Great Balls of Fire! The Naga Fireball Phenomenon

Around the full moon at the end of the Buddhist Lent in October, tens of thousands of people make the trek to a cool, misty expanse where the mighty Mekong River marks the border between Thailand and Laos. They’re there to witness firsthand a phenomenon that has been observed for at least 100 years – the mysterious Naga Fireball. A conclusive explanation of the event has yet to be agreed upon. During this event visitors say that one can see balls of light shoot up from the river, rising high up into the night sky along a 250 km stretch east of the Laos capital Vientiane and Thailand’s popular border town of Nong Khai, which sit near each other on opposite sides of the Mekong. Some years, people will see hundreds of Naga Fireballs in a night, other years only a dozen or so across many nights.

Naga Serpent
A ceremony honouring the seven-headed Naga Serpent.

Legend says that the fireballs are produced by the Naga, a large mythical serpent that features prominently in Laotian mythology and culture, but for years skeptics have been trying to find an alternate explanation. In 2002 a Thai TV program claimed that the fireballs were produced by tracer fire from Laos. This was furiously refuted by local villagers on both sides of the river who were both offended at the insinuation that the Naga doesn’t exist, as well as the suggestion that they were trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Another explanation says that the fireballs are a result of flammable methane or phosphine gas generated by plant and animal life on the river bed, or even some sort of bioluminescent creatures flying off into the sky. But no matter which explanation you buy into, the only thing that’s for sure is that there’s been no definitive scientific explanation of the phenomenon either way, despite experts and high-tech equipment making the rounds every year.

Naga Sunset
Just one more reason for a party. Waiting for the sun to set and the fireballs to rise on the Thai side of the Mekong River.

Although the mysterious light-show has been happening for decades, it’s only since the early 1990s that people have begun to throng to the best viewing areas along the river banks, eating, drinking, dancing, and socializing in a Thai version of a tailgate party. Indeed, some savvy (unscrupulous?) people sometimes set off fireworks to the great delight of the crowd, no doubt keeping the masses there to cheer, and wait, and spend money. [Tweet “This year’s Naga Fireball event on the Mekong River takes place Oct. 27-29.”] This year’s full moon will be on Tuesday October 27, 2015 and the viewing will be its best from October 27 through 29. The Smiling Albino team here on the ground in Bangkok can assist you with planning your travels around any of these unique Festivals found throughout Asia. If you’re in Thailand or Laos in early October during the full moon, go take a look and see if you can explain it. Let us know what you come back with, because we’re not sure either!