Dragons and wizards fired up at Myanmar rocket festival

By AFP

NANTAR — Clad in elaborate headdresses representing dragons and wizards, Myanmar’s ethnic Pa’O fire huge, homemade rockets into the sky, an annual call for plentiful rains and a chance for a windfall of cash. 

The Pa’O are one of the largest of the country’s minority groups, numbering around 1.2 million people and living mainly in Shan State’s highlands.

They are overwhelmingly Buddhist but many intertwine animism with their faith, believing they descend from a she-dragon and a wizard with mystical powers, known as a “weiza”.

Twelve days after Myanmar’s new year celebrations, as temperatures rise to over 40 degrees, Pa’O communities travel to Nantar village for the annual rocket competition, which ends on Wednesday. 

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

“Calling the rain like this every year means we get bumper rice harvests,” co-organiser Rike Kham tells AFP at the Pwe Lu Phaing festival’s 144th edition.

Festivalgoers watch the launch of a homemade rocket. (AFP)

Festivalgoers watch the launch of a homemade rocket. (AFP)

People dress in their finest, donning dark tunics and trousers in mourning for the kingdom they lost to the Bamar nearly 1,000 years ago.

But their headwear make up for their sombre attire.

Many women opt for a traditional bright orange cloth, symbolising the dragon.

Others, like Nan Pyone Kha Cho, 21, choose a more modern approach, sporting turbans of scarlet, gold or silver.

A golden hairpin is the “mother dragon’s fang”, she explains.

Men wear rolled-up cloth of various hues on their heads in the image of the “weiza” as they parade singing and dancing into the village, holding aloft their homemade rockets.

000_1g27j0.jpg

Pa’O people clean the floor of a temple during the rocket festival. (AFP)

‘Safety first’

In the past, these were crafted entirely from bamboo and would carry up to 40 kilos of explosives.

Now they are made with bamboo-wrapped metal, holding five different grades of gunpowder.

For “safety reasons” the maximum length is three feet (0.9 metres) and the diameter must not exceed three inches (eight centimetres).

A monk blesses each device, praying for a safe and long flight, then one-by-one the teams are called to the 10 metre-high bamboo firing rig.

The rocket is laid in position, the trajectory carefully adjusted.

The team captain takes a drag from a cigarette then uses it to light the fuse, before clambering down the bamboo rungs as the rocket lifts off with a deafening roar.

They can land up to seven or eight kilometres away, creating craters 1.5 metres deep in the fields.

A team of “linesmen” note the landing positions so they can later be collected.

Accidents are rare, says Rike Kham. Aside from an unlucky water buffalo hit in 2016, nobody has been hurt since two people died ten years ago after “badly mixing the gunpowder”.

The whole village celebrates a good flight, they after all clubbed together to fund the rockets that cost around US$170 each.

Judged by distance, the villages behind the top three placed rockets each take a share of the pooled entry fees.

With 75 rockets in this year’s competition, the prize money amounts to some $4,000, enough to upgrade a road, build a bridge or connect more homes to the grid.

Pa'O women dance as they bring a homemade rocket to launch. (AFP)

Pa’O women dance as they bring a homemade rocket to launch. (AFP)

Girl rocket power

One group of women is challenging the traditionally testosterone-driven festivities.

They dance into the village for the second year holding high their own rocket, albeit full of donation money rather than gunpowder.

But next year they will take part with “real rockets”, Mhoe Phar Ohon Ye, 67, said smiling, adding that women from other villages are following their lead.

As the sun sets and the rockets fall silent, the next generation is in training.

Groups of boys set off fireworks to squeals of delight and fire toy guns into the air in celebration.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters

Our fortnightly magazine is available in print, digital, or a combination beginning at $80 a year

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar