Jennifer Gampell
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November 8-9, 2002

Personal Journey: Great Balls of Fire

A Supernatural Serpent Thrills Thailand
by Jennifer Gampell

PHON PHISAI--Thailand
Except for the freak storm that erupted just when mysterious crimson fireballs usually start popping out of the Mekong River, life gave a pretty good imitation of art on Oct. 21 in Phon Pisai. The northeastern Thai townette features prominently in "Mekong Full Moon Party," a quirky Thai film that had its world premiere at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival on Oct. 2. A wacky comedy with serious philosophical undertones, the movie explores various facets of the tradition vs. modernity debate against the backdrop of a homegrown festival called Ban Fai Phaya Naga or "King of the Naga Fireballs."

The centuries-old animist legend espoused by villagers on both sides of the Mekong tells of a huge serpent--Phaya Naga in Thai--with supernatural powers which lives deep under the river bordering Thailand and Laos. Each year on the full moon of the 11th lunar month (the end of the three-month Buddhist Lent), Buddha returns to earth after visiting his mom in heaven. To celebrate, the Phaya Naga sends up ban fai, glowing tail-less balls which rise 165 to 500 feet in the air and then disappear without a trace. An explanatory corollary to the myth says the Phaya Naga creates the fireballs when he releases three month's worth of serpent poison he'd kept stored in his mouth.

Disputing the Phaya Naga theory of fireball generation is the "Weird Science"' contingent. Local scientist Dr. Manas Kanoksin holds that the monk's bowl-sized orbs result from spontaneous combustion of methane gas formed by the decay of riverbed matter. On TV talk shows and in newspaper articles the bespectacled savant attributes their single annual appearance to a unique confluence of the moon's gravitational pull with the earth's distance from the sun.

Meanwhile university instructor Montri Boosaneur (who reportedly led an underwater survey team during construction of the Thao-Lao Friendship Bridge) argues that gas cannot possibly form on the solid Mekong bed. Besides, he says, things don't decompose or spontaneously combust in fast-flowing river water. Creative pranksters are undoubtedly responsible for the phenomenon. For several years the two have debated the topic in run-up events to the big day.

Supernatural or scientific, the fiery little spheres' annual appearance has been an incredible boon to the local tourism industry. English-language newspapers in Thailand estimated total visitors to last year's event at between 100,000 and 150,000. This year, intense promotion by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) coupled with all the film hoopla attracted between 200,000 to 400,000 visitors. In reality as in the movie, Phon Phisai stars as fireball central. Normally the 60-mile journey there from Udon Thani takes about one and a-half hours by car; on full-moon morning this October it took four.

Homegrown Thai festivals are marvelously rowdy affairs and tens of thousands of anticipatory out-of-towners merely ramped up the ambient chaos levels. Throughout the scorching afternoon, strangers wandered the two-street burgh snacking on local delicacies of grilled chicken and salt-encrusted baked fish, or napping in the front yards of hospitable residents. Others shopped for naga paraphernalia: kitschy wooden statues, noisemakers, videos, and intricately woven bamboo serpents. A colorful fair in the town's biggest temple featured stalls selling an eclectic assortment of bras, handbags and traditional herbs. Children at the Sketolene stand crowded around a barker dressed up as a bottle of mosquito repellent.

By 5 p.m. at least a mile's worth of riverbank had been staked out in straw mats and makeshift tents. On the large stage adjacent a riverside temple, monks chanted blessings and local dignitaries speechified until distant drumbeats announced the arrival of the naga parade. With their bare chests painted green, the cortege of ban fai (a.k.a.disco balls) bearers marching ahead of the lone naga float looked more Nubian than reptilian. So did the human naga king and queen seated atop the blue and gold coils of a giant seven-headed pseudo serpent.

Long-time Phon Phisai resident and food vendor Auntie Paopan assured anyone who'd listen that fireballs arise every year, usually starting between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. All that arose at 7 p.m. this year was a gale-force wind followed by an hour-long torrential downpour. (Aged locals claimed never to have experienced such a storm during previous festivals.) By the time the rain subsided to a constant drizzle, the town was a soggy mess. Which didn't deter resolute spectators -- myself included -- from venturing back to the water's edge.

By 8:30, plenty of objects were lighting up the night sky--illuminated barges, flying lanterns, fireworks. But none resembled the three purplish globes that suddenly popped up one after the other on the left-hand side of the river. Rising swiftly to a height of perhaps 15 storeys, they vanished as quickly as they'd appeared, leaving nothing in their wake except the crowd's deafening roar. Fireball watching is highly addictive. A dozen sightings later this skeptical cynic was a convert.

My personal fireball festivities ended around 9:30 p.m. when the heavy rains returned. The thousands of stalwarts who remained would have seen around 175 more fireballs (at least according to figures supplied by the Bangkok Post, which also cited a provincial total of around 800.) These numbers were way below previous years' totals (the TAT website listed more than 1000, 7000 and 3500 for the years 1997 to 1999). Personally, I like imagining how the ancient Phaya Naga engineered both the storm and the spheroid slowdown as a protest against the 21st-century hype that transformed his small provincial celebration into a national event rivaling the Songkran water festival.

In "Mekong Full Moon Party" each of the carefully drawn characters--the traditional auntie, the young doctor, the self-important scientist, the stupid headmaster, the corrupt businessman--represents one aspect of the fireball debate. As an added twist, writer/director Jiri Malikul introduces a philosophical abbot and his pranksterish band of monks who supposedly concoct the bursting balls in their dwarf-like temple factory. There's also a young villager who's moved to Bangkok and returns home for the festival carrying a mobile phone and serious metaphysical doubts about Buddhism, Thai education and globalization.

The movie's magical, feel-good ending (which viewers are asked not to reveal) offers no easy answers to the mystery of the Ban Fai Phaya Naga. And on Oct. 21 in Phon Phisai, "real" life was equally enigmatic.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer

Copyright 2002 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell