Does a mysterious serpent really spew fireballs from the Mekong River every Buddhist Lent?
By Joel Quenby
The stretch of Mekong River running through sleepy Nong Khai province, 620 kilometres northeast of Bangkok, reputedly hosts Thailand’s answer to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. But this enigmatic Southeast Asian version—the “Naga”—supposedly spits fireballs that disappear in mid-air from his underwater lair towards the end of the region’s October rains (Buddhist Lent). Locals say the fireworks—called “bung fai paya nak (naga fireballs)”—have been rising from the mighty river for generations. Here are the main theories attempting to explain this bizarre phenomenon.
A cobra-like deity in Hindu mythology, the dragon-like Naga gets a Buddhist spin in Thailand. Legend has it that “phaya nak” raised Lord Buddha over a flood during his last pre-enlightenment meditation. The beast then welcomed his final incarnation on Earth by spitting fire skyward, at what became the end of Buddhist Lent. Similar, alleged displays of combustible breath have re-emerged beneath October full moons ever since.
(In folklore, Lord Buddha originally barred his serpentine devotee from becoming a disciple—offering a consolation prize: the Naga could guard temple entrances for eternity. This is why phaya nak coils around holy facades; streams down temple roofs; or slithers along the balustrades of northern Thai monasteries, like Chiang Mai’s Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.)
THE DINO-DESCENDENT THEORY
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) attempts to flesh out the legend, citing paleontologists on madtsoiid snakes—gigantic aquatic serpents that swum the world’s waters in the Cretaceous Period (the dinosaurs’ heyday, more than 65 million years ago). The dino-snake supposedly bore a crest resembling that of the Naga. Mirroring the hypothesis positing the Loch Ness Monster as a shy cousin of plesiosaurs, this idea suggests a dinosaur descendant could be living in the Mekong. This would make it a lazarus taxon: a species that seems to disappear from the fossil record only to reappear much later. The best known example of this is the coelacanth: a fish “rediscovered” by man off the coast of South Africa in 1938—65 million years after the species was thought to have gone extinct.
THE ‘RED HERRING’
Dive into this legend and an eye-catching photograph keeps cropping up. Often appearing on newspaper clippings or postcards, it purportedly shows a band of Vietnam War-era U.S. Servicemen stationed in the Mekong region in the 1970s straining to hoist an eight-meter silvery, eel-like fish. “Locals swear it’s genuine, and say all of the men in the photo met with messy ends,” reported Time in 2002. They presumably would not entertain the idea that the photo—of a giant oarfish found by Navy SEALs off the Pacific coast in 1996—originally featured on page 20 of the April 1997 issue of All Hands, a U.S. naval publication.
Humans rarely encounter the oarfish species; man “discovered” its first specimen in Bermuda in 1860. Back then, the five-meter-long weirdo was described as “a sea serpent.” These days, the Guinness Book of World Records lists a subspecies of the oarfish family, dubbed “the king of herrings,” as the longest bony fish alive, at up to 17 meters long.
THE RISING GAS (OR JUST HOT AIR) THEORY
Nong Khai doctor and self-taught cosmographer Manas Kanoksin proposed his theory—the fireballs occur naturally via blobs of combustible methane bubbling up from the riverbed—almost two decades ago. In 2002, a committee appointed by Thailand’s Ministry of Science and Technology probed the riverbed with a submarine robot and monitored gas deposits for two years. The experts concurred with Dr. Manas: the “fireballs” result from the sun decomposing organic matter into flammable gases, claiming this explained the orbs’ uniform color, lack of smoke or sound, and eventual dissipation.
The TAT says, “Tracking studies have indicated that the phenomenon occurs in March to May, and September and October, when the earth is closest to the sun,” also noting, somewhat mysteriously, that the Thai Navy monitors the goings-on with “equipment installed along the riverbanks.”
THE MANMADE HOAX THEORY
Lonely Planet’s Joe Cummings reported accounts that “a hissing can be heard if one is close enough to where they emerge from the surface of the river.” Jason Gagliardi wrote in Time that, “To a cynic like myself, they looked indisputably manmade”—also quoting Montri Boonsaneur, a professor of geological technology at Khon Kaen University who conducted an underwater survey, as saying: “I don’t want to say the fireballs are manmade, but they’re definitely not natural.” In 2002, a Thai TV program attempted to prove the projectiles were actually tracer fire from the Laotian side of the river. The show reportedly provoked angry protests from local villagers—interestingly, on both sides of the Mekong.
“Some things are better left alone,” a 70-year-old riverbank resident called Pang told Time. “Don’t try to put the Naga to the test. He will become angry.” Perhaps clues lie within Mekong Full Moon Party—the Thai-made cinematic tribute to the fireball mystery. The film deftly balances the opposing theories, ending on a harmonious pop-spirituality note. Perhaps debate is preferable to discovery, in this case. In 2003, Lonely Planet suggested that a four-nation agreement between Thailand, China, Myanmar and Laos—to blast rapids along the Nong Khai stretch of Mekong to make the river more navigable—could eradicate “whatever subtle balance of nature has produced this mysterious event year after year.”
Try and catch the Naga Fireballs on October 23–24 at the City Pillar Shrine temple in Pon Pisai district, Nong Khai, Thailand.