The Naga Fireballs: Supernatural Occurrence, Scientific Phenomenon, or Hoax?

CULTURE | August 15, 2019

Naga Fireballs. Source: (all-that-is-interesting.com)

Twice a year, a few days in May and a few days in October, glowing orbs can be seen rising from the Mekong River in northeast Thailand. No one knows exactly what they are or what causes them. Explanations for the phenomenon range from supernatural to scientific to fraudulent.

Witnesses have described the orbs as reddish-colored “blazing balls of light.” They range in size from small bubble to basketball-sized orbs and shoot up from the water as high as six hundred feet before dissipating. While they most often occur along the Mekong River, there have been reports of them rising from ponds, lakes, and other rivers also located in the Isaan region of Thailand. They occur in the evenings, usually in October or May when the Earth is closest to the sun.

Fireballs rising from the river. Source: (YouTube.com)

Every October, the Nong Khai Province celebrates the Phayanak Festival, also known as the Bang Fai Phaya Nark Festival, which marks the end of the Buddhist Lenten season. The festivities include food stalls, longboat races, light and sound shows, a night bazaar, and the Phon Phisai parade. On the last day of the festival, known as Wan ok Phansa, attendees gather near the riverbank to watch the Naga fireballs rise from the waters.

2018 Fireball Festival. Source: (teakdoor.com)

According to the local legend, the fireballs are formed by the breath of a giant sea serpent, known as the Phaya Naga or just the Naga, which lives in the riverbed and wakes up to observe the end of the Buddhist Lent. But much like the Loch Ness monster, evidence of its existence is limited to questionable photos and unverifiable eye witness accounts. The most frequently offered “proof” is a 1973 photo of thirty American soldiers holding a 7.3-meter sea serpent. However, the “sea serpent” in the picture is most likely an oarfish, which can grow very long but do not have the ability to breathe fire. Other evidence includes an egg and a tooth allegedly found in a Buddhist temple in Nong Khai City.

Soldiers holding giant oarfish. Source: (YouTube.com)

Many have attempted to explain the fireballs using science. A popular theory is the Swamp Gas Theory which is frequently used to explain UFO sightings. According to this theory, the fireballs are formed by methane gas produced by the decomposition of organic deposits in the riverbed. Methane gas bubbles rise to the surface and ignite upon coming in contact with the oxygen in the atmosphere. This theory was first offered by a pediatrician named Manos Kanoksilp, who explained the timing of the phenomenon, stating that the process required the perfect alignment of the Earth, moon, and sun. A similar theory suggests that the fireballs are phosphine gas rather than methane. A third theory identifies the fireballs as plasma orbs formed by the release of surface electricity; however, this theory is unlikely as plasma orbs are a different color and can only be produced through the use of high voltage electricity.

The tracks of two Naga fireballs (at left) rising vertically into the sky before petering out near the top of the photo. The other tracks are of sky lanterns or fireworks. Source: (Wikipedia.org)

Some people reject both the sea serpent theory and scientific theories. They argue that the conditions required for the production of methane and phosphine gas are way too precise to occur reliably at the same time every year. These people believe the fireballs are a hoax to draw a crowd at the Phayanak Festival, thus providing a boost to the local economy. This idea is backed by a 2002 documentary on the program “Code Cracking” during which an investigative team took a boat out on the Laotian side of the Mekong River during the festival. They witnessed Laotian soldiers firing tracer rounds into the sky. Their video was analyzed, and it was concluded that the fireballs were nothing more than flare guns fired from the far side of the river. While the video evidence makes this the most plausible theory, not everyone is ready to write the phenomenon off as a hoax. A varying theory is that the fireballs began as a naturally occurring event but has since been recreated annually for the festival.

Tags: The Naga Fireballs

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Penny Chavers


Penny, besides writing, loves to spend her time with family and friends. In her spare time, she also enjoys playing the piano, board games, and taking online classes on topics that interest her.