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Thailand: The power of a penis-shaped rocket

Video: Welcome to Yasothon, where fertility rites and cheap whiskey collide.

The grand prize-winning team takes home about $920, more than double the average take-home pay for a worker in the northeast region. The losers are forced to wallow in a muddy lake with their dud rockets.

“These are tough-hearted men, using their nerve and wits,” said Supalak Tammised, a 26-year-old lifelong Yasothon resident. “Through them, we send rockets into the sky to beg the angels for rain,” she said. “These are everyday people doing beautiful things.”

Occasionally, the festival proves deadly. Last year, a rocket slipped from its wooden launching pedestal and struck a circle of men drinking booze, killing one. The mishap, recounted with gory details in the Thai press, took off part of the victim’s head and tore out his right eye. In 1999, during one of the worst Yasothon accidents in living memory, a rocket exploded prematurely above a crowd of spectators. Five were killed.

“I was there and it was terrible. It wasn’t the explosion that killed people. It was the rocket’s falling tail,” said Tai Sawannapet, 52, a Yasothon rocket builder. “But this isn’t all that dangerous. We do have standards. I’ve been doing this since I was a child.”

In a culture where manhood is earned through gunpowder and grit, many young boys view rocketry as a rite of passage. Liveliest amongst one team with hung-over faces was an 11-year-old boy named Watcharapong. He asked to be called “Titan.”

While much of his crew lolled in the shade, Titan would sprint about in the grey smoke and skin-melting heat, lighting a series of 10-foot rockets as a sideline gambling attraction. In a few years, Titan said, he’d be ready the big leagues: helping build 50-footers that make the crowds scream with delight.

“These rockets, I got to light them. I lit them myself,” he said, back straight, struggling to contain nervous excitement. “I feel so proud of what we did today. Our hearts are inside every one of those rockets.”