Believe it or rot

The 'mystery' of the Naga fireballs may not be all that mysterious if examined with a critical eye, but as Andrew Biggs writes, here in the Land of Smiles, making merry will always trump myth-busting

Last Tuesday night, as the sun went down over the Mekong River in the Northeast, a miracle occurred.

Golden reddish balls of light suddenly popped up out of the river. Inexplicably.

These magic balls emerged from the river's surface and flew straight upwards into the night sky, as if shot out of a gun, before disappearing. In all, some 19 appeared between 6.30 and 8pm, with more sightings further up and down the river.

A miracle! And witnessed by some 100,000 people, crowding the banks both on the Thai and Lao sides of the Mekhong in the otherwise sleepy province of Nong Khai.

The ''Naga Fireballs'' as they are called are an annual event. They are the work of a giant serpent that swims through the Mekong known as Naga.

Last Tuesday was the last day of the three-month Buddhist Lent and to commemorate this, Naga shoots fireballs out of the river up into the full-moon night sky.

It's the only day that the fireballs appear. For the rest of the year, the river is just another lazy waterway snaking its way through Southeast Asia, and Naga keeps more or less to himself, or herself.

Right.

If you have gotten this far down into this column without thinking ''Man, the signs have been there for months but Andrew's finally lost his marbles,'' don't imagine I'm upset with you. It sounds wacky, I know, but those are the facts Thai style.

Let me cloud the issue even further by explaining that Naga is a mythical serpent. But the fireballs this ''mythical'' serpent shoots up into the skies are real, and don't you go saying otherwise or you'll be in deep trouble, mister.

I know. I created a little media turbulence back in the mid-2000s when I foolishly, foolishly made an off-the-cuff remark one day on national TV that ''anyone with any education could hardly believe the lights of Naga''. Cut to commercial.

I know you will find this hard to believe but I wasn't being condescending. Despite willingly submerging myself in the Thai culture, and having a blast doing it, I really had to draw the line at fireworks by the river being the work of a mythical serpent. I naturally assumed everybody else did, too.

My comment provided me with instant enemies across the country and I became persona non grata in the province of Nong Khai, a place I still fear to visit eight long years after, since I heard residents there continue to use pages of my books, especially the illustration pages, as toilet paper.

Hell hath no fury like a Thai Naga apostle scorned.

I was called all sorts of names relating to my hair style and ears and appendage size, not to mention a general call to have my visa recalled and booted out of the country. The Land of Smiles I had grown to love turned on me like a rabid Rottweiler purchased from Chatuchak for a song.

So what was the problem? And what is going on up in Nong Khai?

While it's generally believed these Naga fireballs go back hundreds of years, it is only in the last decade that they have gone from casual phenomenon to glitzy Las Vegas-style event.

It was no accident. What used to be known by locals as the ''ghost lights'' suddenly got dubbed the ''Naga lights'' by the local council in the mid-1980s, and a cult was born. In other words the ''age-old'' tradition is, actually, 29 years old.

Last week you couldn't get a hotel room, not even a ''cricket hotel'' as the Thais call dingy short-term hotels (the insect, dear reader, not the sport). All 4,500 rooms in and around Nong Khai were sold out for the entire week, generating 100 million baht in revenue.

Attendance was up 40% on last year, with no less than 300,000 tourists to the province last week. And in a display of ethereal showmanship, Naga gracefully extended her fireballs for an extra night _ Halloween _ to keep the faithful extra followers excited and interested.

With such a huge amount of money coming in, the real question is: Should we disbelieve it? It certainly isn't in our interests.

The year 2002 was a bad year for Naga and her fireballs. First, a feature film came out suggesting the whole thing was made up.

Nong Khai residents staged rallies condemning the movie when really they should have thanked the film-makers since attendance shot up. As we all know in the media business, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Well, actually, there is. Something else happened in 2002. A new TV station called ITV opened a can of worms.

ITV was created with the specific purpose of presenting news and current affairs to the Thai public, which had up until then been fed a media diet of soap operas and game shows.

ITV went to Nong Khai, crossed the Mekhong and captured on film Laotian soldiers letting off tracer bullets while Thais squealed with excitement at the Naga fireballs from the other side of the river.

Also, the river is 700m across at its widest and light travels faster than sound. When the Thais saw the lights they let out a massive cheer, effectively drowning out the rifle sound.

ITV should have been congratulated for its investigative journalism (the report can still be found on YouTube) but it wasn't. Instead, the reaction was more violent than any fireball shooting out of the mouth of Naga.

The station had to come out and apologise for upsetting locals with their revelations.

Poor ITV. It never really had a chance. In that same year it presented a report of police taking bribes at Bang Na, resulting in a witch hunt not for the cops who took the bribes, but for the person who filmed them taking them.

During the Phuket vegetarian festival of the same year, ITV reported on the bells and whistles the alleged shamans use, including shoving pig's tongues into their own mouths and pretending they were their own before slicing them to pieces.

After a while it was generally decided all this factual stuff was injurious to the mental health of Thais and the station was quickly vaporised. The whole nation went back to its soap operas and game shows.

Three years later I innocently expressed my views that, well, the Lights of Payanak are kinda cute but let's be adults here. While I did emerge from the fracas unscathed, it did drill home to me the essence of the Thai psyche.

Or perhaps humanity itself. It is too horrific to imagine we are simply carbon clusters on a rock spinning around a real-life fireball. We need the weird and mysterious to comfort us, whether it be coloured fireballs or prophets born of virgins. Some of our beliefs wither with time; others evolve into organised religions.

Here in Thailand I rejoice in all sorts of festivals for people and deities who may or may not be real.

I light candles to Rahu, the god in the sky that swallows the moon during an eclipse. During Loy Krathong I give thanks to the goddess of water, Khongkha.

I don't jump up and down and question Rahu and Khongkha's validity. Ultimately we are not rejoicing in that person or deity as much as we are rejoicing in the colour and culture of our collective humanity.

The Naga fireballs taught me a valuable lesson. In Thailand, it is not an issue of belief or non-belief. This is the Land of Smiles, and the locals are into having fun. There is one thing far worse than being a non-believer. And that is being a killjoy.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer