Before I even moved to Thailand, I saw the Thai movie “Mekhong Full Moon Party“. Thinking it was just a lovely Buddhist-related movie with a touching message, I didn’t realize the Nong Khai Naga fireballs the movie showed weren’t just a fantasy but were, in fact, real. Since then, I’ve heard much about the Nong Khai Naga fireballs and the annual Buddhist festival that surrounds them, and I finally came to realize the how hugely important they are to millions of Thais.
If, like me, you’d never heard of this, you’re missing a fascinating story about Thai culture and Thai Buddhist belief,as well as a pectacularly interesting Thai festival.
Every year, at the end of October at the end of Buddhist lent, Nong Khai which is located along the enormous Maekong River in northeastern Isaan, Thailand, experiences an event that, up until today, scientists cannot agree if it’s man-made or natural. What appear to be fireballs emerge from the river and fly up into the sky, disappearing without sound or smoke. Tens of thousands of people come to Nong Khai during a three-day period to sit on the river bank and wait for the fireballs. Known now as “Naga fireballs”, or Bangfai Phayanaak” (บั้งไฟพญานาค) in Thai, many Thais believe the Naga or king of the river serpents or dragons sends them.
Scientists have looked at and studied the phenomena. Some say the fireballs appear as methane gas is released from the river bed at one particular time of the year when conditions are perfect for the phenomena to occur. Others think it may be a human-created hoax. What’s sure is, for Thais the Nong Khai Naga fireballs are a religious and spiritual occurrence — so much so a large annual festival has even sprung up around them.
This year, the Nong Khai Naga Fireballs festival will take place with tens of thousands arriving from all over Thailand and abroad to participate. There are food stalls, fun fair rides, traditional Thai dancing and music, fireworks, boat races and a true carnival atmosphere. Then, as the sky begins to darken and the Naga fireballs appear up out of the water, the cheer goes up and continues every time another one appears.
For a truly traditional, spiritual and magical event in Thailand, you cannot miss the Naga Fireballs Festival in Nong Khai. In 2012, it will take place starting on October 30th, 2012. Head to the Phon Phisai area for the best view and the most fun.