Occurring often in the cool nights in late October and early November, the Naga Fireballs are mysterious glowing balls of bright red light that explode from the muddy waters of Thailand’s Mekong river. Locals call the phenomena the Mekong Lights or Naga Dancing Fire Balls and describe the lights as reddish in color and varied in size from mere sparkles to basketball-sized balls of fire. The red glowing orbs shoot from the water quickly and rise silently to around 600 feet in the air before disappearing. The number of fireballs reported varies between tens and thousands each year.
The Naga Fireballs of Mekong are typically reported over a 300-mile-long section of the Mekong river centered around Phon Phisai in Amphoe Phon Phisai but occasionally appear in smaller lakes, rivers, and ponds in the region. The cause of the fireballs is unknown but several theories have been proposed.
Naga Fireballs of Mekong theories
One explanation for the Naga Fireballs proposes swamp gas which is formed as organic material decomposes underground producing pockets of methane. The methane eventually finds its way to the surface, and upon contacting oxygen-rich air, spontaneously ignites producing a brief burst of flaming gaseous bubbles. Dr. Manos Kanoksilp theorizes that the Naga Fireball phenomenon requires a precise alignment of the sun, moon and Earth, and that the Mekong river provides a perfect storm of conditions to bring about the fireballs every year at the same time.
Similar to the swamp gas theory, some believe the Naga lights are flammable phosphine gas generated by the river’s marshy environment. Thai Science Ministry’s Deputy Secretary Saksit Tridech and a team of scientists used special equipment to measure conditions around the river and proclaimed that the fireballs were the result of built-up phosphine gas. Phosphine is manufactured for industrial purposes through a carefully orchestrated chemical process, but it’s not clear how it could be generated in nature. Similar to methane, it is theorized to be the product from bacterial reduction of phosphate in decomposing organic material.
Other scientist posit the Naga Fireballs are a type of free-forming plasma orb, created when surface electricity is discharged in the river’s waters. Skeptics however, note that such plasma orbs would require enormous voltages which would not be present in natural conditions.
Other theories for the mystical Naga Fireballs of Mekong
Others disagree with natural-occurring explanations for the Naga Fireballs noting that phosphine gas is heavier than air and the Naga objects appear to have mass which requires physical propulsion to shoot from the water. They note that the objects do not rise slowly but veritably explode from the water and shoot into the air.
If you ask locals what they think the lights may be, they will explain the legend of a serpent-like creature called Naga that spits fireballs as it travels through the waters. In fact, the phenomena has become a part of their culture and incorporated in the annual Buddhist (Thai/Laos) Lenten season celebrations. The celebration commemorates the return of Buddha in Naga form, and it is widely believed by Buddhists and others that the Naga Fireballs are actually the breath of a giant sea serpent, a Naga or Phaya Naga, that lives in the riverbed and awakens every year at this time to honor the conclusion of vassa (the three-month long season of Rain Retreat or Buddhist Lent). As supporting evidence, locals offer a 1973 photograph that shows a group of American soldiers holding what appears to be some sort of giant sea creature that was fished from the river.
Locals say the lights have appeared rising from the Mekong waters for many centuries. One American travelled to Nong Khai to witness the lights during the annual Naga Fireball Festival himself. He wrote:
“I went to Nong Khai and Phon Phisai where the spectacular Naga light fireball festival was in full swing on the Mekong river looking towards Laos. I was in Phon Phisai on Saturday night October 7 for the anticipated fireball display. The human part of the light show – fireworks, rockets, large fire balloons, fireboats etc – was in great evidence, but when the Naga fireballs started emerging, they were strikingly different to the easily discernible human displays – very straight vertical flights out of river to a great height and then disappearing after a few seconds. Each appearance was greeted with a huge roar from the thousands of people lining the river at every vantage point along the Mekong.”
Check out the collection of Naga Fireballs of Mekong photos in the pictorial gallery below.