The Naga Fireballs

What is the source of the glowing balls that rise from the Mekong river each October?

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Paranormal

Skeptoid #183
December 08, 2009
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The Baigong Pipes
The "Queen of the Nagas" photograph, as sold throughout Nong Khai
(Photo credit: U.S. Navy)

During the full moon every October along the Mekong river between Thailand and Laos, an extraordinary spectacle takes place. A great river serpent winds its way through the darkness, spitting glowing fireballs hundreds of feet into the air. The display is greeted with loud cheers from tens of thousands of spectators cramming the riverbanks. This is the Phayanak festival: The welcoming of Lord Buddha as he returns to Earth at the end of the Buddhist Lent, by the great river serpent, the Naga.

According to mythology, the Naga is a gigantic hooded snake. It's prominent throughout Indian and southeastern Asian cultures. It's often believed to be an actual physical animal, but with a supernatural spirit, and many people in the region honestly believe that the animal does live in the local waters. One Naga stands out: The Phayanak, or King of the Nagas. Its role varies somewhat among the different cultures, but generally, the Nagas are benevolent servants of Buddha. On the 15th day of the 11th Lunar month, which is a full moon that usually falls in October, the Phayanak festival is held. Its center is the Nong Khai province of Thailand, and ground zero, where the fireballs ascend from the river, is the district of Phon Phisai, a small village on the bank of the Mekong river.

Evidence for the existence of the Naga is frequently put forward. There's a photograph widely sold throughout Nong Khai purporting to show a group of about 30 American soldiers holding what appears to be some sort of giant sea serpent. The photograph is titled Nang Phayanak, and the caption reads:

The Queen of the Nagas seized by American Army at Mekong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973, with the length of 7.30 meters.

In addition, a Buddhist temple in Nong Khai city, Wat Pho Luang Phra Sai, exhibits some objects that it says are fossilized bones from a Naga, such as a tooth and an egg.

But it is the fireballs themselves that have attracted all the attention, both skeptical and believing. You can see YouTube videos of the fireballs taken during the festival. They are orange specks that streak skyward from way out over the water, rising to a height that's hard to judge but appears to be at least several hundred feet over the course of about three seconds before fading out. As each appears, the crowd reacts like crowds everywhere watching a fireworks show, with appropriate "oohs" and "aahs".

There is both good news and bad news for those who wish to attend the Phayanak festival to witness the fireballs. The good news is you are absolutely guaranteed to actually see them with your own eyes. The bad news is that what you'll see are simple fireworks, shot skyward as a tourist attraction. But even though today's fireballs are a harmless festival show, there is no basis for establishing that this is the source of all such fireballs throughout history. Anecdotes persist that the fireballs are still visible at other times of the year and at other locations along the river, and many people say that reports of sightings date back centuries. However this belief that the Naga Fireballs are ancient seems to be merely a locally held understanding; it does not appear to be reliably documented prior to the middle of the 20th century.

In 2002, a television network called iTV sent a crew of investigative journalists to find the source of the fireballs during the festival. On the program titled Code Cracking, the team took a boat and snuck quietly up the Laotian side of the river, directly across from Phon Phisai, during the festival. They filmed Laotian soldiers firing tracer rounds into the air, and every time they did, the crowds on the Thailand side of the river reacted with their "oohs" and "aahs". The broadcast was widely perceived as an attack on a sacred belief. Lawsuits and boycotts were threatened against iTV. But, as the saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

In 2001, an estimated 150,000 people attended the festival. Following the iTV report, and a movie from that same year called Mekong Full Moon Party, attendance rose to 400,000 the following year. This brought in 50 to 100 million baht, or as much as 2.5 million dollars, a huge boost for the tiny local economy. The festival has expanded from one day to four days, and the generous Nagas have thoughtfully expanded their fireball performance, now welcoming Buddha on two consecutive nights instead of just one. The wooden seating was replaced with concrete grandstands all up and down Phon Phisai's riverfront in 2003, and the local provincial authorities and the Tourism Authority of Thailand now promote the festival relentlessly. There's even a sign, in English, on the main highway:

Welcome to Nong Khai Province on the Bank of the Mekong River - Home of the Naga Dancing Fire Balls.

The theory that a few palms might be greased to get a few Laotian soldiers to fire off a few rounds should surprise no one.

However, not many people in the west watch Thai television or movies. Virtually any article you read about the Naga Fireballs offers the same "scientific" explanation, which in fact is not very scientific at all. It's just the only one any of these authors have heard, so they go ahead and repeat it. This explanation is familiar to UFO researchers: Swamp gas. It's usually given a scientific-sounding description, having to do with the decomposition of organic matter in the riverbed. This decomposition produces methane gas, which bubbles to the surface. It's a fact that methane can spontaneously ignite when it comes into contact with oxygen (given certain conditions), and the story goes that such bubbles appear, burst into flame, and go shooting up into the sky.

However, there are two fatal flaws with this hypothesis. First, methane can only burn in an oxygen environment within a specific range of concentrations. It can only spontaneously ignite within an even narrower range, and requires the presence of phosphine combined with phosphorous tetrahydride. The needed proportions of these gases are unlikely to be found in nature. Second, in laboratory experiments designed to replicate the conditions needed for spontaneous ignition, the combination of oxgyen, methane, and phosphorus compounds burns bright bluish-green with a sudden pop, producing black smoke. Under no conditions does it burn slowly, or red, or rise up in the air as a fireball. So even if the improbable conditions did exist in the Mekong river, the resulting display would not look like the Naga Fireballs.

Nong Khai's main proponent of this natural explanation is a pediatrician, Dr. Manos Kanoksilp, who has made the study of the Naga Fireballs his passion. He believes that the precise conditions require an alignment of the sun, moon, and Earth. He also believes that this particular part of the river is especially high in oxygen (it isn't) and that it's sufficient to spontaneously combust the methane because the sun heats the water to a hot enough temperature (it doesn't).

Whatever is shooting up into the air, you've got to figure that it has some solid mass. When you watch the videos you can see that the red-orange lights go up very fast, consistent with fireworks, small rockets, or even tracer rounds (very much like a 12-gauge shotgun tracer round, which is comparatively slow). How is it possible for any flaming object to move that quickly through the air without blowing out? That's not a problem for something like a firework or a tracer round, things designed for exactly such a purpose. But it's a major problem for a burning ball of gas, which has an insufficient mass to drag ratio to move that quickly through the air. Even a pyrotechnic explosion that billows into the sky rises at a slow rate consistent with hot air rising through cold air; it does not and cannot streak like a bullet at hundreds of feet per second. For the Naga Fireballs to move as they do, they must enclose an object significantly more massive than the air they're moving through. This necessarily means they're heavier than air. And since they're rocketing skyward, this means they must have been physically propelled.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

So, from what we can observe, it's actually more plausible that a river dragon is spitting flaming balls of dragon-mucus skyward, than it is for the Naga Fireballs to be naturally produced burning gas bubbles.

Would you hear fireworks or gunfire? I doubt it. The river there is 700 meters wide, or about a half a mile. It takes sound 2.5 seconds to travel that far, by which time all 400,000 spectators are screaming. Combined with the loud music and amplified announcers, you're not hearing anything that someone's not shouting directly into your ear.

And then there's that photograph of the American soldiers holding the Naga at a secret military base. With a little elbow grease, it's possible to track down the actual source of the photograph. As it happens, this picture was first published in a 1996 issue of Ocean Realm, by a Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist at UC San Diego who was one of three called by the US Navy to come and examine a 23-foot oarfish found by a group of SEAL instructors on a beach run at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, CA. The account was later written up in the April, 1997 issue of All Hands, the magazine of the US Navy. The photograph was taken by Lt. DeeDee Van Wormer. This particular oarfish was pretty beat up, and appeared to the Scripps scientists to have met its fate at the business end of a boat propeller.

While sightings of the oarfish are relatively rare, their distribution in salt water is worldwide. Fresh water, like the Mekong river in Laos? Not so much. A Google image search will turn up many such photographs of groups of people holding great long specimens. No mystery here, and no giant sea serpent or military conspiracy needed to explain the photograph on sale in Thailand; and also, not evidence of a river serpent.

The lesson to learn from the Naga Fireballs is that, while the historical folk explanation of such stories is almost certainly fictional, the popular "scientific" explanation reported in mass media is often just as wrong. We saw the same thing when we discussed the popular waterspout explanation for frogs and fish falling from the sky; and we see it again here with swamp gas offered as the cause of the Naga Fireballs. When you hear a report of a supernatural phenomenon, the reporter often offers a scientific explanation. It may be right in many cases, but whether it is or not, you should always be skeptical.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Carstens, J. "Seals Find Serpent of the Sea." All Hands: Magazine of the US Navy. 15 Apr. 1997, Volume 1, Number 960: 20-21.

Cohen, Eric. "The Postmodernization of a Mythical Event: Naga Fireballs on the Mekong River." Tourism, Culture & Communication. 1 Jan. 2007, Volume 7: 169-181.

Dow, J. "Mekong Full Moon Party (Movie Review)." Heroic Cinema. YesAsia.com, 18 Jan. 2003. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://www.heroic-cinema.com/reviews/mekong>

Gagliardi, Jason. "Behind the Secret of the Naga's Fire." Time.com. Time Inc., 17 Nov. 2002. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,501021125-391567,00.html>

Gampell, J. "Personal Journey: Great Balls of Fire - A Supernatural Serpent Thrills Thailand." Asian Wall Street Journal. 9 Nov. 2002, Volume 6, Number 12: 16.

Smith, William Leo. "Oarfish: A Glimpse into the World of the Abyss." Ocean Realm. 13 Nov. 1996, Volume 4, Number 2: 28-29.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Naga Fireballs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 8 Dec 2009. Web. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4183>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 25 comments

Buzzkills skeptics are. In a world where seeing is believing, and the childhood beliefs in believing is seeing have been extinguished, leave at least one phenomenon to the human imagination. And if the Naga is but a mere figure in Buhddist and Hindu mythology, let those who still believe, continue on believing. Science cannot explain every natural occurance, no matter how hard we try. Let the believers of all fantastic beings be, for there may come a day when future generations cease to believe in us.

Jen, PA
December 29, 2011 9:31am

Jen, I'm sorry but that's totally ridiculous. Obviously people are free to believe what they want, but to say Science should leave off investigating natural phenomena so that people can continue to attribute them to supernatural causes? Some of us actually care about reality. And by the way, Science doesn't smother the imagination; rather it encourages it. Scientists have managed to map the human genome, to capture images from deep space, to learn so much about ourselves and our universe. I can't think of anything more fascinating or stimulating to the imagination. And future generations ceasing to believe in us because we don't mindlessly embrace fuzzy ideas with no evidence? Yeah, I'll take those odds.

Leigh, Fayetteville, NC
February 06, 2012 8:29am

There is no need to manufacture myths and fantastical occurrences to inspire imagination. The real world contains more than enough marvels to wonder at - if you can't see this then you aren't paying attention.

Laura Herndon, McDonough, Georgia
February 21, 2012 11:05am

I have heard, the US soldiers Killed & ate that Naga & after that they all died.
Is it true?

Nov, Yangon, Myanmar
May 20, 2012 9:51pm

Nov, as I have asked Macky... why not spend ten minutes of research and find out for yourself?

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 07, 2013 8:18pm

So I've actually witnessed this phenomenon in a remote part of Laos, and while I don't believe the folk explanation, I don't think what the author wrote here is correct either (at least not everywhere). What I saw looked nothing like the video posted here. The balls I saw started from a little bit over the river (generally the middle), moved significantly slower, and they floated in an erratic pattern. Even if fireballs are faked some or most places doesn't mean they are being faked everywhere.

M, Seattle
January 28, 2013 10:11pm

Damn, I suddenly looked as if I was posting to myself.

Maybe I was having a heretic moment

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 4:58am

I don't get it. Why would you come to a website called skeptoid then complain about somebody attempting to debunk such things? If you wanna believe your magic tales, that's fine, go do it in peace. Even if I saw it in person and didn't believe it, I'm not gonna seek out the person closest to me to tell them how it's a big pile of fake crap. That's stupid.

Frostbite, Skepticville
August 04, 2013 7:58pm

Going to motivation is in fact a fallacy practiced here quite often Frostbite.

I would note that people revisit events and their memories seem to get a lot richer.

Discussion only makes thee worse.

Court witnesses are a classic example. No wonder folk think judges are a different breed. They have to try and sort the facts out fairly.

Now the motivation fallacy becomes an examination of motivation in legal matters.

In the case of Naga, its clearly an animist originated story. I wonder a lot about how these develop and how it impacts on local religions. Animism remnants are to be seen in current religions that are supposed to be monotheist(ic).

Some things appear to never change.

For those who dont like snakes and think snake mythology is just giving them too much credence..Snakes have been venerated by nearly all cultures as wise, eternally youthful and a symbol of our own fecundity.

Its no surprise we see them where ever we read..

By the way, that photo of the "queen of Naga" looks very non serpentine.. Looks a lot more Oar Fish-ine.

A big one but a good possibility - one of the Oar Fishes

Wish I wore my glasses when I first read this.

Mouse Drip, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 26, 2013 7:27am

Adam failed us, we still have those damned scales in our eyes.
The less you try to explain things, the more unexplainable things you will see.

jtuaim@gmail.com, Cleveland, Ohioi
October 08, 2013 5:01pm

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