Every May, when commercial airline pilot Benja Henderson flies in and out of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, he has to navigate a perennial hazard: rockets flying over the great Mekong River.
These projectiles are not the products of battle, despite the area’s history of sky-borne destruction—a covert war waged by the CIA brought over 2 million tons of ordnance down on Laos between 1964 and 1973. They’re part of an ancient agrarian ritual. At the height of Laos’s dry season, says Henderson, flight paths are modified as thousands of villagers up and down the country fire ballistics at the troposphere during boun bang fai, or rocket festivals. The rockets—PVC tubes packed with charcoal, bat excrement, sulfur and sometimes more than 250 pounds of gunpowder—are meant to provoke the irascible sky god Phaya Thaen into stirring up storms and nudge him to honoring a rain-sending pact he made with the Toad King, an incarnation of the Buddha.
Rocket festivals are a reminder that the fragile relationship between agriculture and climate in Laos is imperiled. From the riverine paddies to the limestone karst, Laos’ subsistence farmers—about 80 percent of the rural population—depend on getting the right amount of rain at the right time. But in recent years, changes in global climate have resulted in long dry seasons, and then short, intense rainy seasons that drown cropland. Flooding destroys around 60,000 hectares of rice in Laos annually, and that number is expected to rise. Rigorous International Water Management Institute analyses of Mekong basin rainfall from 1953 to 2004 showed a trend of longer dry seasons, and wet seasons with shorter but more intense bouts of rainfall.
Extreme weather in Laos isn’t just destructive; it’s deadly. In 2011, the Southeast Asian floods destroyed over 140,000 homes in Laos, leaving nearly 430,000 homeless, and killed at least 30 according to the U.N. In 2013, floods killed 20 people.
On a recent Sunday in Phognern Village, less than 10 miles outside of Vientiane, guards with rifles slung over their shoulders ushered garlanded Hyundai trucks past vendors selling scouring pads, laundry detergent and kitchen knives. Some trucks carried rockets in 30-foot-long bamboo cases. On one truck, a monk sat atop stacked speakers that blared mor lam, the Laotian country music popular in the region; farmers in drag followed another truck, thrusting wooden phalluses at the sky.
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