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Yasothon Rocket Festival | Khmer Temples in Northeast Thailand | North to Khon Kaen

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Yasothon Rocket FestivalThe original idea was to fire rockets into the sky to entice the gods to start the rain needed for the rice to grow. Most famously in Yasothon, Bang Fai Festival on May 8-9 has now become two days of riotous partying, Isaan-style. On the 8th, highly decorated floats parade for half a day through the town, with bands and dancers on stages, plus katoey "back home" from their Pattaya cabarets.

Little exposed to foreigners, Yasothon's genuinely warm to visitors, who often end up covered in mud, dancing in the street to obscure mor lam tunes with someone they've only just met. Mekong whisky may be forced down your throat, but so what, go for it!

Yasothon Rocket FestivalAlong the street, bundles of small rockets are tied together like strings of garlic. To launch them, young boys hold them between their fingers, light the tapers and at just the right moment throw them into the sky. Incredibly, few accidents are reported.

Sunday May 9 is when the rockets are launched in Phaya Thaen Park to see which'll stay in the air longest. Made of blue plastic piping, packed with gunpowder and tied to a bamboo pole, the rockets come in two classes: up to 12 kg. of gunpowder and up to 120 kg.

Teams draw for the firing order and up to eight men carry their rocket to the launch site, where it's winched into position and lashed to a giant metal ladder some 50 feet long, angled skyward. An announcement to clear the site is followed by hushed silence, then a shrill hissing and a belch of black smoke as the thrust breaks the rocket from its mooring, sending into the bright blue sky. A good launch draws cheers from the crowd who shade their eyes to follow its progress.

Yasothon Rocket FestivalExactly how the judges determine the length of flight seems a mystery. Last year's under-12 kg. winner was Khun Bann Pai, who won Baht 5,000 for his rocket staying aloft 185 secs. In the 120 kg. class, Khun Phi Pak Chan picked up Baht 15,000 for a flight of 145 secs.

How to Reach Yasothon from Bangkok

Road Take airport expressway, then Route 1 to Saraburi, Route 2 to Khorat, and onto Prathai and Phaykapum Phiasi to take Route 202 to Yasothon.

Bus Overnight VIP bus from new Morchit II Bus Station at 9.30 pm., Baht 420.

Train Closest station is Ubon Ratchatani with a daily 7 pm. departure from BKK, 3rd class Baht 155, 2nd class aircon sleeper Baht 601, 1st class sleeper Baht 1,040.

Air Thai fly to Ubon Ratchatani, 91 km. east, four times a day, round trip Y-class Baht 2,810, J-class Baht 4,410 plus Baht 60 dep tax. PB Air fly to Roi-et, 67 km. west, on Mon, Tue, Thur and Sat, Y-class round trip Baht 2,920 plus Baht 60. Ground transport available from both airports to Yasothon.


Prasat Phimai in darknessEver wondered why Khmer temples, which are mostly built in Hindu rather than Buddhist faith can be found in Thailand? As part of our exploration of Isaan, we have come up with some of the answers . When the Khmer temples were built, the sites were not in Siam then, rather in the Angkor Empire, Kambujadesa. Today's Isaan only became a part of the country during the reign of King Naresuan (1590-1605). That's why.

Communication was a great priority of Khmer rulers and their greatest achievement was the network of roads fanning out from the capital. The royal road to Phimai almost certainly existed at the time that Suryavarman II came to power in the beginning of 12th century. Then Phimai was a major centre, and the road had both military and trade importance.

Prasat PhimaiUnquestionably the most important Khmer temple in what's now Thailand, Prasat Phimai is 49 kms. northeast of Khorat on Route 2, then east 12 kms. on Route 206. Its importance stems from the loyal ruling dynasty of Mahidharapura from where two of the greatest Khmer rulers came, Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII.

Phimai is laid out in the same concentrical style as Angkor Wat with the main sanctuary at its heart, yet one of its most striking features is that it was built as a Mahayana Buddhist rather than a Hindu temple. In Cambodia, large Khmer temples were dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu until the Buddhist king Jayavarman came to the throne in 1181.

Unusually, it's angled to the south of the capital, Angkor instead of directly towards it. This is due to the the influence of the earlier Funan kingdom that adopted the Chinese custom of facing south. Or it may face south to honour the ancestors of the ruling dynasty in the south. However the flaw in both arguments is the axis point is 20' east of south and Angkor Wat is 350 east of south, and Phnom Rung, the first major stop along the road, is similar. Such an inaccuracy is usual as the Khmer were capable of laying highways as straight as any Roman road. Another possible explanation is the effect of the orientation of the land between the rivers.

Prasat Phnom RungPrasat Phnom Rung, built largely of high-quality pinkish sandstone, an impressive hilltop site over the surrounding plains, is possibly the most rewarding Khmer temple to visit. The builder certainly owed allegiance to Angkor but they were much more than mere vassals and throughout Phnom Rung there is evidence of the autonomy of local rule.

The Khmer were concerned with architectural symbolism, particularly the recreation of Mount Meru and the elements of the Hindu universe. The Khmer word 'Phnom' means hill and its use in the temples title denotes location. Although the modern approach is road at the top of the hill, the true start of the temple is half a kilometre away at the foot of the eastern slope, which is partially covered with vegetation.

As the sunrises on April 13, its rays shine directly through the succession of 15 doorways and halls from the east gopura, through the sanctuary to the west. Phnom Rung Festival is celebrated for three days at this time with a spectacular light and sound show. Although it falls at the same time a Songkran there is no tangible link between the two.

Prasat Phnom RungFurther east past Sisaket stands Preah Vihear possibly the most beautiful and the least accessible major Khmer temple. It is legally in Cambodia yet accessible only from Thailand. For unknown reasons the Franco-Siamese treaty of 1907 left the temple on the Cambodian side of the border. The ongoing dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over ownership was officially settled at the International Court of justice in the Hague in 1962. The verdict favoured Cambodia, and many Thais still feel that this decision is unjust.

Its strategic position has given it military importance in recent history and has intermittently been used as a Cambodian military post. Its difficult access made it the last place in the country to fall to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Lon Noi troops and the families held on here for days after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Ironically its brief recapture in 1998 was the last victory by the residual Khmer Rouge.

Preah Vihear has no equal in its natural site. Its builders were able to take full advantage of this when recreating the microcosm of the Hindu universe, to enter the temple is to experience the decent from mount Meru. A trip the Khmer temples in the Northeast allow visitor to see the remains of the great empire without having to cross the boarder into Cambodia.


Established in 1783 Khon Kaen is a bustling prosperous town in the heart of Issan. Today it is the center for regional development projects and home to the Northeast's largest university. 450kms north of Bangkok the province of Khon Kaen covers an area of 10,886 sq kms.

Khon Kaen_BeachKhon Kaen is a tourism and transport hub with a modern international airport with daily flights linking Bangkok and it is on the junction of Highway 2 giving road and rail links to Nong Khai and onwards to Vientaine in Laos, an ideal stopover on the route north.

The tourist attractions of Khmer ruins at Phimai , the Phu Wiang pre-historic park and Chonnabot Silk are well known. But less known is that Issan now has a beach resort . Named after one of the more famous beaches near Pattaya, Bang Saen 2 is on the edge of Ubol Rattana reservoir 50 km north-west of Khon Kaen.

The joy of exploring Issan is discovering the unexpected.


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