When science and spirituality battle it out, sometimes there’s no clear winner. In the case of most Fortean or paranormal subjects, the scientific establishment simply labels their opponents with the blanket term ‘pseudo-science’, and the counter argument is usually that critics are closed minded. It’s not always the case, but often these two pillars of popular culture mix like oil and water, or perhaps…gas and water.
Sometimes the debate goes beyond polite discourse too, and in such cases believers in whatever phenomena can get outright nasty. Such was the case in 2002, following the airing of a Thailand TV show titled Code Crackers, wherein a team was sent by the Thai TV network iTV to investigate the famed Naga Fireballs.
A little background first. The Naga Fireballs are much as their name suggests. They are the focal point of a phenomenon that occurs in late October every year, on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. They are little fireballs that silently rise up out of the river, burning red in colour. They shoot up from the river’s surface quickly, to about a hundred meters, where they silently burn out and disappear. They can occur in the thousands, though some years have recorded as few as 30.
The fireballs are widely known in Asia and are revered in Thailand as a part of the observance of the Buddhist (Thai/Laos) Lenten season. Specifically Wan Ok Phansa, which is the final day of the celebration. In modern day Thailand, the celebration involves huge gatherings of people on the bank of the river, all to watch the fireballs rise and disappear in the heavens. The celebration commemorates the return of Buddha in Naga form, and it is widely believed by Buddhists and others that the Naga Fireballs are actually the breath of a giant sea serpent, a Naga or Phaya Naga, that lives in the riverbed and awakes every year at this time to honour the conclusion of vassa (The three month long season of Rain Retreat or Buddhist Lent).
The Naga, as history buffs and perhaps gamers will find familiar, is the name of a mythical creature, said to be a giant sea serpent or snake (or sometimes a dragon). They have some political significance, as Laotian culture considers them to be protectors of Vientaine (the capital of Laos) and by extension, Laos State, but they are revered by most in the Makong river area of Thailand as powerful magical beasts. Most in the skeptical camp believe that a species of oarfish is responsible for this myth.
This spiritual significance is what, ultimately, led to the unrest among revelers in 2002. The show, Code Crackers, offered a not so traditional view of the Naga Fireballs. Their expose suggested that the fireballs are not the breath of the great Naga, but are in fact tracer rounds being fired into the sky by Laos guards on the opposite shore of the nearly half-mile-wide river. This offended the spiritual beliefs of some several hundreds of thousands of believers, and protests and lawsuits ensued. The TV show was followed by a feature length movie titled Mekhong Full Moon Party, which portrayed the phenomenon and the celebration in a less than flattering light as well.
The notion that the fireballs are not what the devout believe they are isn’t, as you may imagine, without its merits, however.
Scientists, according to many who’ve blogged on this topic, readily attribute the phenomenon to that old stand-by explanation for all things weird and unexplained – Swamp Gas. Though, in this case, they may be right.
To anyone unfamiliar with UFO phenomenon and its culture, the swamp gas explanation says that in marshy areas, organic material decomposes underground producing deposits of methane. Said methane eventually finds its way to the surface, and upon coming into contact with oxygen, it spontaneously ignites providing a brief little light show for anyone who happens to be nearby. Fairly simple chemistry actually.
According to Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, one Dr. Manos Kanoksilp, a pediatrician, theorises that the Naga Fireball phenomenon requires a precise alignment of the sun, moon and Earth, and that the Makong River provides a perfect storm of conditions, regarding methane and oxygen levels combined with ambient temperature, to bring about the fireballs every year at the same time. The Thai Science Ministry apparently concurs, citing an experiment headed by the ministry’s Deputy Secretary, Saksit Tridech. Tridech and his team used equipment to measure conditions during the celebration and apparently determined that the fireballs were the result of built up phosphine gas. Phosphine is manufactured for industrial purposes through a defined chemical process, and it’s not clear how it is generated in nature. Though most believe, similar to methane, it is the product of bacterial reduction of phosphate in decomposing organic material.
Brian Dunning disagrees with the swamp gas theory, however. The swamp gas process described above, based on methane gas, requires highly specific conditions. The right concentrations of methane and oxygen and certain environmental conditions are necessary for spontaneous combustion. Dunning believes it’s unlikely that those conditions can be found consistently on the same date at the same place, year after year. It may come as no surprise that he favours the Laotian guards firing into the sky theory, and suggests that they may be paid to do so by local officials.
Phosphine however, is a touch more volatile than methane, and could account for the Naga Fireball phenomenon, but it too would require special circumstances to be consistent over time.
So we’re left with three apparent possibilities: a giant magical serpent breathing tiny bubbles of fire, swamp gas, or a sort of unintentional hoax (or perhaps intentional).
One of the problems with the above theorising, is that there isn’t a lot known about the fireball phenomenon’s history. Locals claim that it’s been going on for centuries, but there is no record of it. There are whisperings of the Mekong Lights (as they’re sometimes called) being mentioned in sacred writings at the Wat Luang Buddhist temple in Phon Phasai, Wat Pho Luang Phra Sai, and of written accounts of the lights from British forces in the 1960’s but there’s nothing solid to cite. The festival itself is eons old, but it’s not clear if the fireballs have always been associated with it. As such it’s not certain if the Naga Fireballs really do happen every year at the same time. Today, and as a result of a huge boom in Naga Fireball related tourism in the area, the festival is overrun by fireworks, which completely negates anyone actually seeing the fireballs in person, unless one happens to erupt right in front of them.
Nonetheless, there are many videos of the fireballs on YouTube, like the one below – so ultimately, you can make up your own mind.
 Brian Dunning. The Naga Fireballs: What is the source of the glowing balls that rise from the Mekong river each October? December 2009 Skeptoid.com http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4183