“Do you believe in the Naga?” the hotel receptionist asks me as I checked in to my room in Udon Thani, Thailand.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I’ve never seen one. Do you?”
“Oh yes!” She says, and the clerk behind her nods as well.
Across Asia, the Naga is a mythical serpent-like creature. It plays a role as a snake in the Mahabarata, takes the form of a dragon in China, and in northern Thailand and Laos along the Mekong River, the Naga is a waterborne serpent that protects residents from danger.
Once a year along the Mekong, this Naga spits fireballs into the sky. The phenomenon always occurs at the end of Buddhist Lent, on the 11th full moon of the lunar calendar. In Thailand’s Nong Khai Province, festivities are full-on, with hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the river’s banks in front of temples. Nong Khai town is the most well known spot for festivities but sees the fewest fireballs – it’s best to head out of town to either Phon Phisai or Rattanawapi, 50 and 80 kilometers downriver from Nong Khai, respectively.
This year, I set up in front of Wat Tai in Phon Phisai. Last year 100,000 spectators watched for fireballs here, but only two were observed. I’m hopeful that the Naga won’t let me down this year.The heat and humidity were stifling under the darkening sky, and the acrid smoke from fireworks coated my skin. Bats flit about overhead while flies and other insects landed on my damp neck and arms. The Mekong rippled past, wide and silent and muddy, and the night sky was dotted with dozens of floating lanterns, their flames glowing like Shakespeare’s nights’ candles. Along the water, a long boat glided slowly by, only its twinkling lights visible. It looked like a bedazzled centipede crawling through the dark.
The crowd extended as far as I can see in the night. Across the river, Laos was comparatively dark and silent, with only the occasional roman candle going off.
About an hour and a half after sunset, a line of white-robed people marched from the temple behind me, making an offering to the river. Then, we waited. Surely the Naga wouldn’t disappoint this expectant audience? After about 20 minutes a yell waved across the crowd, and everyone jumped to their feet and looked downriver. I didn’t catch sight of that fireball, but after another ten minutes I did.
The fireballs shoot quickly and vertically from the river, so fast they’re halfway gone before I notice them. They are wispy and faint, like ghosts or wallflowers: something difficult to see, even when you’re looking right at it. In comparison, the floating lanterns are bright, leaden suns, floating large and lazily above the river. The fireballs disappear quickly, dissipating about 100 meters up into the dark. I saw four fireballs that night, but several more were sighted after I left.
For the nonbelievers, there are a couple of explanations for the fireballs (also called “Mekong lights”). One theory holds that methane gas trapped under the river bed finds just the right conditions this time of year, and is released and ignited upon surfacing. This theory doesn’t explain why it only happens on this particular full moon in presumably varying weather conditions throughout the years.
The other theory is that the lights are simply tracer fire shot up by the Lao across the river. While compelling, the Lao vehemently deny it, and it also does not explain how the lights are shot vertically from the center of the river. When a Thai television show “revealed” this theory, residents on either side of the Mekong rioted.
For the hundreds of thousands of spectators, the Naga has made its presence known.
To see the Naga fireballs yourself, head to Northeast Thailand. Flights and trains arrive in Udon Thani, about an hour from the town of Nong Khai. Once in Nong Khai, enjoy the festivities there or take a bus further out to Phon Phisai or Rattanawapi. By the time five fireballs were witnessed in Phon Phisai, this year, 100 had already been counted in Rattanawapi. Be sure to arrive early and stake out a riverside spot before sunset; the crowds are enormous.
[Photos: Catherine Bodry]