Finding Fireballs

Every year, on October’s full moon night, a natural mystery unfolds from the depths of the Mekong River. October full moon marks the end of Buddhist Lent, and on this night small balls of fire shoot up from the Mekong River. The heart of these fireball sightings lies in Nong Khai Province and reaching to nearby northeastern provinces. This phenomenon is known as the “Naga Fireballs” and people flock from around the country to come and see them!

The Naga is a giant snake or serpent that lives in the Mekong River, and awakens at the end of Buddhist lent, only to travel down the river and breathe fireballs as it swims along. These fireballs are red in color and can range from a tiny spark to reportedly the size of a basketball, shooting up into the air from the river and soon disappearing. The Naga Fireballs have supposedly been around for centuries, but – as with any natural phenomenon steeped in mythology- there is a lot of doubt surround the fireballs. Is it a legend,  is there a scientific answer, or is it an elaborate hoax?

The Legend

This is my favorite theory, as it provides all the excitement and mystery of a giant serpent breathing fire and bestowing luck upon the people. It’s fun to believe in, but with only stories from people who claim to have seen the Naga there is no definitive proof of it’s actual existence and it remains only a legend.

Breaking It Down with Science

Many scientists have spent years studying the fireballs. And the results are…inconclusive. Ranging from “swamp gas” to plasma orbs, the scientific theories remain highly controversial due to the seemingly exact conditions needed to produce such results, unlikely to occur in nature (much less annually in the same area).

An Elaborate Hoax

Catapulted into the limelight in 2002 by the tv show Code Crackers, is the idea that the Naga Fireballs might only be an elaborate hoax. It has been rumored, and apparently proven in the past, that Laos guards shoot tracer rounds into the sky from the shore 2.5 miles away and the cheering of the crowds upon seeing a fireball “rise from the river” would drown out the sound of the shot. This theory of definitely backed by a strong motive; this popular festival not only boosts morale and camaraderie of the Thai people but the influx of local and international tourists alike is great for the local economy.

So are the Naga Fireballs a real phenomenon, or are they just an elaborate hoax born from strong beliefs and a poplar mythological figure meant to boost morale and increase tourism? That’s a difficult question, and I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. It’s almost a bragging right to have seen many fireballs. I hear people talk about it the following day, “We were at Ahong and saw maybe 30 fireballs.” “Oh really? We were at Phon Phisai and saw at least 70!” It becomes a bit of a contest, and with this high expectation to see fireballs aplenty, I would not put it above a government to harmlessly bend the truth a little. However after living in Issan for three years I also can’t deny the chance that, while possibly more rare, these fireballs really do come to be naturally.

My first year in Thailand we went up the river to hunt down some fireballs and went home unsuccessful. The following year I found myself in another quiet place, free of fireworks, loud crowds, and other distractions. I did catch a glimpse of a few fireballs. They were smaller than I expected (about the size of a golf ball), glowed an orange red, appeared  a couple meters above the river and quickly shot up and disappeared into the dark. If you blink you miss it. My third year we went to Phon Phisai, a very popular location for the festival, and I was lost amongst the rambunctious crowd, the fireworks, the cheers and the chaos. And yes, we did see many fireballs. But these ones seemed a bit different than I remembered from the year before; they seemed even smaller, almost like quivering red laser dots, and yes the cheers of the crowd upon seeing a fireball did in fact down out any other sounds.

Maybe I was remembering the previous year wrong. Or maybe there is a truth in the existence of this mysterious quirk of nature. If comparing the two, I could believe in the hoax theory. I could believe that yes the government secretly puts on a bit of a show because it’s become so popular and is a money maker, and because it has become so expected to see them.

But….

I remember sitting on the banks of the Mekong for hours, blanked in darkness and surrounded by silence broken only by quiet conversation of our group, and seeing these mysterious glowing orbs appear briefly out there over the inky waters. There were no fireworks, no cheers, no distractions. In that moment I could, and did, and still do, truly believe that there is truth in the Naga Fireballs. Now…are they caused by a mythical serpent traveling down the Mekong breathing fire, or is it a natural occurrence whose scientific explanation simply has yet to be discovered? You have to see it to believe it, so come experience the magic of the Mekong. Deciding what you choose to believe if half the fun!

See you next October for Bang Fai Phaya Nak, the festival shrouded in mystery and controversy!

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