November 3, 2023
BANGKOK – Clashes between believers and non-believers over the mysterious Naga fireballs in Nong Khai and Bueng Kan provinces have gone on for decades. But what is indisputable is the fact that the phenomenon has become a popular annual festival which draws over 200,000 tourists to the two northeastern provinces each year.
Every year the end of Buddhist Lent, which this year fell on the 15th night of the 11th month on the lunar calendar (October 29), draws hundreds of thousands of tourists and local people, who line up at several spots on the Mekong riverbank across from Laos in hopes of a glimpse of orange fireballs the size of an egg ascending from the surface of the river.
Equally predictable is that on the following day, local people and scientifically minded people trade barbs on social networks or in news media about the origin of the latest fireballs.
This year, Jessada Denduangboripant, a well-known lecturer and professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Science, even accepted a challenge from a businessman in Bueng Kan to go there next year to prove that the fireballs were not a natural phenomenon, but rather were created by people.
Jessada insisted that the fireballs were bullets fired from the Laos side of the river to deceive Thai believers.
Brushing aside the disputes on the true origin of the fireballs, the annual festival draw a lot of both Thai and foreign tourists to the two northeastern provinces.
This year, the event’s excitement was increased over the participation of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who went to observe the phenomenon in Nong Khai’s Phon Phisai district. The Nong Khai’s tourism office estimated more than 200,000 intrigued tourists swarmed the province on October 29. Both Nong Khai and Bueng Kan’s tourism offices reported accommodations near the Naga fireball sighting spots were booked up for that night.
On October 30, Srettha expressed joy that the event was such a draw for the northeast. His government is boosting the soft power of local belief and tradition — and the Naga fireball festival could be included.
The disputes over the cause of the mysterious fireballs have dated back decades.
The controversies have previously prompted several people to try and disprove the supernatural power claimed to be related to the fireballs. As well, a movie was once made about the event, and a number of university graduate students have written theses about it.
The once-popular iTV channel attempted to argue that the fireballs were caused by humans and not by serpent-like mysterious Naga beings as local people believe, or by the gravitational pull of the moon drawing methane gas from the river bed as some scientists postulate.
Of course, the TV investigative program met with a lot of protest from local people and push-back by believers.
In 2002, a movie titled 15th Night of 11th Month was screened to the protest of Nong Khai citizens who tried to prevent its release. The script of the movie, directed by Jira Malikul, portrayed a group of Buddhist monks on the Laos side creating fireballs by diving beneath the river to plant fireworks that were somehow timed to light up on the night of the end of Buddhist Lent. The movie portrayed the monks as committing “honest lies” in order to maintain the beliefs of the religious faithful.
In 2005, a graduate student at Dhurakij Pundit University wrote a thesis titled, “The Giving of Meaning and Reasons for the Existence of the Naga Fireballs Ritual in the Age of Globalisation”.
In the thesis, Lalana Sakchuwong interviewed many local people and tourists about why they still believe in the sacredness of Naga fireballs despite advances in information technology.
Naga fireballs used to be called “ghost fireballs” by local people and were initially sighted only in Nong Khai until Bueng Kan district was upgraded into a province in 2011.
There are three main theories used to explain the fireball phenomenon.
In the first theory, Buddhists and local people who believe in the Naga beings, believe that the Naga king, whose palace is under the Mekong River, along with his servants, breathe fire as offerings to Lord Buddha. These Buddhists follow the legend in which Lord Buddha returned to Earth at the end of Buddhist Lent after delivering a sermon to his mother in heaven. The Naga king is said to have spit out the fireballs to welcome Lord Buddha.
Many Thais believe in the legends of Naga and of Krut, a bird-like creature. Belief in Naga has over time generated big business, with people flocking to places believed to be home to Naga kings, and making offerings for good luck and prosperity.
In the second theory, scientists believe the fireballs, which drift to the surface of the river, were caused by a mixture of methane and nitrogen gases which accumulated under layers of the river’s rock bed. The gases were allegedly drawn out by the pull of the moon’s gravity and somehow were ignited with water and so illuminated.
Those who believe in the third theory — that people are behind the phenomenon — reason that the fireballs did not drift from the river surface. Rather, they are either fireworks or bullets fired from the Laos side.
Casting the superstitious cause aside, the gas and human intervention theories could perhaps both be at least partially true based on accounts of local people interviewed by the thesis author.
Local people interviewed for the thesis said that the fireballs, which they had seen for decades since they were young, did not appear as what is seen in photos made public by non-believers.
They instead recall seeing orange fireballs drifting slowly from the river surface and quickly disappearing, whereas the photos made public by the non-believers show straight lines of lights high in the sky.
Disputes are expected to continue well into the future, and people are expected to continue to travel to the two provinces to await a glimpse of the annual fireballs.
Lalana’s thesis offers an explanation for this. She concluded that 10 Thai and foreign tourists interviewed by her argued that the Naga fireballs would continue to exist because of the combination of economic, social and traditional causes. The fireball festival has evolved into a long-held tradition of the local people, whose community benefits from significant revenue from fascinated tourists visiting the two provinces.