Monday, October 5, 2009

Bang Fai Phaya Nark - The Naga Fireballs

Yesterday, October 04, was Ok Phansa here in Thailand. Ok Phansa marks the end of Buddhist Lent and coincidentally the end of the monsoon season. During Buddhist Lent, the Monks are confined to their monasteries and Wats. There is some debate as to the origins of this requirement. One cause is attributable to the need for the Monks to avoid trampling an living creatures while walking about on the flooded lands. The other reason is said to be to prevent the Monks from trampling the newly planted rice during their excursions.

Here in Isaan, the full moon of the eleventh lunar month, marks the celebration of Bang Fai Phaya Nark (pronounced Bang - Fye - Paiyah - Nah). The focus of this celebration are the "Naga Fireballs". This is no small event, the most popular Thai television station, Channel 7, was broadcasting the event live throughout Thailand and Laos.

The Naga fireballs are globes of light that rise up out of the Mekong River and surrounding ponds as well as tributaries to the Mekong. The fireballs are silent, smokeless and have no odor. As the full moon rises above the horizon, the fireballs begin to rise out of the water to a height of about 100 feet. The reddish balls upon reaching their apogee, disappear into the dark sky.

The Lao Loum people believe that the fireballs are caused by Phaya Nagi, a mythical serpent who is also King of the water underworld (reference my previous blog "Go-Go Girls at the Gate ..." dated 10 May 2009.). The fireballs at the end of Buddhist Lent commemorates the fireballs that the Nagas (serphents) created as offerings and entertainment for Buddha upon one of his returns to Earth.

There are several places to observe the fireballs along the Thai side of the Mekong River. Yesterday we went to one of the more popular locations, a town named "Phon Phisai" which is located several kilometers downstream from the border crossing town of Nong Khai. Along the Thai riverbank hundreds of thousands of people sit to await the arrival of the fireballs. We decided to beat the notorious traffic jams by leaving our home in Udonthani around 11:30 A. M. and taking a roundabout route through the small villages set out amongst the rice paddies rather than than more direct route on Isaan's equivalent of the Interstate highway to Nong Khai. Our strategy to Phon Phisai worked like a charm.

We found a place to park the truck one block from the river bank and one block from the Wat over looking the Mekong. We walked the one block to the river and encountered a pedestrian walkway filled with restaurants, food vendors, souvenir booths, and drink booths. On the other side of the pedestrian walkway was the grassy river bank. At some locations there were nice elevated wood pavilions jutting out to close to the water's edge. These locations were already filled with families. Other locations of the walkway were filled with tables and plastic chairs that had reserved signs on them. We found a great place to set up our saht (woven reed mat) to await and view the fireballs.

Built into the river bank was a series of concrete stairs to form stadium seating approximately 6 levels high. Between the last concrete step and the river was a 15 foot high grassy drop off with some scattered bushes to the water. We selected a great spot across from a restaurant that had live entertainment. Our spot had a a little shade which was very welcomed because it was sunny, hot and humid. I sweated from 1:30 P.M. until the truck A/C cooled me off at 10:30 P. M.

We entertained ourselves until sunset around 5:30 P. M. With the setting sun, some of the spectators launched "Khom Fai", Lanna style paper sky lanterns. Khom Fai are tissue paper hot air balloons that rise into the sky from the hot air created by the burning wax or paraffin ring suspended inside of them. They create a very warm light and rise very high into the night. Last night was absolutely perfect for them - still with no wind.

We had been told that the Naga fireballs would be most likely to appear between 6:00 P.M. and 9:00 P.M. I didn't quite understand.

Some scientific people attribute the Naga fireballs to release of methane gases caused by decaying vegetation in the river mud. These scientists also state that these gas bubbles spontaneously ignite was above the water's surface. I did not quite understand.

At 6:00 P.M. I looked up the river towards Nong Khai and saw thousands and thousands of lights coming towards us. I joked with Duang about seeing the Naga fireballs. Shortly later the lights were quickly passing by us. The lights were actually small fires floating upon the river - being swiftly swept downstream by the river current. Now it was starting to make sense. Now I was understanding.

This must be how people can predict that the ball will appear on Ok Phansa night. This must be how the gas bubbles, if that what they are, can ignite. There still remains some mystery in that the river is always swiftly moving at this time of year so the theory of releasing gas from decaying river bottom vegetation isn't full credible.

The flow of floating fires upon the river continued unabated for three hours. While the offerings were floating by, people on the riverbanks - both sides, Thailand and Laos were occupied launching fireworks and fire crackers over the river. The launching of sky lanterns and fireworks filled the night sky with a variety of lights and sounds.

After two hours, we had not seen any Naga fireballs. We were considering leaving at 8:00 P.M. when I noticed something different headed towards us - lighted boats. Earlier in the afternoon we had seen some river boats (similar to pirouges in Louisiana) lashed together with strings suspended from frameworks attached to the boats. The boats were headed upstream towards Nong Khai.

The boats were now floating downstream with the river current. Suspended from the strings were burning candles to create the effect of large floating outlined boats. It was beautiful. After an hour the boat parade was over. We had not seen any Naga fireballs. It was 9:00 P. M. so we decided to head home. Our return strategy was the same as the one that got us to Phon Phisai. It worked well ONCE WE SPENT ONE HOUR in horrendous traffic traveling the two miles to get to the split in the road to Nong Khai and our interim destination of Baan Dung.

We had not seen any Naga fireballs. We don't know if anyone did. But we may have come close, too close ... when we first arrived at "our" spot we went up to a booth under a large shade tree to buy some ice teas. While I was paying there was a small commotion, a small 3/4" by 18" long green snake, was slithering up the tree trunk just behind the booth. Later in the night, there was a group of young men on a saht drinking, singing and having a great time by a lit candle on the ground about 15 feet from us. All of a sudden we heard them yelling, hollering and saw them jumping around. I thought that perhaps one of them had caught on fire and then I saw it. I saw it in the dim light. On the ground slithering towards us in a fairly rapid speed was the afternoon snake. Half way to us, the snake turned and disappeared into the overgrowth where I had been tramping around taking photographs. It was pretty exciting. Perhaps when he gets older there will be more fireballs.

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