Behind the Scenes at the Rocket Festival

The rocket festivals of Laos and Thailand are rooted in traditions of summoning the monsoon for ensuring a good yield from crops. The largest of these takes place in Yasothon, north-Eastern Thailand. Teams that have spent a year building their rockets wait in line for their turn to compete. The highest rocket that then successfully deploys a parachute for its return to Earth will win the competition.

Rocketeers waiting to compete

The proceedings are steeped in a subtle code of forms intended to bring luck and success. Groups of monks visited the launch grounds frequently to give their blessing in the days leading up to the event. The base of each tower is decorated with garlands and the smoking remains of incense sticks, the debris of prayer. As the rockets are carried towards the launch towers, the business end always points forwards. Even when there is a mix up with the queue and a teams needs to go back to the waiting area, at no time are the rockets turned to point away from the tower. Instead they are walked backwards all the way.

A monk stands with the launch towers in the background

Finally the rockets are hoisted up on to the launch towers by a team hauling on ropes.

The rocket hoisters

There seemed to be some quiet anxiety about the presence of women near the launch site and the effect on the success of the rocket launches. Nevertheless, one team had a woman carrying the electric ignition rod with the team to near the tower.

The ignition rod for a rocket

The ignition process usually succeeds, but in this case the failure of the electric ignition system allowed an insight into the construction of the rod.

Checking and resetting the ignition mechanism

Giving encouragement to the competitors, one of the senior competition organizers wearing nurse scrubs displays the prize money that will go to the winning team:

Competition organizer, wearing nurse scrubs, displays the prize money

Using natural materials, here is the toolkit for attaching the rocket to the tower – when the thrust from the rocket is strong enough, these stems, vines and leaves are ripped apart and allow lift-off. A bed of swamp mallow grows near the towers to provide a ready supply.

The materials used to attach the rocket to the launch tower

Here are the rockets in action and the celebrations by the team after a successful launch.

Rockets of Yasothon

As long as the Naga Serpent is nearby and on good terms with the Toad Prince (Phaya Khan Khak) then the Sky God Phaya Thaen will be obliged every year to bring the rains.


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