’d built their own rocket and were carrying it in to be registered.
Once their rocket is registered, the teams have to climb a scaffolding to tie the rocket on, and shoot it off themselves. Alcohol, crowds, and home made rockets… what could possibly go wrong?
I’ll post Part 2 next week.
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