Without warning, a flaming ball shoots up out of the Mekong River, blazing against the night sky before disappearing just as suddenly. Scientists still can't explain this phenomenon, but everyone claims to have seen it, and once a year, the riverbanks are lined with hopefuls waiting to catch a glimpse. Welcome to the mystery of the Naga Fireballs, one of Mother Nature’s greatest sleights of hand, and the starring attraction of Phayanak Festivals each autumn in villages along the Mekong where Thailand and Laos meet.
Ranging in size from campfire sparks to basketballs, the glowing orbs have been reported for generations along more than sixty miles of river. Legend named the orbs naga (which means serpent) after a massive snake that heard the Buddha preach and was so convinced of the teachings that it transformed into a monk by day; when it returned to its serpentine form at night, its true nature was discovered. Buddha told the snake that only humans could be monks, but someday it would be reborn as human if it wished. To this day, all would-be monks must first answer the question, “Are you human?”
Though reports of naga fireball sightings occur all year, the phenomenon seems especially common around the same time as the end of Vassa, Buddhist Lent, which occurs at the full moon in October, this year falling on the 16th. For days on either side of the full moon, celebrants gather to drink, eat, and cheer on the unpredictable pyrotechnics.
So what are they really seeing? Some say flammable natural gas heated by hot days and then affected by the lunar gravitational pull. Others claim free-floating plasma bubbles created by surface electricity. Scientists have criticized both concepts, but those theories are no less likely than the claim that the blasts are Laotian soldiers firing from far away (as a TV show claimed) or a dragon blowing bubbles (which children tell each other). For now, it remains an unsolved mystery—and a great excuse for parties every year.
Five Southeast Asia Autumn Festivals Worth Celebrating
- Autumn celebrations got off to an early start this year with Tet Trung Thu (Mid-Autumn Day) in Vietnam. Falling between September and October (September 11 this year), this festive annual day lets kids be the center of attention. Wearing masks—often paper maché animal faces—children parade through the streets after dark, waving imaginatively shaped lanterns, a tradition going back at least 1,000 years. Today's lanterns may resemble birds and tigers like those of old or more modern fancies like Hello Kitty and Pokémon.
- Awk Phansa (or Ok Watsa) in Laos occurs at the same time as the Phayanak festivals, but there’s no mystery as to its spiritual meaning. For the preceding three months of Vassa, during the heavy rains, Buddhist monks fast and meditate in seclusion, so the ending of their solitude is a joyous release. Across the nation, crowds will greet the monks as they leave their monasteries on the 16th, showering them with robes and gifts. Towns and villages light up with parties and parades by candlelight, culminating in the release of banana-leaf boats bearing incense and flowers. In Vientiane and Luang Prabang, bigger vessels will steal the show on the 17th, when boat races draw thousands to the river.
- The entire first week of October in Phuket, Thailand is given over to the Vegetarian Festival. While it does indeed feature all meatless cuisine, it’s gentle only to animals: humans show off their endurance by walking on hot coals, piercing their cheeks and lips with skewers and knives, and even climbing ladders with sharpened blades for steps. It's a spectacle better observed than practiced!
- Rounding out the autumn festival season is Bon Om Tuk in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which celebrates the annual reversing of the current. Each year, the heavy rains of monsoon system raise and lower the levels of water in the Mekong River and Tonle Sap so dramatically that the flow of the current switches. Bon Om Tuk is a public holiday (this year on November 13), with a million people descending on the city for three days of boat races meant to take advantage of the raging, monsoon-fueled waters.
- On the same day in Chiang Mai, Thailand, eyes are aglow—not reflecting fireballs but lanterns. Considered one of the most beautiful festivals on earth, Loi Krathong is a glittering extravaganza with temples and gates surrounded with colored lanterns, floating banana-leaf luminaria, and the release of thousands upon thousands of sky lanterns, as a symbol of letting go of cares from the past year.
Experience the rich traditions and memorable culture of Southeast Asia on our Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam adventure. Glimpse many facets of life in Cambodia in this short film:
Produced by Christophe Hamon