Liz and I have been fortunate to experience some amazing festivals during our travels around the world. But one that will always stand out is the Rocket Festival in Vang Vieng, Laos. We pretty much stumbled across this festival, because our trip wasn’t planned around it. Liz briefly found a few mentions of it when planning our route and booking hotels, but it wasn’t until we were in Vang Vieng that we learned more.
A few days before the festival, we were hanging out at Gary’s Irish bar (a must — and our favorite spot in Vang Vieng) discussing our departure date from town when Gary told us that we couldn’t leave just yet. That we had to stay for the Rocket Festival.
“What the heck is a Rocket Festival anyway?” we asked. He told us that everyone in town (even the businesses) make their own rockets and then shoot them over the mountain to summon the gods in the sky, and “Naga” an ancient water serpent and bring good rains for their crops in the coming season.
He assured us that this was a festival we didn’t want to miss. And boy was he right!
** NOTE: There is also a movie filmed here in Vang Vieng called “The Rocket” — it’s in Lao but has English subtitles. Many people, including Gary raved about this movie and told us it is a must see! You can find it on YouTube.
Now looking back, it’s crazy to imagine us not enjoying this unique festival in Laos! We feel like describing the Rocket Festival here in a blog post just won’t do it justice. So we’ve created this “photo blog” post to share some of the best pictures from the event, and help you to see why these memories will stay with us for a lifetime!
What is the Rocket Festival?
The Rocket Festival is a ceremony, but it’s also a bit of a local competition. It’s traditionally practiced by ethnic Lao people throughout much of Laos, in numerous villages and towns near the beginning of the wet season. The dates vary in each municipality, because there is a local spirit-person who designates the day based upon many factors (which is why we had a hard time finding the actual dates of the event when planning our visit).
Rocket festival celebrations typically include lots of music, dance performances, competitive displays of rockets that are decorated & paraded around town, and the culmination is the firing of these home-made rockets. Local participants and sponsors use the occasion to enhance their prestige in the community, as is customary in traditional Buddhist folk festivals throughout Southeast Asia.
Time to Celebrate
The Rocket Festival is celebrated in much of Laos, and it is time for the traditionally conservative Lao locals let their hair down and party! When we heard about the rocket festival, we were thinking of simple bottle rockets. From our experiences in Thailand at the Loy Krathong Festival and even growing up in the States, we are familiar with these little rockets – and even slightly bigger versions (if you knew where to get them).
But these rockets in Laos…they were NOT the bottle rockets we are used to!
These rockets obviously took quite some time to build, and having experience making rockets as kids in science class…we couldn’t help but appreciate the true science behind these beautiful rockets! The celebration in Vang Vieng actually started the day before, when local groups and businesses began parading around town with the rockets decorated on the back of trucks. It gave them a chance to show off their work, promote their group / business, and even intimidate other competitors.
Upon seeing the parades in the streets the night before, we were shocked to see the sizes of these rockets! We could not believe our eyes – and it really made us excited for what was coming the next day.
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The Rocket Festival in Vang Vieng, Laos
One the day of the festival, we arrived to the designated area along the Nam Song river banks not really sure what we were going to see. We were surprised to see that it was a pretty official event! Well, as official as one would think for such a rural country as Laos, and Southeast Asia.
They had the whole area set up with vendors, a stage with musicians and dancers, tables and chairs, and local vendors. Tubing on the river in Vang Vieng was closed on this day, and there were 4 platforms along the banks of the river for the different size rockets to be fired off.
There was also a judges tent, with many officials and local dignitaries. They had microphones and official looking documents, as well as the “trigger” to countdown and set these puppies off. Each rocket had to be signed in with the officials before it could be loaded onto a platform. We also heard that there were some rewards, including something like 5,000,000 kip for anyone who could get their rocket over the mountains across the river.
We’re not really sure how judging worked, but we had fun guessing who the winners would be!
These were some serious rockets. Some of them took up to 10 men to bring them down to the river bank and set them up on the platforms to be shot off. We could tell that there were generations of families participating and celebrating the festival.
What an Experience at the Rocket Festival in Laos!
We had so much fun at the rocket festival! We felt like we were hanging out with the local Lao people, as there really were few tourists there at the event. Even though it was a crazy-hot day outside, people were cooling off in the river, dancing, eating, drinking, and just enjoying the day.
But not matter how loud and crazy it got, it seemed that everyone quieted down when it was time to launch another rocket. They would wait in anticipation, and even help countdown – then yell with joy or “ooh” and “ahh” as a giant rocket lifted off. We admit, it was a little scary at times – with the size of these things. While we were sometimes ready to run the opposite direction if things went terribly wrong, we couldn’t help but be amazed at the science involved to make these rockets launch perfectly in the right direction each time.