Rocket fest was being banded around Vang Vieng when we arrived; on everyone’s lips with mysterious signs pointing to the edge of the town, but none of the backpackers quite knew what it was, just that we wanted to go. We were staying in the basic (no air-con, but you don’t need it in May) but well located Easy Go hostel on the bus stop edge of town with views onto the mountain, a pool table and a battery of incredibly friendly staff (expats and locals). An 18 year old expat emerged that morning in a leopard print playsuit which clung to his alcohol softened figure. Clearly not intended to be stretched onto someone over 6 foot; it left little to the imagination! He wanted his Scandinavian features to be adorned with makeup and we obliged, it was nigh on impossible to create a gaudy impression against his almost albino blonde hair. Apparently drag is obligatory for men at this festival; or at least for the male expats.
Livi and I wandered down to the riverside where we were immediately targeted as one of the few tourists and adorned with hand crafted blessings, crowded by thrusting hands requesting donations. Sprawling stalls were scattered across the bank of the river and up into the trees behind, the ground already beginning to become churned mud even under the baking sun. The smells weaving from each barbeque and piles of stacked, non descript meats were far from appealing so we found a spot further down the bank with a vantage point over the riverside where we could watch the goings on and enjoy some relief from the scalding sun.
We watched as teams of five or six men lumbered down to the riverside with tremendously long rockets and proceeded to prop them upright and tinker with them. The men would then scamper down the scaffolding and scatter as the lengthy fuse was lit and, in a exultation of black smoke, the rocket would soar screaming towards the sky where it would explode in an eruption intended to wake the rain gods. We watched this health and safety lax routine for about half an hour before we grew weary of the assault on the ears and nose and hungry from something that hadn’t been left in the sun all morning.
Arriving back at the hostel however the staff had entirely other ideas for us. The hostel is run by a Laos family who were entirely in attendance around a long table in the common room, drinking, singing and eating. We were drawn in and herded back down towards the baking river in a bubble of mingling chatter floating between English and Loas. Since we had left, the river bank had become a muddy plane to rival a festival field, with rivulets of river water flowing through where dents had been made in the short gravel barrier between water and land. Mud coated my flip flopped feet as we hunted for sufficient chairs to seat the multitude of backsides around the table we had claimed as ours. 20,000 Kip was collected from us each and Beer Laos was soon being shared around the table. No cup was left empty for even a second and accompanied by Loation drinking songs, we were endlessly encouraged to down our glasses in one! Seeing this family so joyful and free in our company was captivating after most experiences with locals in Asia being so sober and contained, even on occasion a little hostile. Surrounded by men in drag and full body paint dancing to a hotchpotch of strange music blaring from the main stage you could barely hear the rockets going off, marked by a plume of smoke and sudden commotion to our left from those who had remained too close underneath the rocket as it ignited; an experience entirely different from our outsider’s view that morning. We tired of dancing, the constant slipping and loosing of shoes, and returned to the table where a picnic had been prepared for us of frogs legs and chicken wings (I think) on sticks and trays of crispy grasshoppers and maggots of a texture I’d much rather forget. Nothing that couldn’t be washed down quickly with a swig of beer, I tried it all not to be rude and surprisingly enjoyed the grasshoppers which were just like crunchy BBQ crisps, if you could get over feeling the individual limbs breaking off on your tong.
We tired of the mud and incoherent ruckus long before our hosts did on their day to let loose and call in the Gods of rain and we bid them farewell as the sunset behind the towering mountains that enclose Vang Vieng and whose jungles were now littered with the remnants of the exploded rockets. We’d been incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time to experience the festival – the date is never set too far in advance – and even luckier to have been invited to celebrate with a local family.