Thailand’s Naga Fireball Festival

“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]

Photo of the Day: Boys riding water buffaloes in Vietnam

I kind of want to ride a water buffalo. Do you think it’s like riding an elephant? (I haven’t done that, either, so I guess it doesn’t matter.) These two boys look quite at home on top of these creatures, and they’re bareback, yet!

Besides the subject matter, I like the colors in this photo – the vivid green against the gray skies and animals. I wonder what is growing in the background.

Thanks to Flickr user t3mujin for sharing this photo with us in Gadling’s Flickr pool.

Have any cool photos from your travels that you’d like to share with the world? Upload them to our Flickr pool, and we just might choose one for our Photo of the Day feature.

Photo of the Day: Laughing Buddha statue in Dalian, China

Today’s Photo of the Day is of this lovely happy Buddha. Although, I’ve done some research and discovered that this figure is not actually Buddha, but a 10th century Chinese monk named Hotei. Apparently he carried around a sack of candy (it shows) to share with young children.

Just looking at the photo of this statue lightens my mood. I also really like that the photographer, Flickr user Bernard-SD, captioned it “A Work in Progress.” The statue may not be finished, but I like the idea that our lives are also a constant work in progress – which seems kind of Buddhist, or at least a little spiritual, right?

Have any photos of your travels that might solicit spiritual musing, or at least just make us smile Upload them to Gadling’s Flickr pool and we just might choose one for our Photo of the Day feature.

Photo of the Day: Chinese lanterns on Penang, Malaysia

The Chinese New Year celebrations are still in full swing here in Asia. As it’s the continent’s version of spring break crossed with Christmas, folks are on holiday and many shops and restaurants are closed for the week. It’s easy for travelers to feel like outsiders when traveling to China or Chinese communities during this holiday (imagine how a tourist might feel if they came to the States on Christmas day), but this photo reflects the intimacy and energy of Chinese temples everywhere during the holiday. Fickr user LadyExpat shot this in Georgetown on Penang, Malaysia, which has a large Chinese community.

Have any photos from our holidays you’d like to share with the world? Upload them to Gadling’s Flickr pool, and we just might choose one for our Photo of the Day feature.

10 tips for traveling with depression

If getting up in the morning sometimes seems like you’re taking on the world, then actually taking on the world might sound preposterous. But with a little planning and some extra precautions, traveling without fear of a mental collapse is a definite possibility.

Like a lot of people, I’m discovering, I have a streak of sadness that often runs just below my surface, occasionally exposing itself as painfully as a raw nerve. But with coping strategies, good friends and a little help from medication, I’m able to adventure to the other side of the planet, by myself.

Because I have to keep my mental balance in mind a lot of the time, I’ve adopted traveling strategies to help me with my depression. I’m not a doctor, and don’t play one on TV, so my advice shouldn’t be taken over the opinions of your doctor. But I do have over a decade of traveling experience, and almost all of it came with some form of depression. Here’s what I’ve learned on the road:

1. Mind the jet lag. Upsetting your sleep pattern is rough on your emotional balance. It took three different mental collapses days after flying overseas that I realized I had a pattern going: jet lag = depression. Oddly, once I figured that out, it stopped happening — likely because I now prepare for it by listening to my body. I do my best to eat healthy while in transit, splurge for a comfy room at my destination so that I can relax, and give myself several days before any hard travel. Avoiding (lots of) alcohol on those long-haul flights also helps.
2. Try to create a regular routine. Sleep is a big issue for me, and even friends who know me well often don’t get it when I tell them I absolutely must be in bed by 10 to be asleep by 11 in order to function at 8am. “Can’t you stay up a little bit later just once?” they’ll ask. Well, no. I know it makes me a fuddy duddy, but I’d rather be boring than crying. For this reason, I’ve slowed my travel pace down significantly from my 20s, because too many all-night bus or train rides tends to wear down my defenses.

Ditto for exercise. If I can just get a 30-minute jog in almost every day, I feel a lot more grounded. Failing that, I walk wherever and whenever I can. It’s not easy when I’m on the go, just like with sleeping, though it’s easier to fit in a half an hour of exercise than nine hours of sleep.

3. Be sure you have enough medicine to last your entire trip. Many anti-depressants aren’t available abroad, and the last thing you want to do is try to go off your medication cold-turkey and in a foreign country. My health insurance has given me up to six months in advance before; be sure to ask if they have a vacation extender for prescriptions. My bottle of pills has the same importance as my passport and ATM card – when traveling, those three are often packed together. Besides being super careful about not losing your medication, also leave your prescription with someone who can call it in and FedEx it to wherever you’re at should you lose your bottle.

4. Keep in touch with your doctor. With Skype, this is easier than ever! But phone consultations work, too.

5. Don’t let other people make you feel bad. You feel bad enough, right? Yes, you know (without someone reminding you) that “you’re so lucky to be in [insert beautiful destination here]!” Many folks don’t get that you can’t just “snap out of it,” and even if you could show them your depleted serotonin stores, they probably still wouldn’t get it. And yeah, I know that that beggar with no legs has it way worse than me… which only makes me feel even more terrible about myself. Be careful with whom you share your sadness.

6. Have a support network back home. This is easier than it was ten years ago, because now we have Skype and Facebook. I’m lucky to have a group of friends and family who know me well enough to understand that I get blue from time to time. Usually all I have to do is send out an email telling friends that I’m feeling a little lonely, and soon I’m able to chat or Skype with someone who can reassure me that no, I’m not a complete failure.

7. Be good to yourself, but get out of bed. When I feel like I’m wearing that lead apron they put on you for x-rays at the dentist, the last thing I want to do is pull myself out of bed. Especially if it means it’s going to feel like I’m moving underwater, daydreaming about being in the fetal position, and crying on the street to boot — by myself. But I’ve never regretted leaving bed, even if it’s just to stumble down to the beach to sleep some more.

And on the other hand, don’t berate yourself if you can’t handle the group tour that you booked or write that blog post you’ve been meaning to publish. Pushing yourself to do a little will go a long ways, but trying to slog through something that you simply don’t have the mental energy for is only going to make you feel worse. Be gentle to yourself, but do your best to put one foot in front of the other, even if it’s just for a few steps.

8. Know your limits. My limits involve alcohol and sleep (not too much of the former, as much as I need of the latter), but everyone is different. Learn to understand your body’s signals and listen to them if they’re telling you you’re doing or taking on too much.

9. Trust your intuition. I constantly listen to the “vibes” I pick up not only from people, but also from places. Maybe a hotel room’s feng shui is off, or perhaps the energy from an entire scene – a beach, a town, a guesthouse – might seem not right. Obviously I try not to be overly picky or bratty, but it is important that I feel “safe” in a place. If my guestroom is off, I’ll subconciously avoid spending time in it, and won’t sleep well. If I think that the energy of an entire place is off, I’ll wander around in a funk, unable to make connections with anyone. Your subconscious picks up on things that you’re not aware of; follow your intuition if it’s telling you something isn’t right for you.

10. Go when you’re ready. If you planned a round-the-world trip but collapse weeks before you’re set to leave, try to postpone until you’re stable again. If you’re barely functioning at home, the jolts and irregularities of travel likely aren’t going to do you any good.

Happy travels!

[Photo credit: shawncampbell, hipsxxhearts, Flickr]