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.
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.