Thailand's Nessie

BY FOONG THIM LENG, The Star (Malaysia), December 25, 2004

Nong Khai, Thailand -- The story of Paya Naga, a legendary, serpentine monster, is often told in Nong Khai, Thailand. It is the local equivalent of Scotland?s Loch Ness monster, and every year, thousands of people gather on the banks of the Mekong in Nong Khai, north-eastern Thailand, as well as across the river in Laos, in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Paya Naga.

<< Spectators waiting by the Mekong river for the fireball display said to come from the Paya Naga. 

The Thais and Laotians celebrate the Buddhist Lent on a separate date once in three years. 2004 was such a year, and so the event known as the Bung Fai Phaya Naga (or the King of Naga Fireballs) was celebrated this year on Oct 27 in Laos and on Oct 28 on the Thai side. 

Every year the occasion is marked with the launching of boats illuminated with thousands of candles on the river. It is said that during this time of rejoicing the mythical naga would emerge via subterranean caverns in the river to join in the celebrations that commemorate the homecoming of Lord Buddha. 

The story goes that Lord Buddha ascended to the Heavens to offer sermons to his mother during what would later become the beginning of the Buddhist Lent, returning to earth later when he was done. 

So on Oct 28, I joined a group of friends on the banks of the Mekong River, in a village named Ban Ta Muang in Nong Khai, half expecting to catch sight of the mythical monster so widely depicted in motifs in places as diverse as temples and hotels, palaces and offices. 

We had heard on television earlier that 400,000 people had poured into Nong Khai the day before for the festival. Not wanting to be squeezed out of a good vantage point, we arrived as early as 3pm to stake a claim at the location of our choice. This was despite the fact that the naga was not expected to start shooting any fireballs until six in the evening. 

Our viewing site was a stretch of concrete steps in front of a restaurant. A plastic mat had been placed on the steps to mark it as taken. I learnt later that the guide had paid the restaurant owner 500 Baht (about RM50) to book the place. 

All along the road there were hawker stalls selling barbecued fish and prawns, skewered chicken, sausages and dried squid. Another group had booked tables by the riverbank for dinner and rounds of Singha beer as they awaited the fireballs. 

When the first fireball went shooting into the sky at 6.40pm, euphoria broke out. Unfortunately, I missed it completely as I was lost in my own thoughts and was beginning to doubt the whole thing. Sitting on the hard concrete steps which had been heated up for hours by the afternoon sun did not help my concentration either.

There was nothing for it but to wait for the next ?magical sight?.

From where we sat we could hear voices and songs coming over the river from the Laotian side, adding to the din of Thai pop songs blaring from the roadside stalls on our side. Little ferries ran back and forth between the two countries.

A representation of the Paya Naga >>

On the river, many wooden boats shaped like Thailand?s traditional royal barges were adorned with thousands of tiny candles while fireworks lit up the sky on both sides. Suddenly, a red ball of light the size of a tennis ball rose vertically about 50m for some three seconds. This had the crowds roaring in jubilation. 

Then another fireball shot into the sky but the cheers turned to jeers as it began to fall back to earth, indicating that it was just a rocket. By the time the sixth fireball rose from the middle of the river directly in front of me, all the cynicism in me had been dispelled. I got on my feet and cheered along with the crowd.

Our group counted 15 fireballs by 11pm, after which we broke away from the crowds to avoid the massive traffic jam that would surely ensue on the highway.

Scientists on both sides of the border claim that the Naga fireballs are globules of methane and nitrogen created by decomposing organic matter trapped deep beneath the Mekong. When the balls break the water?s surface, they self-combust and remain alight until they eventually run out of fuel and fade. This, they said, happens on the day when the sun is nearest to Earth.

The findings have, naturally, been disputed by Nong Khai residents who see it as an attempt to discredit their miraculous tradition and portray them as superstitious country bumpkins. 

Among questions the residents ask are: Why are the fireballs seen rising only from the Mekong River in Nong Khai? Why do the fireballs come out as balls and not as random plumes of gas? How can decomposed matter become trapped in a flowing river?