Every year, on a sultry, summer evening in late October, a strange phenomenon called the Naga fireballs occurs along a 100km stretch of the Mekong River bordering Laos and Thailand. Under a full-moon sky, fiery red spheres hurl up into the air from the Laotian side of the river. Sometimes as many as 800 will go up or maybe as little as 2. The phenomenon is shrouded in mystery and thousands of tourists will flock to the area every year to attend a local festival and try to catch a glimpse of the balls rising out of the water.
An explanation based on legend
Everyone seems to back one of three theories behind what’s causing the Naga fireballs. First, you could side with the mystics who say the fireballs are being belched out by a legendary water creature called a Naga. In South and Southeast Asia, Nagas are believed to be a supernatural and benevolent water snake who enjoy using their powers to protect people.
Despite the fact that no Naga has been seen or caught in history, believers are adamant that this creature truly exists, often pointing to an old photo of a row of 30 US soldiers holding a long fish as proof. The photo is often cited as being taken on the Mekong River when in fact, cursory research will show it was taken just off the coast of San Diego, California and features a giant Oarfish – a deep sea bony fish which could never be found in the fresh waters of the Mekong.
The fact that this phenomenon takes place precisely on the 11th full moon of the year is also important. Named Wan Ok Phansa, this day marks the end of Buddhist Lent, a three-month long period of meditation and fasting for Buddhist monks. And what better way to mark the end of three straight months of restraint than to hold a giant drinking party?
A more modern attempt at explaining the fireballs
One of the biggest drawbacks to the Naga theory is it tends not to resonate with people who don’t believe in supernatural river creatures. For those skeptics, science – or possibly pseudo-science – has an answer. Decomposing organic matter at the bottom of the river gives off methane gas that bubbles up to the surface and spontaneously ignites. One other version of this theory replaces methane gas with phosphine gas. And in fact, under certain very specific conditions, the production and combustion of either gas could feasibly occur. But according to Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, the Mekong River does not provide those conditions naturally, nor would the gas burn red and rise into the air at such fast speeds. Too bad, as it sounded pretty legit.
The skeptic’s explanation
Barring both the supernatural and natural explanations, we’re left with one final alternative which is that the Naga fireballs are simply a type of firework being thrown into the air by boaters on the Laotian side of the river. In 2002, a Thai TV network called iTV sent a group of journalists to the river to figure out where the lights came from. What they recorded were Laotian soldiers firing tracer rounds into the air. The program received a lot of backlash from locals who were offended that the station could insinuate this was all a hoax to attract tourists. So even with this footage, the debate continues to this day. In fact, the publicity mainly worked to increase attendance at the festival the next year.
And the party continues
The Wan Ok Phansa Festival on the Mekong River has a long history going back eons and is clearly regarded as a time honored tradition. Interestingly, no written record of the Naga fireballs can be found prior to the 20th century.
So whether it’s to watch a mysterious phenomenon take place on the full moon or just to go out and party on a hot summer’s evening, thousands flock to the banks of the Mekong River in Nong Khai Province every year to watch the Naga fireballs and celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent. If you want to see them for yourself this year, mark your calendar for October 16th.