Amazing NAGA FIREBALLS Festival, Nongkhai, Thailand
October 12, 2011
At Pon Pisai district in Nong Khai
AMAZING THAILAND NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE YOU !
At the end of Buddhist Lent each year, along the Mekong River, there is an event that remains a mystery for the people of the Nong Khai province. Be there to to enjoy a fun and spiritual evening and unravel The Mystery yourself.
This fireball phenomenon occurs over takes 1-3 days only at this time of year. As the full moon crests the horizon, ruby orbs of light begin to rise out of the Mekong River. As if by magic, they float silently into the air and then evaporate in the inky blackness, a phenomenon that awes and delights observers privileged to have seen them.
Between 6 and 9 p.m. on the full moon night of the eleventh lunar month (October), the final night of Buddhist Lent, smokeless, scentless, soundless fireballs begin to rise from the deepest, Lao side of the Mekong. As many as 19 ruby globes at a time ascend to heights of 30 to 300 metres for three to eight seconds each, then simply vanish. In some years there are only a few; in 1999, nearly 3,500 fireballs were counted. They can be seen from ponds and a dozen riverbank villages but are most numerous near Phon Phisai.
Many Thais, especially rural villagers, maintain a strong faith and it is a significant religious event to pay respect to the river and to the Naga. For all involved, every time of the red-pink Naga Fireballs bursts upwards the people will greet it with joyous cheers.
For centuries, their existence was a closely-held secret among villagers living near the northeastern town of Nong Khai. Then, the miraculous event was discovered by outsiders who now flock to the riverbanks each October full moon night in enormous numbers—400,000, at last count.
To witness the Naga fireballs, there are several spots along Mekong River in the Nong Khai area for watching; for example, Pha Tang village in Sangkhom district, Hin Mak Peng Temple in Si Chiangmai District, Pak Khat District, Rattana Wapi District, etc. The most eventful Naga Fireball exhibition can be seen at Phon Phisai District. If you set out to see these fiery orbs of the mighty Mekong River, just make sure you talk to the locals to find a good place from where to watch.
The Naga Fireball festival will also feature food stalls, Naga legend information, Naga Fireball exhibitions, night bazaar, long-boat races, light and sound show, and other events. If you like to join in the fun and be part of the crowd, the Naga Fireball Festival promises to be unique and enjoyable.
The silence of the fireballs’ ascent is emblematic of the mystery of their origins beneath the murky Mekong. Villagers claim that they are created by nak, mythical serpents as central to Thai belief and as enigmatic as the fireballs themselves.
The debate over their formation reflects a clash of cultures. On the one hand are the villagers for whom water and its denizens holds an almost mystical fascination. And little wonder: water nourishes the staple foods of rice and fish; it is central to every rite, festival, and procession from the Royal Barges to longboat races. Rivers and canals once supported most Thais’ boats and homes, and water explains every elemental mystery. For a people who cling dearly to cherished beliefs about water—and especially about its chief denizen, the nak (naga, in Sanskrit)—the scientists’ desire to find a rational explanation for the phenomenon, is an abomination. Faith and tradition vie with science.
The villagers’ assertion that the nak are responsible for the miracle rests on an ancient Buddhist legend.
During his final incarnation, Lord Buddha returned to earth after teaching his mother in Thavatimsa heaven at the end of Buddhist Lent. Phaya Nak and his followers welcomed him back by blowing fireballs into the sky. Since then, on the October full moon night, fireballs—regarded as the fiery breath of the nak, mirroring medieval European beliefs of fire-breathing dragons—have risen from the Mekong River, a miracle that people call “Bang Fai Phaya Nak,” in recognition of the serpent king’s devotion.
On the preceding afternoon, villagers in traditional dress parade through Phon Phisai, accompanied by bands, and floats bearing images of the nak. In the evening, illuminated longboats float by the crowds gathered on the riverbanks. When the procession has passed, onlookers settle in to wait for the magic to begin.
Many villagers claim to have glimpsed the gigantic nak, a belief supported in some respects by science. Paleontologists say gigantic aquatic snakes termed Madtsoids appeared worldwide in the Cretaceous period. Fossilised vertebra found in South American suggest a serpent 18 metres (60 feet) long and a metre in diameter, near the size the villagers say they have seen. The ancient creatures also bore crests resembling those of the naga. Could descendents of the Madtsoids inhabit the depths of the Mekong River, much in the way that the pseudoryx, once thought extinct has surfaced in the mountains of northeastern Laos?
But, on the other hand, science has challenged folk belief in the fireballs and fired a controversy. It began with skepticism by one of Nong Khai’s own citizens, Dr. Manas Kanoksilpa, who for a decade has conducted scientific experiments to explain the fireball phenomenon. Dismissing a human hand in their creation (a charge initially levelled at the villagers), he says that the Bang Fai Phaya Nak are globules of methane and nitrogen formed from decomposed organic matter trapped in pools deep beneath the Mekong. When the balls break the water’s surface, they self-combust and remain alight until they eventually run out of fuel and fade. This is the explanation generally given for the formation of swamp gas and will-o’-the-wisp.
In 2002, the Ministry of Science and Technology appointed a committee of experts to study the issue. The team collected soil and water samples, developed a submarine robot to probe the riverbed, and set up eight gas-collecting and gas-monitoring stations in swamps and rivers where sightings had been reported. After a two-year study, they concurred with Dr. Manas that the fireballs are caused by the sun warming organic matter on the riverbed, causing it to decompose into flammable phosphine and methane gas and combust in the presence of ionised atomic oxygen. This explains why the fireballs are of uniform colour, do not emit flares, smoke or sound, and eventually dissipate without a trace.
Tracking studies have indicated that the phenomenon occurs in March to May, and September and October, when the earth is closest to the sun. But the committee sidestepped the question of how the fermented matter could form in swiftly-running water. Anticipating adverse reaction to their investigations, the Ministry announced that the Royal Thai Navy would also monitor the fireballs with equipment installed along the riverbanks.
Naturally, the findings have been disputed by Nong Khai residents who see their time-honoured beliefs challenged by what they view as attempts to portray them as superstitious country bumpkins.
Secular conviction or swamp gas? Superstition or science?
The debate rages on. What cannot be disputed is the fireballs’ beauty. For those who have seen them, they are wondrous, whatever the explanation. So, each full moon night in October, spectators gather on the riverbanks to await the miracle. And secretly hope for a chance sighting of the nak himself!
The most convenient way to reach Nong Khai is to take one of the many daily flights offered from Bangkok to Udon Thani, either on the national airline Thai Airways International, or one of the low-cost airlines. The flight takes 50 minutes and from Udon Thani, mini buses offer a 40 minute transfer to Nong Khai. An alternative is to take the rail service that runs every evening from Bangkok to Nong Khai.
The nak, the Thai rendition of the Hindu “naga”, is a creature more playful than its ferocious European cousin, the dragon, and more whimsical than the Chinese dragon and other mythical serpent gods. Associated with water, it dwells in three realms: beneath the earth where it guards minerals and gems, in bodies of still and flowing water, and in the skies where it creates the rain which nourishes crops.
Living in a netherworld of cisterns and caverns filled with precious gems, the nak is associated with streams which rise from underground sources. Beginning life in the bosom of Mother Earth, the nurturer of life, it undulates across the earth, its shape describing both the course of a river and the arc of river waves. It is also the “keeper of the life-energy that is stored in the terrestrial waters”, an apt description of the fertility it imparts to the fields that rivers and streams irrigate.
In Hindu mythology, the chief nak, Phya Nak, drank all the water of the world to provide his son-in-law with land. Angered by his impertinence, Vishnu ordered the deva (angels) to tie Phya Nak to Phra Sumen, the cosmic mountain, and squeeze it until it expelled all the water it had consumed. Thus, the water regurgitated by Phya Nak is regarded by Thais as nam amarit (holy water) and those who drink it gain eternal life.
The Naga is also celebrated for its steadfastness and is associated with the final meditation by the Buddha as he strove to reach enlightenment. When the earth goddess, Mae Toranee, wrung out her wet hair to drown tempters and evildoers, the nak coiled itself under the unheeding Buddha to raise him above the flood waters, spreading the hoods of its seven heads to shelter him from the rain.
The nak’s widely-varying personalities reflect the fascination, as well as the wariness with which humans regard snakes. The nak that arrived in Thailand via the Khmer courts is revered as a minor deity. It is honored during Songkran, one of Thailand’s two principal water-related festivals, when Thais beseech it to send abundant rain during the coming rice season.
According to Buddhist folklore, the Naga had great reverence and admiration for Lord Buddha and yearned to be one of his disciples. However serpents are deemed to be sat derachan– lowly beasts forbidden from being ordained into monkhood and barred from entering temples. Hence the Naga resorted to magical powers, transforming itself into human form, in order to mingle amongst the disciples, undetected.
One day, while listening to sermons, the Naga fell asleep. The spell cast was broken and the true form of the Naga was revealed. Lord Buddha asked the Naga why it had disguised itself. The Naga explained its wish to be in the presence of the Lord Buddha and its desire to serve as a disciple.
Having heard the Naga’s explanation, Lord Buddha told the Naga that while it was not possible for the Naga to be ordained, it could guard the temple and temple doors and from that time onwards, the legendary/mythical Naga has been seen coiled around the outer walls of the temple; slithering along the balustrades of northern Thai monasteries guarding the entrance to temples – the best examples being Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, and Wat Phumin in Nan; or streaming down the roof edges of wat buildings, a decorative element referred to as nak lamyong or nak sadung.
Tourism Authority of Thailand, Udon Thani Office
Areas of Responsibility: Udon Thani, Nong Khai
Tel: +66 (0) 4232 5406-7
Fax: +66 (0) 4232 5408