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Naga Fireball: Glowing Orbs that Enlighten the Mekong River in Thailand

BY Arnav Mishra August 22, 2018
Naga Fireball

Naga Fireball launching from the Mekong river. (Thailand Tourism)

The Naga Fireball is a phenomenon in which bright glowing orbs emerge across a considerably wide stretch of Mekong River near the province of Nong Khai in Thailand. Every year, thousands of these ‘fireballs’ varying from the size of a fist to a basketball emerge from the river waters and rise up quickly as they burn, just to form a beautiful spectacle for the thousands of tourists who flock there every year to witness it. While there is no accurate estimate of ‘what heights’ these fireballs rise to, people have reported seeing them rise as high as 800 meters up in the sky.

The strange-but-beautiful phenomenon occurs during late October. While the reason behind the fireballs is certainly not clear, both science and spirituality have taken two different stances.

What does the legend say about it?

According to the folklore, this is the time for the ‘Phayanak’ festival. This festival marks the return of the Buddha at the end of the Buddhist Lent. According to the common mythology, a powerful yet benevolent river serpent, ‘Naga’ wakes up every year this time to welcome Lord Buddha. As a result, people say, these fireballs are nothing more than the breath of the Naga. Nagas are giant snakes, quite commonly mentioned in several mythological texts throughout the all of South-East Asia including the Indian sub-continent. The ‘Phayanak’ is the king of Nagas.

The festival of Phayanak is held on “15th day of the 11th Lunar month, which is a full moon that usually falls in October, the Phayanak festival is held” reports Skeptoid. The locals are more than willing to tell about their childhood stories when they managed to see the ‘Naga’ swimming through the river waters.

A photo of 30 US soldiers holding a long sea creature that looks like a giant snake is in circulation in Nong Khai, minting a handsome amount of money to the locals. This photograph is often posited as the evidence of the ‘Phayanak’ or the ‘Naga’. The photograph is titled ‘Nang Phayanak’ and its 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.”

The famous photo that circulates claiming it to be 'Naga'.

The famous photo that circulates claiming it to be ‘Naga’. (Wm. Leo Smith / U.S. Navy)

How do scientists explain this phenomenon?

While this folklore sounds really enchanting, it isn’t really that convincing. After all, we live in the 21st century and science has backed several such phenomena with principled explanations based on reasoning. Science has tried to use the theory of ‘Swamp Gas’ to explain this phenomenon. According to this theory, the organic deposits on the riverbed of the Mekong river decompose, releasing ‘methane’ gas. Methane is volatile in nature. As a result, when it comes in contact with oxygen, it ignites, forming the ‘fireballs.’

Despite being a true theory, it requires a special and elaborate set of conditions to take place. There is a specific alignment of the sun, the moon and the earth that causes the oxygen levels near the surface of the river to rise up to abnormal levels, igniting the pockets of methane that are released. When these conditions are again met in the month of May, the fireballs can again be seen rising up. This is not a universal or official explanation, but a widely accepted one. This explanation is refuted by some claiming that the Mekong riverbed doesn’t offer ideal conditions for methane to rise up the surface.

There’s another similar explanation that insists that a gas rises up to the surface of the river and then ignites when it reaches (the) surface. However, in this case, the gas is phosphine, not methane. Phosphine is a gas similar to methane, just a bit more volatile and reacts similarly with oxygen. However, phosphine is not a naturally occurring gas. Theorists suggest that the bacterial decomposition of the phosphate deposits along the river produce this gas, they are not quite sure why, but, this argument still seems plausible.

Is the ‘Naga Fireball’ phenomenon just a hoax?

While all of the above theories create a buzz, none of them creates a controversy. Let’s talk about something more controversial. In 2002, an iTV documentary claimed that the fireball show was a ‘hoax’. The Mekong River also borders Laos. The team of the documentary named ‘Code Cracking’, silently travelled to the Laotian side of the river on the night of the festival. After crossing the river, they found that it was Laotian soldiers who were firing the tracer rounds in the sky. The fireballs were nothing but just fireworks whose sound was masked by the happily cheering crowd on the Thailandian side. The people who saw the clip also started to believe that the fireballs phenomenon was rigged and that there was nothing mystical or special about it. It was just a simple show of fireworks.

When the documentary was aired in 2002, it created controversy and faced severe criticism. Surprisingly, the subsequent year, Thailand witnessed a 166 per cent rise in tourism with 400,000 tourists flocking to see the ‘fireballs’ compared past year’s number of mere 150,000. This sudden burst of 250,000 people brought in revenue of 2.5 million dollars.

Going back to the photograph of the ‘Nang Phayanak’, it was clicked by Lt. DeeDee Van Wormer.  The ‘giant snake’ we were talking about is a just a giant Oarfish that U.S Navy SEALs managed to come across during a beach run in Coronado, California. Oarfishes live in salty waters across the world. It is quite rare to spot one but several people have done so.

We don’t know which theory is true and should be believed. But interestingly, while this festival has ancient roots to it, we only find written records of Naga Fireballs as late as the 20th century; there is no written record prior to it.

Enjoyed this article? Also, check out “Tunguska Event and the Vulnerability of Our Universe“.

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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