Many people have heard of or believe in the water creatures known as Naga, and say there is evidence indicating their presence in the Mekong River.
In particular, on the night of 15th day of 11th month in the Lao lunar calendar at the end of Buddhist Lent (in 2003 it fell on Oct. 10), an extraordinary phenomenon occurs in the area of the Mekong River stretching over 20 kilometres between Pak-Ngeum district, about 80 kilometres south of the Lao capital Vientiane, and Phonephisai district in Nong Khai province, Thailand.
According to descriptions going back over 100 years by peoples on both sides of the river, at the end of Buddhist Lent something strange happened in the middle of the Mekong River. What they saw was a pink-red fireball appearing to rise and float into the sky at height of about 10 to 20 metres, and then disappear.
Everyone had doubts about this extraordinary occurrence, but later ccepted what they knew as facts about the fireball: that it was not staged by humans, but happened naturally. So from then on, villagers on both sides of the river called this phenomenon the Naga’s Fireball. They believe that Naga under Mekong River shoot the fireball into the air to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent, because Naga also meditate during this time.
The Naga animal appears to have been associated with Buddhism for a long time, going by the statues of Naga in temples. In addition, the Naga was a servant of Lord Buddha in his last life and there are many pictures and statues of Lord Buddha meditating under the shade of Naga’s head, which means the Naga was the Lord Buddha’s bodyguard.
Phrakhou Silitham Phakhoun, an abbot of Jomnang temple in Phonephisai district, explains the legend of the Naga. “Once upon the time while Lord Buddha was sitting, meditating under a big tree in the jungle, a young Naga came to ask him if he could be ordained as a monk, but Lord Buddha did not agree because Naga was an animal and could not be ordained like a human. But despite the fact that he was not ordained, the Naga volunteered to be a bodyguard of Lord Buddha, hoping to study Buddhism.”
Like the Naga’s story, that of the Naga fireball is also associated with Buddhism.
An abbot at the Pak-Ngeum temple describes the history of the phenomenon. “A long time ago there was a couple living in Pak-Ngeum village. They earned their living by fishing in the Mekong River all day and night, during Buddhist Lent, and even on Buddha days. This disturbed the Naga King who meditated under the Mekong River. He told this couple not to catch fish and kill other animals on Buddha days, defined as the eighth and 15th days of the Lao Lunar Calendar because it was a sin, but the Naga asked them to meditate instead.”
“In response to and out of respect for the Naga, all villagers in Pak-Ngeum and nearby villages along the Mekong River did not kill any animals for food on Buddha days. In addition, the Naga King asked this couple to hold boat processions on the Mekong River to mark the end of Buddhist Lent; at the same time the Naga in Mekong River shot fireballs into the air so they could celebrate together. From then on, the phenomenon of the Naga’s fireball existed in the Mekong River at the end of Buddhist Lent.”
Now each year, Lao and Thai peoples in Pak-Ngeum and Phonephisai districts mark the end of Buddhist Lent. Community and religious leaders urge young people to bring banana trees and bamboo to make a fireboat. The boat, decorated by candles, flowers and flaming torches, is placed in the Mekong River and released on the night of the end of Buddhist Lent. The sight is quite beautiful. On that night, people on both sides of the river flock to watch the boat going down the river as well as to enjoy the phenomenon of the Naga’s fireball.
However, the Naga’s fireball does not only appear in the Mekong River, but also in the ponds and rice fields. On the Lao side, people say they can see the fireball floating in the area of the ponds and rice fields near their villages. On the Thai side, the fireball shoots up in a pond locally known as Nong Pra Lay, residents say.
The phenomenon of the Naga’s fireball may be strange to outsiders, but it has long been normal for locals, because they see it every year and pass information about it to each other. But these days, Thai officials have been announcing this event through mass media including radio, television and newspapers. When news of the Naga’s fireball spreads, people are interested in and want to see it with their own eyes. It has become interesting also for foreigners.
Thus, at the end of Buddhist Lent each year, Lao, Thai, and foreigners flock to come and see this phenomenon in the evening. This causes mammoth traffic jams that stretch over 50 kilometres on the roads along Pak-Ngeum and Phonephisai districts in both the Lao and Thai sides of the Mekong.
Now that the Naga’s fireball is well-known, many people have expressed their views on what they think the ‘truth’ is behind it. Some talk in terms of science, others believe in the ways of culture.
One scientist said: “The fireball is caused by an explosion of gas deposited under the Mekong River, and it happens at a certain time of year.” Another source said: “It is not gas under the Mekong River, because the bottom of the river is sand where gas cannot be deposited. The fireball is staged by humans.”
Uncle Phoh, 93, the most elderly of the residents in Nong Khiate village where the Naga’s fireball appears a lot, said: “I have been seeing this phenomenon since I was a child and I call it the Naga’s fireball in accordance with what my elders told me. It happens naturally and no one stages the event.”
Uncle Kohmen, a 73-year-old native of Phonephisai district, said: “The beliefs about the Naga’s fireball held by the Phonephisai and Pak-Ngeum people on the other side have been inherited (through the generations) for a long time and it is part of their lives. The important thing is that such a belief does not trouble anyone.”
Seventeen-year old Saovanee Suwanarod, a student of Chumphol Phonephisai secondary school, remarked: “Belief does not always need to be proven in scientific terms.”
But Souksakhone, a 23-year-old native of Pak-Ngeum district studying at the National University of Laos, observed: “It does not matter that I still call this phenomenon the Naga’s fireball, because I have seen it since I was a child. The scientific explanation has not been absolutely proven. According to the explanation of scientists on Thai TV programmes (in 2002), it is only guesswork and there are still doubts about it.”
Whatever causes it, there is no question that the Naga fireball is a legend born in Mekong River and has long been part of the culture of the peoples on both sides of the river.