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This celebration originated in Laos and Thailand.  The Rocket Festival was brought to the United States by immigrating Laotians in the 1970's and 1980's.  Because the United States doesn't really have a rainy season, the Rocket Festival is observed more for nostalgic reasons and to help introduce Americans to Laotian culture.

The celebration is known as "Bun Bang Fai" (bun means "festival" in Laos) and the original purpose was to guarantee good crops by requesting rain to their God, Phaya Thaen, and thus marking the coming of their rainy season.  Back in ancient times, the land was often dry so growing rice was difficult. Bun Bang Fai goes back to when the Laotians believed in many gods. They would fire rockets in hopes of persuading these Gods to send the rain they need for the rice harvest. So, the rocket was seen as an important (and instant) way to communicate with the gods, rather than the traditional prayer or sacrifice custom. It also provided people with a reason to get together during a time when the weather makes work impossible.

This celebration is also often connected with Buddha, becoming a commemoration  of his birth, enlightenment and death. Their are two traditional stories on the origin of the Rocket Festival. One is called Phaya  Khankhak, the Toad King and another is ThaoPhadeng- Nang Ai. The detailed stories of both of these versions can be found at the official Rocket Festival Site of Laos

 

The festival name comes from the main event, which is a contest among "wat" (meaning temple) communities to see which can build and launch the most successful rocket.  Once the religious ceremonies are over, people then dress in traditional costumes and gather outdoors. The rockets are traditionally bamboo poles, decorated with dragons and colored streamers and filled with special gunpowder.  They are approximately 20 feet in length. The rockets are judged on how far they fly when launched, but also on how beautifully decorated they are. Buddhist monks are generally the best rocket makers. The rocket contests today have less to do with religion and agriculture than the old days. It helps bring people together among neighborhoods, civic and military groups.  Officials who judge the contest usually watch from a grandstand and give prizes for the most brilliant, the fastest and the highest rockets.

Visit the Official Rocket Festival Site of Laos for more information.

Visit our Month of May page for other celebrations.

Source of Information:
"Holidays, Symbols & Customs  3rd Edition"
By Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2003

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