Great balls of fire

A sceptic reconsiders his beliefs or lack thereof about the Naga fireballs

Last Sunday I was determined to witness an annual event that has confounded me for more than a decade.

It was my intention to catch a cheap flight up to Udon Thani in the rural Northeast, rent a dubious but roadworthy vehicle from the airport, and drive two hours to the district of Rattanawapee, Nong Khai province.

Only it wouldn't have taken the expected two hours for the 140km journey. It would have been more like five hours. Maybe 10. That's because it wouldn't have been your favourite columnist making the journey alone on that little two-lane rural road. It would have been me and 300,000 others.

I'm talking about the mysterious Naga fireballs of the Northeast.

Alas, last-minute corrections to my thesis forced a sudden change of plans, and I was left stranded in Bangkok. I could not finally lay to rest the unhealthy relationship I've had with the Naga fireballs for two decades.

In this column in October last year, while talking about Thai ghosts, I touched on the mysterious coloured lights that rise up out of the Mekong River under the cover of darkness.

The phenomenon occurs once a year, during full moon, on an auspicious day called Ork Phansa. That was last Sunday, and it is the final day of the Buddhist Lent.

Because it is a religious holiday, you can't buy alcohol, which is kind of ironic because Ork Phansa is one of the biggest binge-days on the calendar. Lots of people give up alcohol for the three months of Buddhist Lent, and so it's a day to return to the welcoming arms of Uncle Smirnoff and Aunt Tanqueray, or rather, Pee Hong Tong and Loong Eleven Tigers Rice Whiskey.

The province of Nong Khai is as far Northeast as you can go. It hugs the Mekong River. Across the river is Laos, which also awaits the Naga fireballs in anticipation every end of the Buddhist Lent.

As the sun goes down, the weirdness begins.

Coloured balls of light start popping up out of the water from the middle of the Mekong. They shoot up and disappear into the night air. Sometimes they disappear at the surface of the water -- sometimes they shoot metres into the air before dissipating.

Because of the time of year, it often rains. Still the Naga fireballs pop up out of the river, albeit in lesser numbers than if the night sky is clear.

I've had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Naga fireballs. I first learned of them some 15 years ago, when I was doing live morning television. My co-host was an ardent believer, and as he explained the glorious experience, I sat there incredulously.

The fireballs are the work of the mythical Phayanak serpent who lives below the surface of the Mekong River, he explained, who shoots the fireballs up into the sky on the occasion of the end of the Buddhist Lent.

"Surely you don't really believe that," I said, adding, foolishly: "Anyone with an education could hardly believe it." Cut to commercial and, quickly following commercial, crucifixion of your favourite columnist.

Honestly, the level of nastiness directed towards me was unprecedented. There were allegations I was looking down on Thai people and their culture, and of course more vocal members of the Thailand Association of If You Don't Like It Here Then Go Back to Where You Came From (TAIYDLIHTGBWYCF for short) made their voices heard. My scepticism was unwelcome and unfounded. And this was a good decade before this current era of moral outrage over a pin dropping!

Now and again since that incident, I have put forward opinions on the phenomena, but in a far more diplomatic manner. This is not my shying away from a fight or kowtowing to local custom. Wisdom and mediation come with age … but worse, my conviction that the whole thing is a man-made hoax has revealed some cracks in the armour, as I am about to explain.

There can only be three explanations for the Naga fireballs. First, the balls are the work of the magical serpent that defies scientific explanation. You know how I feel about that.

Second, it's a natural circumstance not unlike St Elmo's Fire created by luminous plasma and electricity or even the gravitational pull of a full moon.

Finally, it's the work of clever locals who understand the economic value of a unique light show over a river all in the name of religious belief.

This final theory has been a favourite of mine and is the one that got me into trouble. A former TV station, ITV, once did an investigation of the lights and videotaped a group of men on the Lao side of the river shooting coloured lights from guns on the night in question. I still think their brazen revelations led to the station being shut down, though that may be a little far-fetched.

The reason I so wanted to visit the lights this year was to see them for myself because maybe, just maybe, they could be a natural phenomenon.

First of all, the lights have been around a long time. Fishermen have reported seeing what locals still call "ghost lights" in the darkness of the Mekong River way before local governments attached the myth of Phayanak to them. Also, these lights apparently don't just appear on the end of Buddhist Lent. It's just that we pay attention to them on that night, which isn't the same as saying they only pop up once a year.

The biggest quandary of all is that we are living in the era of digital record. Everything is filmed, photographed and uploaded onto Instagram. People photograph their morning coffee, for god's sake -- what happens when it's an event like weird coloured balls in the river?

And yet despite all this, nobody has captured any hoax perpetrators.

It is also the scale of the operation. Just say I wanted to play a prank on Northeast believers and shoot a couple of coloured lights off the Mekong River. Who knows the specifics of the operation, but let's say I do indeed do that.

Last Sunday night, starting at 6.28pm, the first fireballs were spotted by those 300,000 visitors camped along the banks of the river at Ban Tha Muang, Rattanawapee district. Then, another one was spotted in a different district. And another. And another.

All in all, a total of seventy fireballs shot up throughout the night, and that was in Rattanawapee alone. There were more in the districts of Sangkhom and Pone-pisai. By the end of the night, there were more than 300 fireballs. That's a really big, expensive hoax!

I was willing to sacrifice myself for you, dear reader. I was intent on throwing myself into that gridlocked malaise in order to take pictures and report back about the mysterious lights. Perhaps I was subconsciously looking for closure on a strange cultural event that I have been strangely tied to all these years.

I get the feeling that even if the lights were exposed as a hoax, you would still find the event has followers. Look at how carbon dating disproved the Shroud of Turin, and yet followers still flock to it. Donald Trump can be impeached and jailed, and still you'll have halfwits with buck teeth and asymmetrical eye sockets wearing their red MAGA caps.

No! Wait! I'm not for a minute saying Phayanak followers are like Trump fans! But we will meet again this time next year, dear reader, when I promise to make the journey once and for all. I welcome fellow travellers. Who knows? We might have a lot of fun. It's a wonderful part of the world -- and Nong Khai has the balls to prove it.