Wake-up Call: The locals launch a homemade rocket to remind Rain God the growing season is coming. Photo/The Nation
I can't remember exactly where the sign was, somewhere after Saraburi and before Korat, but it was huge: "Welcome to Northeast Thailand - Gateway to Nature" or something like that. I was trying to overtake an 18-wheeler at the time.
There were pictures of waterfalls, animals, birds - the usual tourist guff. However, the first recognisable sign that you have entered Isaan is when you realise there are no cars anymore. Just pick-up trucks. And the further you go from Bangkok, the slower people drive. You also enter a world where indicators are never used and helmets rarely seen.
This was my first visit to the region. Like all people who have never been here, I had assumptions - it was poor, dry, agricultural, backward, forgotten and intensely populated. It's comforting to know that most assumptions are the mother of ignorance.
It was much greener than I had expected and more forested than I had imagined. They cherish trees here - and farm delicately around them. No space is wasted.
Every country outside its capital city is a dialogue between its landscape and its people. If they are not working in it, they are thinking about it. What seems like endless rice paddies and patchy forest to the visitor is an intimate universe for those living there. I can't count the number of times I would see someone driving a motorbike, pointing out something across the fields to their passenger. I also noticed solitary, elderly people staring into the distance waiting for something to happen, or perhaps, for someone to return.
If you leave Bangkok at dawn, it's a six-and-a-half-hour run to Yasothon. You head for Khon Kaen, turn right before you get there and then follow the signs to Roi Et - and then Yasothon. The roads are excellent and dual-carriaged 90 per cent of the way. You can sit on 120 kilometres per hour for most of the journey.
That is, until Brahmin cattle start to wander across the road, where the grass is greener. That's when you really know you have arrived.
By Yasothon the roadkill had mounted up.
Nothing to do with me, officer. Just an observation: a dozen side-swiped dogs, a couple of flattened cats, and something so mashed but recognisably organic it doesn't bare thinking about. In ditches lay at least five wrecked and twisted trailer trucks, lost wheels, smashed windows and shredded luggage, which once belonged to the inebriated and the unbraked.
For one weekend a year, you hear the town of Yasothon before you see it. Like tribal drums, the boom-boom thump of the music starts at least a click before you reach the source.
You can't drive into the centre - that's reserved for the Festival Procession - but on entering its joyous slipstream, the energy is infectious, palpable - and rising. Stages line both sides of the main drag. One after the other. Packed with people dancing to recorded Isaan music from pumping speakers. Each at full volume. The music is very sexy. Trust me.
At noon, the performers were still shiny, happy people. Bright-eyed and freshly minted. They were also drinking like thirsty tractors. By mid-afternoon many of them were so happily unhinged they appeared to be drowning from the inside. Several swayed like new-born wildebeests.
In between the stages rolled the slow procession, float after colourful float, wats on wheels, gold-plated rockets, groups of white-powdered men wearing frog masks doing a weird dance. Katoeys minced past. Winking. Two very handsome Brahmin bulls pulled one gigantic missile. They were pampered, watered, stars in their own right, and they knew it.
The whole atmosphere was an unfakeable indicator of the style and emotion of Isaan. The beauty of spontaneity that can never be rehearsed and never repeated. It was organic. Rooted. Crowded, loud, but considerate. The hot air throbbed with half-shouted jokes and incomplete conversations. Unlike Songkran, it was undiluted fun blended with civil decency.
A country boy myself, it was the moment I fell in love with these people. They are tough, real and well-earthed. They have marvellous features. The young are good looking, while the elderly have faces that are tanned, lined, wise - and crack under laughter. Outward signs of inner grace.
Nobody lost their rag. It was too damn hot. Drenched, I drunk a litre of water, but may as well have just poured it straight on to the ground.
At one stage a local girl latched onto me. Giggling. Tipsy. She had an air of innocent devilry; a streak of puckish mischief. I could have watched her lick stamps all night. But instead, I changed the film in my camera and rejoined the throng. I was on a mission, and she wasn't it.
By 5pm I needed an escape from the exuberance. Yasothon may be a long way from a beach, but it's not far from a river. So I headed for Mukdahan, 120km away on the Mekong. A lovely sunset drive along a road arched with ancient trees. It was getting dark when I reached this charming river town. I flicked on the car lights and the whole dashboard lit up like a baboon's arse. Over rice in a box, I watched the Mekong. At this stage of its journey it is wide, brown and slow - the Mississippi of Asia. Lights blinked on in Laos. A bulb here.
A bulb there. Then darkness. By 7pm, it appeared the country was snoozing peacefully.
Sunday morning and all roads lead to rockets. Thousands of people converge on Yasothon's civic park. Projectiles are shooting off everywhere - big ones every half hour, small ones all the time. Often, right behind you. Groups of monks sit under the trees. Families wander past the vendors selling beer, lao khao, chicken, wooden phalluses and balloons. It is liberating to be a stranger where there are precious few faces in the crowd who look like they expect you to recognise them. There was an old fire engine with a snoring driver and a new ambulance with no driver at all.
The crowd thickens where the three giant rocket launchers stand at the far end of the park. They resemble ancient siege engines. There are mud pits. With people in them. Cooling off. Fooling around. Respectable-sized rockets roar off every 30 minutes. Made of blue PVC drainage pipe and packed with explosives, they are labours of love and danger - and unpredictability. The one guarantee is that there are no guarantees.
Some say the higher they go, the more rain will come. Others say the longer they stay up the longer the rains will last. Whatever works, pilgrim. Lads scamper up the ladders to ready their charges. There's plenty of shouting. And pressure. Teamwork is a must. It's impressive.
Seconds after each launch a real and concentrated change comes over the crowd. Every rocket is charged with significance.
Every soul is willing it to go higher. To succeed. To bring forth good rains for wealth, for survival. Most did, some didn't, and the giant masterpiece that everyone expected to reach orbit had a mind of its own. It was the main event - and a total bobbins as a spectacle. Too big, too powerful, too ambitious. As it careered sideways rather than upwards, a collective groan rose from the park. There were some nervous laughs, but the crowning event was a let-down.
Thousands immediately turned and headed for the exit, like a crowd leaving a soccer game with five minutes left, knowing their opponents had won.
They were disappointed, certainly. But not beaten. This is Isaan, a region of people who beat the odds year after year, well aware that the odds are against them.
If you go …
The Rocket Festival will take place in Yasothon, northeastern Thailand, during May 8 - 10, 2009. More than 100 handmade rockets, or bung fai, will be firing into the sky over the rice paddy. The festival usually draws upwards of 50,000 spectators for rocket launch, crazy mud dance and many fun-loving activities.