Bun Bang Fai Rockets

From the factory to the skies - published 21 May 2019

Bun Bang Fai is an Isan (a region in the northeast of Thailand) rocket festival timed to encourage the rains to arrive for the start of the rice harvest. After the street party day one we move into a day of launching homemade rockets so let’s see what that looks like.

We came across the rocket part of this moo ban’s (village) festival last year, and it was quite impressive, so this year we added it to our list of must do’s. The street party I reported on in my last post was enjoyable so we had high hopes for day two. Before we get to the day itself let’s drop into a rocket factory and see what that looks like. We can then take those images and apply them to the finished product exploding into the sky. Firstly let’s get the terminology sorted. These rockets come in various sizes and they are rated from 5,000 through to 1 million. The ones launched in the small moo bans are most likely to be 10,000. A bigger event, like the one at Ban Sa-At, will most likely be mostly 5,000’s and 10,000’s with a few 100,000’s thrown in (only two this year). Move up the scale and at big festivals like the one in Si Bun Ruang on 8 & 9 June, there will be (hopefully) lots of 100,000 and maybe even a couple of 1 millions. When we called into the rocket factory in the moo ban next to ours they were making 100,000 rockets to order.  Want to buy your very own? A 100,000 will set you back 15,000 – 18,000 baht. The guys who build it will also launch it so the cost will depend how far they have to travel from home base. A 1 million rocket will cost you 30,000 baht (A$1,350) up.   

It’s not an Elon Musk Tesla type factory!

This is a 100,000 sized rocket. You get an idea of physical size from the guy walking past. The tail, which is made from bamboo, is longer than the rocket head.

5 inch water pipe PVC is used as the casing for the 100,000.

Sand, explained later, and the ingredients that are mixed to form the explosive element of the rocket.

The white stuff comes from these boxes, whch as they are marked in Chinese are likely to be things that go bang.

The Chinese ingredient (?) is sieved to refine it.

And then mixed with a black powder plus some liquid that didnt look like water before being re-sieved again.

The empty casing is then moved to the vertical as is happening here.

A metal plate is attached formly to the end of the PVC tube to ensure the explosive material is kept inside the tube when it is rammed solid by a machine (left photo). The tube is then placed inside a thick metal tube, which both has a sand base on which the metal plate sits plus sand is poured around it to make sure it doesn’t move. Good to deaden any unexpected explosion too!

Sand is here being poured around the PVC tube within the metal jacket to keep it firmly in place.

Ten heavy stainless steel weight are them attached to the pulley system. These will compress the material being placed in the rocket 1 kilo at a time.

Once all the cylinders are in place a bag of mixture is placed in the PVC tube and the compression starts. This process takes three hours to complete. 

The bamboo rocket ‘tails’ ready to be attached once the process is completed.

A few 100,000 rockets ready to go. You get an idea of how big these things are in comparison to Gaun.

And do they actually work?

A 100,000 rocket being hauled into place on the launch ‘pad’. These are super heavy at this stage and are a multi-person lift.

Chained into place.

Helpers in the background manning the rope to heave the rocket up that trellis.

Once again you get an idea of the size compared to the people setting it up. A big team on this one. 

They are fired using a battery and here the leads are being attached.

Plenty of observers sitting in the shade.

Waiting for launch.

The large numbers of people aren’t an indication of the enthusiasm for rockets in Isan, although there is that aspect too. Unofficial bets are placed on the performance of each rocket and money is won or lost after each launch. Evidently the owner of the rocket will give a flight time, say 200 seconds. People then bet whether it will last longer than that or fall short. You will see people wandering through with money in hand trying to find someone who has an opposing view of the flight time to lay the bet off with. It is all very infomal with no paper changing hands and everyone seems to remember who bet what. If the crowd loses touch with the flight of the rocket then all bets are off.

Three YouTube videos below showing the launch of a 100,000, a small catherine wheel version and a smaller 10,000. All good fun.

This is the launch of the rocket I have shown you in the above photos.

Gaun captured your intrepid reporter sitting in a small concrete drainage ditch (that’s me in the blue floral Songkran shirt and hat) to video a 100,000 Bun Bang Fai rocket being launched. In the worst scenario at least I would only lose the top half of my body 

This is a 10,000 launch. They get going immediately they are ‘lit’, while the 100,000’s take a while to build momentum.

A 10,000 being prepared on the left and a 10,000 and a 100,000 on the right.

Our based for a couple of hours under the trees and close to drink and food!

And behind us one of those wonderfully decorated and underpowered Isan tuk tuks.

A super glue being applied to all the fastenings.

Kid holds one end while dad (?) rams the explosive mixture into the other! Great photo. You can feel the effort 🙂

In the photos above I follow a launch from ground level to it’s furthest point in the sky for a video.

Two catherine wheels waiting for their moment of fiery glory.

Preparing one for take-off.

We don’t get the big wheels you may have seen on YouTube here n the north of Isan. Maybe Yasothon. further south, which is THE place to view Bun Bang Fai rockets.

Ready for the action video you might have watched above.

Following the outcome. Money is on the line.

This monk was buying a few small rockets for a young companion and he provides a colourful end to this post.

We have two more parties to attend before the big on in the town of Si Bun Ruang on the 8 & 9 June, where 12 moo bans combine to put on a show and let off rockets. Hopefully I can show you a one million being launched, but last year the military stopped them for air safety reasons.

Thanks for reading the inside and outside story of rockets in Isan. Please leave a comment.

8 Comments

  1. Mike

    Interesting to see the rocket factory, we have just had the local Bun Bang Fai in my missus’s home town in Ubon. Only the smaller rockets allowed due to the proximity to the airport, and all homemade I think. You know you are not at “home” anymore when you see people fuelling the rockets in the middle of a karaoke party !
    Our launch tower was just some pieces of bamboo tied together and propped against a tree …..yours looks like NASA compared to that !
    I believe somebody was killed this year when a rocket ignited prematurely ….in Nong Bua Lamphu I think ?

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      Hi Mike.

      We are a bit further outside Udon Thani, our closest airport, so we can set off the bigger rockets. We have the main Bun Bang Fai party for the town of Si Bun Ruang this weekend, where the 12 moo bans that make up the town come together to celebrate. In the past we have had many 100,000 rockets and even a couple of 1,000,000 ones. Each year is different depending on the money put in to fund them and the attitude of military/police.

      Yes, sadly we had I think two deaths from an explosion in a moo ban in our province of Nong Bua Lamphu (20 minutes from us). We have a neighbour and friend who was hit in the face by shrapnel from that and he’s in hospital. It’s a good thing it happened after I took the photos for that post because it is only telephoto from now on! I will probably have enough photos for a final 2019 story on BBF after this weekend so keep an eye out for that.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Tony

      Reply
  2. Peter

    Hello Tony.

    Well, I missed out on the rockets again. I don’t suppose you can find out where I can buy the ingredients. I’d love to make some rockets of my own.

    Did you ask about what sort of air traffic control clearances they arrange on the day? Just how high can some of the larger rockets reach? I wouldn’t want to be overhead in a plane with those things coming up at me.

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      It could be a little side-business for me Peter. A package of ingredients for making an Isan rocket in your home country. I suspect I might get a visit from more than the local police 🙂

      Seriously you don’t see the rockets being launched close to the big urban centres exactly because of the flight risks. You have to come out to the countryside like where we are. I have no idea how high the big ones go and doubt it is high enough to worry a plane once it had reached full altitude but on the way up or down, definitely a potential problem.

      We have an Aussie friend here at the moment who planned his trip just to see Bun Bang Fai for the first time. He is having a blast!!!!

      Reply
  3. Jim Busby

    Interesting behind the scenes look at the making of the rockets. One of those Chinese boxes may contain some of the same ingredients found in Lud’s fertilizers. Those 100K rockets are big. I especially like the chap in the video that walks directly into the liftoff smoke ignoring the countdown warning. Maybe he misses the burning season. I agree that the larger Catherine Wheels are more impressive, because they rotate more slowly. Why are you making videos of the liftoffs with your phone, and not your Nikon (too heavy)? On another note, I hope the African Swine Flu hasn’t wreaked havoc there yet. It could be an economic disaster. Even the US is saying our pork prices could go up as much as 25%, if there is a global shortage.

    Take care,
    Jim

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      They do actually mix in ground and sieved charcoal from a particular hardwood tree, so there is a connection to farm activities!

      That guy who walks into the smoke on the video came and introduced himself to me in VERY broken English. People often think that because I can say ‘hello’ that I have the language down pat. They chat away and I smile and look around for Gaun! Walking into the launch of a decent sized explosive device seems a little strange to me but whatever rocks your boat however briefly.

      Funnily Gaun’s phone, which only cost 6,000 baht, makes a better video than my camera. With the larger screen it is easier to follow something like a fast moving rocket too. The camera can’t match the quality of photos of the camera but does a remarkably good job. An iPhone here costs 20,000 baht and up and apart from the status value I can’t see why one would pay for the upgrade.

      I have stopped following news as it is all too depressing, so I have missed the swine flu crisis. I will check and see what’s happening. Pork is very central to meals here in the absence of beef, so any drop in availability would have a major impact.

      Your comments on the Bun Bang Fai street party have now been incorporated into the post. Thanks for the feedback.

      All the very best as always.

      Tony

      Reply
  4. Janet

    Just wondered who pays for all these rockets Tony. Do the Moo Ban local ‘councils’ or some sort of local government body provide the funds, or do people just buy and donate them for the occasion? Thanks for the videos – adds a lovely dimension to the occasion. You are braver than me…I would be standing well back Are there many incidents that’s you know of that end in injury from the rockets – either from the setting off of the device itself, or from debris falling from the skies after the rocket has been spent?

    Reply
    • Tony in Thailand

      A mix of sources Janet as far as I know. Individuals can fund them maybe hoping to make money on the betting. Villages collect money to fund their Bun Bang Fai (and other) celebrations with each household contributing. That money is used to pay for the dance groups music trucks and maybe a rocket or two (usually the smaller 10,000 ones). The monks are out in force for Bun Bang Fai celebrations so there could be some temple money in there somewhere too. Government money is used to top up private contributions for the big parties like the one for our town of Si Bun Ruang 8 & 9 June.

      I believe there are accidents each year, which when your dealing with homemade explosive devices won’t be a surprise. I haven’t seen a rocket go bad but it must happen. I like to stay well away not just for safety but they are VERY noisy on takeoff. The debris is a mystery and must cause some problems. The plastic container and the attached bamboo tail are heavy in themselves even after the contents have burnt out. Falling from a great height onto a house, car or person would be something to be avoided but it must happen. The rockets are mostly launched in rural areas so it isn’t highly populated but……… In that video of the catherine wheel, the centre of the wheel that holds the charge is metal and it is heavy. They are supposed to have a parachute, something the other rockets don’t, which slows the decent. However that one in the video didn’t deploy and it’s return to earth was closely monitored by the locals. A lump of metal descending from a few hundred metres would make a mess of car or person.

      Nice to hear from you Janet and to know you are still following the news here.

      Tony

      Reply

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