By Lorie Ann Cascaro on October 24 2013 5:59 pm
People swarm into a small village in Vientiane to see the Naga fireballs themselves despite others’ belief that the phenomenon is but a legend
VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 24 Octet) – Somewhere around 7 p.m., visitors and the villagers of Pakngum in Vientiane see hundreds of golden lanterns rising slowly beyond a full moon from Thailand’s Nong Khai province. Between Laos and Thailand, where the Nam Ngum and Mekong rivers converge, an intermittent exchange of fireworks conveys the people’s excitement at seeing the Naga fireballs shoot up from the deep recesses of the river.
Locally known as “bangfai paya nak” and described as pinkish-red fireballs, they surge like rockets every Boun Ork Phansa at the end of Buddhist Lent, says Mr Khamphuan Bouthsingkham, 65, who was the village’s chief 13 years ago, speaking in an interview hours earlier. He says that according to their ancestors, the Naga festival has been a 400-year-old celebration above and “under” the Mekong. “While the human world holds a festival with boat races and fireworks, the Nagas underwater create fireballs to honour the Buddha,” he explains.
Buddhists believe the Nagas are servants of Buddha in the form of water snakes residing in the Mekong River. As Mr Khamphuan imagines, they resemble the structures of dragon-like snakes with golden and green bodies found in the four corners of a small tower inside the compound of the village’s Vat Pra That Yadee Sama Khee Tham Thin Soy. Built in 1570, the temple has a 500-year-old stupa sitting about 50 meters from the riverbank. He points out that the Naga visited the stupa 30 years ago as people discovered its tracks from the riverbank.
The Naga also took a human form, Mr Khamphuan continues. Sometime in 1978 or 1979, a novice monk crossed the Mekong to Thailand before the Naga fireballs appeared and bought two boxes of powder used to make explosives. The young monk has since disappeared, but people believe he was the Naga who used the powder to make fireballs.
The young Khamphuan saw fireballs rapidly emerging from the water and rising up past a big tree before they disappeared. He grew up in a traditional house which is a hundred footsteps away from the confluence of the two rivers. “They came out right from the centre,” he says, and points to an imaginary line in between the two flows. The water from the Nam Ngum is greyish green with a steady flow, while the one from the Mekong is brown and fast.
He has never seen the Naga, but a village fisherman did see it some years ago. Mr Khamphuan tells Vientiane Times that on the day of the festival, the man’s fishing net caught something heavy. Instead of pulling it up, the man was pulled into the river. Thought to be dead by his family and neighbours, the man emerged on the third day after his disappearance and told them about an underwater festival. He was sent back to tell the villagers to honour the Naga by refraining from fishing on Buddhist days, and practicing the precepts of Buddhism such as not telling lies.
The villagers’ strong belief in the Naga and Buddhist teachings might have influenced the emergence of the fireballs. Mr Khamphuan ’s 99-year-old father, Mr Thit Saun Bouthsingkham, says he saw hundreds of fireballs coming out of the river during his younger years. The only one left of his generation, this toothless old man narrates his earlier encounters with the fireballs. He says he could not touch them as they rose so quickly into the sky and there were hundreds of them coming out from the sides of his boat. But, as the environment changes and people’s belief fades, the fireballs seldom show up, he explains.
His granddaughter, Ms Lounee, 28, says she has seen fireballs every year for as long as she can remember. Her two children, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, also saw them last year, she adds. While decorating banana stems with flowers, candles and incense sticks that would be floated on the river later, she says “I expect to see them again tonight,” and smiles broadly.
But 13-year-old Jonas Onthavong from the distant village of Khosaath, who has been visiting Pakngum every year for the festival, has never seen any fireballs. He says he was too busy talking or playing with his friends and didn’t really care about them. Asked whether or not he believes they are real, he looks at the river and scratches his head with his left hand. “Ha-sip, ha-sip (50-50),” he says dismissively.
As the night darkens, everyone waits to see real Naga fireballs while drinking Beerlao and eating tam-mak-houng (papaya salad). Amid whistling firecrackers, a sailing boat loaded with some bubbly locals entertains the hovering crowd on the Lao side of the river. Hours pass as fireworks and flying lanterns continue to amuse the watchers’ eyes. Until, a red light, like a laser point, appears and rises over the silhouette of the dark part of Thailand’s shore. It is too dark and far to figure out if it emerges from the river. The people who see it gasp in awe as the light quickly disappears. A few minutes later, another one appears, coming from the same direction as the first. More people are now looking in the same direction, waiting for another red light to rise. The third one rises after a longer wait. And who knows, how many more red “fireballs” rise that night.
Last year, many fireballs appeared the day after the festival when there was less noise along the river, Mr Khamphuan says, adding that the more visitors there are, the fewer fireballs are seen.
But, the existence of the Naga fireballs remains controversial. Online articles try to provide scientific explanations on how the fireballs could be formed but until then they remain theories. For example, American writer Bryan Dunning said during his weekly podcast, Skeptoid, in 2009 that the “scientific” explanation of the Naga fireballs “is not very scientific at all”.
Dunning argued that there are “two fatal flaws” with the hypothesis that the decomposition of organic matter in the riverbed produces methane gas, which bubbles to the surface, have caused the fireballs. He said “methane can only burn in an oxygen environment within a specific range of concentrations” and “requires the presence of phosphine combined with phosphorous tetrahydride, whose needed proportions are unlikely to be found in nature.” But, he added that even if such conditions did exist in the Mekong, “the combination of oxygen, methane and phosphorus compounds burns bright bluish-green with a sudden pop, producing black smoke” and “under no conditions does it burn slowly, or red, or rise up in the air as a fireball”.
Some people have tried to solve the mystery or prove that the phenomenon is a mere fraud. In 2002, a Thai TV programme showed how soldiers were found on the Lao side firing tracer bullets to produce what those from the other side of the river saw as the fireballs.
Meanwhile, whether or not the red fireballs that people have seen in recent years are actually firecrackers discreetly set off to attract tourists does not matter for Mr Khamphuan . “Why should I care about those stories when I saw the fireballs myself?” Nevertheless, as long as there are still people like the Bouthsingkhams who hope to see them every Ork Phansa, the festival will continue to draw visitors to small villages like Pakngum and let them get to know its humble people.
[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]