Monday, November 16, 2009

Naga Fireballs

This festival celebrates one of Thailand’s most curious natural phenomena – the Naga Fireballs of Nong Khai. Taking place during the full moon of the final day of Buddhist Lent, small balls of fire rise from the Mekong River and plunge upwards of 300 metres into the night sky. The fireballs appear as eerie blobs of red, blue, pink or green light that hang in the air for around 10 seconds.

An interesting cultural event, the natural wonder of Bang Fai Phaya Nak, “Naga Fireballs,” is held in Phon Phisai district of the northeastern province of Nong Khai along the Mekong River, at the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent, or Ok Phansa, in October around 10-16.

Local residents seem to believe that the fireballs belong to the Naga, the king of serpents. This natural wonder is linked to a legend dating back to the Buddha’s times. It is said that the Buddha went to heaven to instruct his mother in his teachings. He spent three months there until his mother attained enlightenment. On the full-moon day of the eleventh lunar month, the Buddha returned to earth and celestial beings built a golden and silver staircase for him to come down. With his loving kindness, the Buddha created a miracle by opening a view of the three worlds, namely heaven, the earth, and the underworld. All nagas living in the underworld admired the Buddha for the gratitude he showed towards his mother, so they blew out flames from the bottom of the river to celebrate.

The origin of the fireballs has been much debated. One scientific study shows 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 oxygen. This explains why the fireballs are of uniform color, do not emit flares, smoke, or sound, and eventually dissipate without a trace. Tracking studies have indicated that the phenomenon occurs from March to May, and September and October, when the earth is closest to the sun. Naturally, the findings have been disputed by Nong Khai residents, who see their time-honored beliefs challenged by what they view as attempts to portray them as superstitious country bumpkins.

The Naga Fireball Festival also features a bazaar, a food fair, a contest of floating and illuminated boats in worship of the Naga, long-boat races, and a light and sound show. Although there are several viewpoints for watching the natural wonder of the Naga fireballs, a great number of fireballs are usually seen in Phon Phisai district.

About 600 kilometers from Bangkok, Nong Khai is situated on the bank of the Mekong River, which stretches 4,200 kilometers through six countries, namely Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. As it is not far from Vientiane, the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Nong Khai is regarded as a gateway to Vientiane. From the province, people can cross the Mekong River to Laos over the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. The phenomenon of Naga fireballs can be seen from both the Thai and Lao sides.

The following video from Youtube was recorded on October 14, 2008.

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