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]

10 Ways To Experience Bizarre Natural Phenomena

roll cloud

To experience something out of the ordinary on your next trip, check out some of these bizarre natural phenomena.

Morning Glory Cloud, Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia

While you can occasionally see a Morning Glory Cloud or roll cloud in other parts of the world, the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia is the only place it can be predicted and observed regularly. A Morning Glory Cloud can be up to 620 miles long, 1.2 miles high and is often only 330 to 660 feet off the ground. Additionally these clouds, which sometimes appear both solo and in groups, can move at speeds up to 37 miles per hour. While this phenomenon is not clearly understood, certain theories do exist, such as effects from mesoscale circulations linked with sea breezes that develop over the area and high humidly and pressure mixed with strong breezes. You can visit Buketown in Queensland for the best chance of witnessing the phenomenon.Experience The Phenomenon Of “Mystery Spots” In Mooresville, Indiana

For those who’ve never heard of mystery spots, there are areas all over the country that defy the laws of nature and physics. Water may flow up an incline, people are able to stand on walls and balls roll uphill. The most famous mystery spot is located in Santa Cruz, California, although many are skeptical of the authenticity of this pay-to-see attraction. To experience the phenomenon in nature, you can head to Mooresville, Indiana. Here you’ll find Gravity Hill, an unmarked hill that pulls your car upward instead of down. You can put your car in neutral and see what happens to test the mystery spot out for yourself. To get there, you’ll get off at Exit 59 from I-70. You’ll drive about a mile heading south before turning left onto Keller Hill Road. Head east about 4.5 miles until it ends, and near here is where you’ll find Gravity Hill.

Some other known mystery spots are located in Spook Hill, Florida, Marblehead, Ohio, Gold Hill, Oregon and Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

northern lights

Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights), Near North Pole

Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights, may be the most well known natural phenomenon that exists. This astronomical curiosity features shafts, swirls, arcs, rays and curtains of vibrant colors on the night sky, putting on an awe-inspiring neon light show. What you’re really seeing is the colliding of electrically charged particles from the sun as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. This occurs over the North Pole and South Pole.

While technically it’s possible to see the northern lights anywhere, it’s best to view them from areas closer to the poles, like northwest Canada, Alaska, Iceland, northern Scandanavia and northern Norway. Visit between the autumn equinox and spring equinox, or September 21 to March 21. It is also said that 2013 will be a peak year to view the lights.

Mosquito Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico

While there are a few instances of bioluminescent bays around the world, this one is the brightest one recorded by the Guinness Book Of World Records. Listed as a national natural landmark, the bizarre site glows a bright neon blue due to Pyrodinium bahamense, Dinoflagellates (dinos), living in the water. When these “dinos” touch another organism or are shaken they produce the burst of bright blue light that makes the water glow. Travelers have the opportunity to not just look at the bizarre bay, but also snorkel and kayak the waters.

dead sea

Dead Sea, Jordan/Israel

Along the Jordan and Israeli borders you’ll find the Dead Sea. At 1,388 feet below sea level, its surface and shores are the Earth’s lowest elevation on land. The sea itself is 1,237 feet deep, making it the planet’s deepest hypersaline lake. What’s really amazing about this body of water, however, is how it allows people to effortlessly float, as shown above, due to the high salt content. Moreover, the salt and minerals from this water specifically provide a plethora of health benefits, like helping with arthritis, allergies, skin aging and psoriasis.

Spooklights, Various Locations

Spooklights are bizarre visual phenomena that are often mistaken for ghosts and UFOs. Most sightings happen at night, when people see globes of light in all colors, shapes and sizes. Some explanations for the occurrence include headlights, swamp gas, electrical discharges from tectonic forces, ghosts, aliens and hallucinations. Generally, the word spooklight refers to a bizarre case that occurred just west of Hornet, Missouri in an area known as “Devil’s Promenade.” However the phenomena, also known as Ghostlights and Earth Lights, can now be experienced regularly in certain areas all over the world, for example: the Paulding Light in Watersmeet Michigan, Mafra Lights in Marfa, Texas, St. Louis Spooklight in Saskatchewan, Canada, and the Min Min Lights in Australia.

rock sliding

Sailing Stones, Death Valley, California

Located around Racetrack Playa in Death Valley you can find sailing stones, also known as moving rocks or sliding rocks. These names refer to a geological phenomenon where rocks move without any help from animals or humans along a level surface. The reason as to why this happens is still undecided, but trails left by the stones differ in direction and length, and even texture and design. Because the stones only move every two to three years, it may be hard to see one in action; however, you’ll be able to admire the natural sand art formed by this unusual phenomenon.

Naga Fireballs, Mekong River, Thailand/Laos

The Naga Fireballs is a phenomenon that has been occurring on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia for centuries. Most notably around the time when the Buddhist rains end in October, glowing balls of differing shapes and sizes rise up from the water and disappear. Some are just a few sparks while others are the size of basketballs. While the Mekong gets the most attention for the bizarre occurrence, other bodies of water near Phon Phisai town also experience naga fireballs. There are certain theories behind the phenomenon, like methane gas buildup, surface electricity discharging into a solution and even that the entire thing is a hoax caused by tracer fire from soldiers. If you ask a local villager, they’ll most likely tell you it’s Naga, the mythical snake living in the river. At this time, however, nothing has been proven.


Foxfire, Forests Around The World

Despite its name, foxfire is not hot, nor fire. Notes on this natural phenomenon have been documented since the times of Aristotle, who talked about a light that was cold to the touch. Foxfire is a bioluminescent fungus that sometimes appears on moist, decaying wood, occurring during wet seasons all over the world. For your best chance of seeing it for yourself, get away from any artificial light sources.

Rain Of Fish, Yoro, Honduras

Apparently, it really can rain animals. Each year around the first major rainfall in May through June, still-living fish pour down from the heavens onto one department in Honduras. The phenomenon is said to have been happening since the 1800s, and today is known as Festival de la Lluvia de Peces, or Festival of the Rain of Fishes, complete with a parade and carnival. While scientists are still unsure as to why this happens, certain explanations do exist. Some believe strong winds pick up the fish from the Atlantic and shower them down over Yoro, while others think heavy rains wash the fish up out of their natural habitat and leave them on land. Others cite back to Father Jose Manuel Subirana, a Catholic priest who visited Honduras in the mid-1800s, who prayed to God to feed the hungry people of the area and was granted a sustainable gift.

[Images via Mick Petroff, Shutterstock, Shutterstock, PD, Cas Liber]