The Nongkhai Fireballs
It was the long weekend in October in Thailand and as usual there’s a lot of talk going on around the breakfast table. Mr. Lek* was visiting us while we were here staying at my sister in law’s place near Tha Bor. I soon figured they were organizing something, in the way only Thais do. Their hospitality involves them organizing what you will do and then telling you after it’s all organized.
Then my sister in law told me we were going to see the Nongkhai fireballs. She asked if I had heard of them. I looked at my wife strangely and asked her to explain. She explained in her simple English that balls of fire shoot up out of the river. I’m thinking yeah, sure. On top of that I had my usual Singha beer hangover and thought this all sounded crazy. In any case, they were packing the beer and sticky rice etc, so I thought that it would be an interesting experience. The trip up to Nongkhai wasn’t so far, so no problem.
Early afternoon we jumped in Mr. Lek's pickup loaded up with provisions and took off. We drove for about two hours it seems, way past Nongkhai to tambon ————-.
I noticed the traffic was fairly heavy for a rural area such as this. Eventually we turned off the road into a wooded area. There were cars parked everywhere and there was a makeshift market near the river. We had a feed of sticky rice and naam sitting on the back of the pickup, washed down with those oversize cans of Heineken beer. We then wandered down to the river, the place was crowded with people and there were even big cement steps like we used to sit on to see the football back home. The houses backing up to the river were doing well charging 3 baht to use their toilets. I soon figured we had got there early to get a seat, so we spent the hours until sunset talking, drinking beer and eating, as you do in Thailand.. There were a lot of boats on the river and a para-glider buzzing the crowds and every now and then we’d see activity on the Lao side of the river.
After dark some beautiful boats went past absolutely covered in lights punctuated by occasional fireworks from the Lao side. Also, there where perhaps 50 or more of the airborne lanterns floating up into the sky, a beautiful sight to see.
I was getting a sore butt and was a bit inebriated by now and nothing much was happening. All of a sudden there was a big cheer and my wife asked “did you see that?” I was unfortunately looking upriver and missed it. OK, time to focus through my beer goggles, so I just stared at the river for ages then there it was! A beautiful orange coloured ball shot up out of the river. I’d estimate 30 or 40 feet high then it was gone in a matter of seconds. Again everyone cheered. We saw maybe another four or five before we went home.
There has been some media speculation that the fireballs were just tracer fire from the Lao military on the other side, but I can categorically say that they’re not, just these beautiful perfectly round orange balls that last about 3 to 4 seconds then are gone. The people up here have apparently been seeing these phenomena for centuries. Their folklore says it’s to do with a giant serpent that lives in the Mekong River.
The scientific theory for this phenomenon involves prehistoric vegetation deep under the riverbed which sometimes releases methane and other gases which escape through the riverbed at the strongest full moons in the year and ignite when they contact the air.
One of the Bangkok newspapers reported that the weekend we were there, there were around 200,000 people along the riverbank. Judging by the traffic on the way home, they might just have been right. There were police all along the road home and they directed all the traffic away from the area down both sides of the road. Anyone coming the other way just drove along the shoulder of the road.
About halfway back, a lot of my Heineken wanted out so we pulled up where there was some vegetation and I staggered off the side of the road. Unfortunately, the vegetation hid quite a steep slope and I went crashing down the slope and nearly landed on a couple of Thai ladies having a squat. They just giggled and continued on. Modestly, I made my way over to a bush and took care of business. Amongst all this my Thai brother in law, who is about 50, decided he was sleepy so he just crawled into the back of the pickup and went to sleep.
Just to digress a little on the character of the Isaan people, I have to say about 15 years ago my brother in law found out that he could buy fans in Thailand for 200 baht and sell them in Laos for 500. Well, he got busted by the Thai navy crossing the Mekong in his tinnie. He managed to get out of it with a slap on the wrist and decided that he’d better try a different way of making a quick buck!
Anyway, as Stick says, there’s not a lot up there to occupy your time, but, if you have good family or friends there it’s a great place to visit. My in-laws have hearts of gold and cannot do enough for me. The Nongkhai fireballs are well worth a look if you have the time. Best time is the long weekend in October. Be aware however, that there is no absolute guarantee that you will see them.
* Name changed to protect the innocent !
200,000 people? Yikes! Still, it sounds like a fascinating event and if one was in the neighbourhood at the time, it would be worth checking out for sure.