Naga Fireballs: Science, Myth or Hoax?

As we approach aurora borealis season in the northern hemisphere, something far stranger grips the Isaan region in northeast Thailand. But what makes the Naga fireballs – the glowing orbs ascending from the Mekong River in October – so peculiar is that no one quite knows what they are or where they come from.

For some, the Naga Fireballs in Thailand are glowing miracles, a heavenly force to be reckoned with. For pessimists, they are a hoax and for realists they are natural phenomena that have baffled scientists for decades. Well, we’ll take a look at all cases and you can decide for yourself. Or, better still, go and experience them for yourself. The event occurs for a few days in October and May (Naga Fireballs 2013: 18-19th October) when the Earth swings closest to the sun.

What are the

Naga Fireballs?

Myth

To locals, the event is known as bung fai paya nak (Naga fireballs). Some believe the flaming balls which burst from the surface of the Mekong River to be the breath of the fearsome Naga, a river serpent of Buddist lore that roams the river in this part of the Nong Khai province. It is Thailand’s Loch Ness Monster and, if asked, locals will be more than happy to describe their fleeting sights of the creature at childhood or produce ambiguous photos of log-like objects floating past that no manner of squinting can clearly decipher.

The tale has certainly stood the test of time (as has the seemingly immortal creature) and there are written accounts dating back hundreds of years.

Science

In the 21st century we live in a world more dominated by science than folklore or legend – although they make enchanting stories. So for all you realists out there, you must be aching to comprehend the scientific reasoning behind this beautiful display by mother nature. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you but scientists are still rather cloudy on the issue. Mana Kanoksin is a local doctor and self taught cosmographer. He has dedicated 11 years to the theory that the fireballs are a methane gas bubbling up from the bottom of the river. He attributes the bi-annual event to the position of the Earth to the sun. During the full moon of Buddist Lent, when the Earth is passing closest to the sun, the increased concentration of UV radiation, together with the heightened gravitational pull could contribute to unstable levels of oxygen on the Earth’s surface which might result in methane that is leaving the riverbed to catch fire.

While this is no official or accepted scientific theory, it is one of the few in existence. And it does explain why the event occurs over a couple of days in October and also in May, when the Earth returns to the same position. But there is opposition to the theory. Montre Boonsaneur is a professor of geological technology lecturing at Khon Kaen University. He was responsible for an underwater survey in the research stages before the construction of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and is adamant that the rough waters and stony riverbed are not ideal conditions for methane to reach the surface.

Hoax

But if option one and two have left you unsatisfied, that only leaves option three; that the whole spectacle is one big prank that has fooled people for centuries. Perhaps it started out as a beguiling story and some ambitious pyrotechnics have been recreating the fictional scenario for the last 100 years? If so, how have they managed to illude the Thai patrol boats?

Naga Fireballs Festival

Bang Fai Phaya Nark

From 18-19 October 2013 the Nong Khai Province will host its annual Naga Fireballs Festival. Here, from sunset until approximately 11pm, devotees and dreamers will feast their eyes upon an array of smokeless, soundless fireballs rising into the air from the depths of the Mekong river.

The fireballs are vary in size from small sparkles to glowing basketballs, and appear in unpredictable numbers between tens and thousands per night along a 100km section of the Mekong River. These luminous orbs rise from the water into the sky, ascending a few hundred metres before they evaporate into the night. A shower of shooting stars in reverse.

As part of the October Naga Fireballs celebration – otherwise known as the Bang Fai Phaya Nark Festival – hundreds of thousands flock to the Mekong riverbanks for the show. The main hub of activity is around the town of Phon Phisai and a favourite viewing spots include Pha Tang village in Sangkhom, Hin Mak Peng Temple in Si Chiangmai, the Pak Khat District or the Rattana Wapi District. Alternatively, have a chat to the locals, they fill you in on the best places to experience the action. There will be with food stalls, Naga legend information, fireball exhibitions, a night bazaar, light and sound shows and long-boat races prior to the climactic event. In other words, even if the fireballs were miraculously not to appear, your journey to Nong Khai would hardly be a wasted one!

Make sure you don’t miss the Phon Phisai parade of villagers in traditional dress, accompanied by bands and bearing images of the famed ‘Naga’ on the afternoon preceding the main event. Just remember to come prepared with supplies as, when the procession has passed, onlookers will settle in for the long haul as they wait for the magic to commence…

Where to stay

You could make a day trip from the Udon Backpackers which is located about 35-40 miles from Si Chiang. Alternatively, stay in Laos and find a hostel in Vientiane which is located on the banks of the Mekong River across the water from Si Chiang.

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Thanks to larryoien.. at home in Issan.. and giggle1025 for the images off Flickr.

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