06.05.2010 - 09.05.2010 105 °F
The small town of Yasothon is famous for its rocket festival. The town itself doesn't have a bus station so much as a designated strip of road, but every inch of it is filled with people anxious to see large numbers of home made rockets launched into the air.
I left Chiang Rai with the intent of performing a very simple bus routine: Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai to Ubon overnight, and the next morning head to Yasothon. I ran into the first snag in travel plans early on when I could not get a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai in the morning. I did what any good traveller should do in this situation and became SUPER flexible and hopped on another bus. Seven hours later, I was in Phitsanolok, usually the halfway stopping point on these overnight bus adventures. Once there, I ignored the inevitable onslaught of motorcycle taxi drivers, going straight for the Ubon Ratchathani counter. Standing in line, I heard a new vocabulary word that was quickly becoming the theme of my week: "เต็ม" or full. The only bus that they had to Ubon was in fact full. The look on my face must have been a dead give away of my concern; the girl in front of me graciously took me under her wing on her quest to arrive in Ubon as well. We found ourselves another bus going to Nakhon Ratchasima and for 7 hours I was on one of the more uncomfortable buses of my life, listening to awful Thai pop until about 1 in the morning.
The bus station in Khorat (as Nakhon Ratchasima is known) was still bustling despite the late hour. I tried to decipher schedules and ask bus attendants how to get to Yasothon… should I go to Ubon first? Or directly to Yaso? Eventually, I was put on a bus to Yasothon around 2 in the morning… without a seat. As the driver probably felt a little sorry for the farang who was making some crazy pilgrimage to a random town all for a few rockets, they gave me a seat up at the front of the bus next to a now-squished driver's helper. The driver decided to quiz me about where I was going in Isaan, a conversation that would have been difficult on a normal day that was nearly impossible at 3 in the morning after having travelled 16 hours already. For a little bit I was the spectacle of the bus, the front rows obviously enjoying my tries at muddling the language. Overall, though, it was successful, as I managed to both: a) get some sleep even though I had to get off the bus any time another passenger boarded/got off and b) arrive in Yasothon mostly unscathed. And at 6 in the morning.
These early morning arrivals have been the bane of my overnight bus riding experiences in Thailand. As much as I appreciate the convenience of not needing a place to stay, the next mornings are fraught with problems of where to go until things open, where do I put my bags, and (in the singular case of Yasothon) what do I do when there is nowhere to stay in a town and I have my life for the last two months on my back? A motorcycle taxi man passed me twice during his early morning rounds and decided that was enough of an excuse to stop and ask me where I was headed and if I needed a ride. Insert broken Thai here: "want a room, do not yet have, tonight, don't know where staying, do you know a guest house? Have a free room?" After the general haggling, he brought me to a hotel that was (you guessed it) full. At that point, I sent P'Jum a message. P'Jum is one of the lovely ladies that P'Tip from TUSEF put me in touch with. She had mentioned to me in passing that should would be at the Rocket Festival as well. After a carefully phrased message explaining that I had arrived early and had yet to find a place to stay soon had her brother (the lone taxi driver) picking me up at this full hotel and bringing me to her sister's house.
Over the next 24 hours, I was adopted by this very large family. P'Jum (who speaks MARVELOUS English) introduced me to everyone at least 4 times. I ate my meals with the whole family, slept at Yai's house (Yai means grandmother, but I think she was more of an aunt), and was taken care of by a 14 year old who had been designated as my tour guide. What more could you ask for? Oh, right. Home. Made. Rockets.
The first day of the Festival was dedicated to music and the parading of the rockets. The street was lined with stages, each having its own sound system and each sound system BLARING and intermittent karaoke. And odd costumes. And bizarre everything else, really.
It also felt oddly like Mardi Gras at times.
Day two was all about the launching of the rockets. These guys know what they are doing, which is impressive when you consider that most looked like a dangerous combination of bamboo, PVC pipe, duct tape, and explosives. But they were awesome. As soon as I have an internet connection that will allow me to load the video, you'll see what I mean.
I spent my weekend hearing the swoosh and pop of rockets all around, crossing lines into the "danger zone" for closer looks, and wishing that I could Thai dance. I also spent the majority of the time sweating like nobody's business and took at least 4 showers a day.
I caught a standing bus ride back to Ubon and made it into Det Udom in one piece. One exhausted, gross, stinky piece.
Every now and then I get to the point where I am ready to swear off bus travel in Thailand…and then I have these odd little moments that make me love the travel all over again. Like this one:
Watching an obviously new monk trying to wrap his monkly orange cloth around him in the bus station. His father offered some aid, and eventually an older monk (much more experienced in these matters) came to the rescue. Just as it looked as if the young monk had things finally going his way and all the excess cloth tucked where it should be, he turned around and promptly knocked over his can of coke, producing the nicest smile from the older monk.