Abdul wanted to see the Mekong Lights. He had seen a Thai movie eight years ago called Mekong Full Moon Party. It was a fictional story featuring one of the world’s most fascinating unexplained phenomena: mysterious balls of light that up shoot from the Mekong every year, as the full moon rises on the eleventh month of the lunar calendar. Ever since, Abdul had been saving money and dreaming of the day he would make the pilgrimage to see these lights.
Each year thousands of people gather in a village at the far north of Thailand, just across the river from Laos, during the Naga Fireballs Festival. Videos of the Naga Fireballs on YouTube are always notably unimpressive: just grainy points of that shoot into the air against a black background, and disappear, accompanied by cheers from crowds. But the lights have been documented countless times: people that live in the area doubt their existence no more than they doubt the existence of butterflies.
But nobody seems to knows what causes them. Phosphine gas? Solar rays interacting with ions in the atmosphere? Ball lightning? Free-floating plasma orbs? Phosphorescent bacteria? Optical illusions? Many on the Laos side of the river think it is a hoax orchestrated by the Thai to attract tourists. The Thai think the same thing about the Lao. Skeptics, clinging to their belief in the non-existence of phenomena that science doesn’t yet know how to explain, insist with religious fervor that somebody is a hoaxter. Yet no explanation is convincing.
Locals call them the Naga Fireballs, and believe they are the breath of the queen of the Naga serpents, giant mythical beasts that inhabit a city somewhere deep beneath the Mekong.
Whether the Naga Fireballs are artificial, natural, or supernatural, it is certain that they occur – every year, on the full moon of the eleventh month, on the final day of the Buddhist lent, when Buddha is supposed to descend from the realm of heaven to earth.
The Night Train from Bangkok
The night train from Bangkok rattled northward. The car was hot, humid, and grimy, despite the almost-cool night air flowing in through the open windows.
It was hard for me to completely relax, due to the heat and sweat, the small cockroaches that occasionally scurried around my sandaled feet, distrust in the hygiene of the plastic water glass I drank from, and dust everywhere. But I told myself that I would get used to it.
Abdul sat down across the table from me in the third class dining car. There was no introduction – in this part of the world people sit where there is a place to sit. His face, like mine, gleamed with oil and sweat. He had dark southeast-asian skin, and a round baby-face ringed with unruly curly dark hair.
He immediately started speaking to an older white-haired German who set in the torn, dirty plastic seat bench next to me, working on a pint of Singha beer. Both of them spoke English poorly. They discussed budget travel, places they had been in southeast Asia, where they had found accommodation and how much it had cost, how they got from here to there.
We were all on our way to Nong Khai to see the Naga fireballs. I had read about them years ago in some online article talking about unexplained phenomenon, and was impressed by one thing: that they were truly unexplained. There was no doubt they occurred, and yet there was no satisfying explanation for someone with an open mind. A mystery! In this world of science, globalization, and petabytes of information, where mystery is almost extinct.
I had quit my life as a software architect in Los Angeles a few weeks ago: a life of whiteboards, Trader Joes, tennis lessons, and expensive cocktails in Hollywood bars. I said goodbye to a charming young girlfriend, put my affairs in order the best I could, put all I owned in storage, and got onto the plane. After I got to Bangkok, the second-class tickets in the air-conditioned sleeper train were sold out, so I booked the third-class car – the one with the cockroaches.
Traveling in Bubbles
All travelers travel in bubbles. When I used to travel around Asia on business, I traveled in a business-traveler bubble: coming into contact with virtually nothing of the country and people around me other than the dining-lodging-transportation infrastructure provided for business travelers. My host colleagues would take me out and show me around, certainly, but it was all inside the bubble. Business travelers rarely make friends or truly experience the place where they travel.
When traveling the backpacker scene, I travelled in the western backpacker bubble: rarely coming into deep contact with the actual world I’m traveling through, but almost inevitably befriending other travelers.
To travel without traveling in a bubble is impossible, because if you have managed to completely dissolve the bubble and let the people and environment touch you everywhere, then you are at home, and are no longer traveling.
The backpacker bubble means roughing it a bit, but it can be fun. Everyone is outside their normal routine, making them open to new people and experiences, struggling together to function in an unfamiliar environment. There are rowdy bachelors looking for cheap alcohol, and a good party, spiritual young women on voyages of self-discovery, retired old men making their dollars stretch, and inexplicable, unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime characters like Abdul.
Since we were all in the same bubble, it was normal that we should strike up a conversation as we sat together on that rattling table. The German and I began to talk about the origin of the Naga Fireballs. Then the baby-faced Abdul, without any sort of introduction, his face beaming, pulled out his cheap little generic-asian-brand tablet and fired up a video with a scene from that movie he had seen eight years ago, with English subtitles. In the scene, an eccentric, long-haired, theatrical Thai professor struts about in front of a sophisticated slide show explaining why he has concluded that the Naga Fireballs are manmade. I found the scene entertaining and fitting.
Abdul was not particularly attractive to look at. He was a Malay, but he looked Thai, and surprised the staff in the dining car by failing to understand the Thai language. There was a certain uncouthness that placed him in a rather poorly educated, rural class. He was Muslim, a rarity in the western backpacker world, and that made him a double-foreigner.
He was hard of hearing, and his accent when speaking English was sometimes an annoying nasal mumble. But he would astonish occasionally with his vocabulary and knowledge of the world. And he was a man who felt genuine curiosity and goodwill for the people around him, and his good nature showed through, and everyone naturally found themselves trying to listen through his thick accent, and wanting to help him, and feeling good about themselves for doing so.
Abdul that night could think and speak of only one thing: the Naga fireballs, and how to maximize his chances of seeing them. He explained that the fireballs always occurred within the stretch of the Mekong river within an hour or so of the village of Phon Phisai, but in a different place every year (The queen of the Naga never announced her plans beforehand). Abdul had contacted some locals in the couchsurfing forum, who had suggested a place along the river where there were many fireballs last year, and less of a crowd. He wanted to know what I thought of the odds of catching the phenomenon in this place rather than the standard Phom Phisai, the village everyone goes to. He wanted to know how I was going to get to one of these villages, because he was on a budget. The expense of a taxi was unthinkable for him.
In the morning at the station in Nong Khai, Abdul and I exchanged contact information. Abdul didn’t have a hotel reservation, unable to afford an advance booking with the inflated prices during the festival, and so he was going to go off to try his luck at finding a place in town. He asked where I was staying, and I began to worry that he would ask to stay with me in my hotel, and despite my appreciation for his enthusiasm and good nature, I tried to get away to my hotel quickly, leaving Abdul to fend for himself.
I felt a little guilty leaving Abdul without a place to stay, because I had started this trip resolved to be a different person in certain ways: less self-involved and more open to people. To stop trying to control my environment so much, to be less quick to reject experience that don’t fit with my plans, to just go along with things.
A prolonged exposure to heat, followed by cooling, can change the nature of metal, making it harder or softer, or more or less brittle or conductive to electricity. So I thought that a prolonged exposure to a different environment can make the soul more or less brittle, more or less receptive to new ideas and people and directions. In the last eight years, my soul had become rigid from prolonged exposure to a comfortable lifestyle, hyper-focus in the intellectual realm, a habit of making efficient use of time. I hoped to soften my soul with simple food, simple accommodation, and most importantly the absence of plans and responsibility.
This process, so far, was going poorly. I habitually stayed in more comfortable hotels that put me back in the solo business-traveler bubble. I found myself feeling on occasional emptiness, aimlessness, uncertainty, feeling the weight of slowly passing time that I had been accustomed to pass in the oblivion of concentrated activity. At the hotel, expensive for local standards but still below the standard I was used to, I felt alone, restless, and unmotivated. I was not exposing myself to the soul-tempering process I had intended.
The MutMee Guesthouse
I had heard that the center of the Nong Khai traveler scene is the MutMee Guesthouse. A beautiful, large, rambling garden with tables and hammocks under a series of large thatched huts, looked over the wide Mekong river and northward to Laos. There was good cheap food, cheap rooms, yoga classes, and the British owner and international staff were a friendly font of information about the area.
The guesthouse owned an ancient, 50-foot double-decker boat called the Nagarina. Each year the guesthouse ran a cruise on this boat, running several hours down the Mekong to the festival at Phom Phisai, then returning its load of well-fed and well-drunk sleepy tourist early the next day.
So I hopped in a Tuk Tuk, went to MutMee, and signed up for the cruise.
In the garden, I ran into Abdul, who looked inordinately astonished to see me there. After I explained myself, he sat down across from me and related his progress. He had managed to get a discounted room at MutMee, and had already met a very Italian Italian couple, Gino and Daniella, who were riding a motorcycle around Southeast Asia. They had a side-car, and had offered to take Abdul along with them that night to Phom Phisai. He was very happy at his good fortune, and only doubted whether Phom Phisai really was the most likely area for the fireballs to appear.
I had my lunch, chatted with some fellow travelers, and then went back to my hotel. I told Abdul I’d give him a call the next night and we’d meet up in Phom Phisai, where we both with mounting anticipation expected to finally to see those legendary lights shoot up from the water.
There are more introverts than people think, because introverts pretend to be extroverts.
Any introvert will tell you how much we hate cocktail parties. They are full of strangers, who we must converse with in a falsely-spontaneous sequence of speed-dates. An hour of this can be exhausting. I had the entire day on a boat full of strangers ahead of me.
I had braced for this mentally. For the last several weeks, as part of the process of soul-tempering I had been exposing myself to, I had been exercising spending more time and energy on other people: listening to them, trying to be focused on what they were saying and how they were feeling and what they wanted. I reminded myself that many were also hidden introverts.
I met Julian, the owner of the guesthouse and the boat. Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt in defiance of the sultry air and the casual dress of the guests; bald, polite, with a pleasant sophisticated-sounding British accent. He told me how he had come to Phom Phisai with his wife, and somehow just stayed. He created his own booking system for the guesthouse in Visual Basic. His children commute to Laos every day to go to the international school there. He told me “never buy a boat”.
There was a charming older Dutch woman named Nicolette, now retired and living on the island of Kho Samui in southern Thailand, whom I got along with nicely. There were two young American girls working for the Peace Corps, living with host families in small villages and struggling with lonesomeness, boredome, unfamiliar food, and the burden of being different. There were young British and Australian travellers on a 24-hour party.
There were a group of young Thai people with a tripod and a small camera led by a woman who introduced herslef as, simply, “A.” They had adopted a young bearded British-Australian named Ben, who was to be the lead subject of a documentary they were making about the Naga Fireballs.
I mingled and chatted with guests, ate at the buffet, drank some beer, mingled more. We cruised the afternoon away, passing golden Thai temples glistening in the sun, and large statues of standing buddas and sitting buddas looking down on us benevolently, and fisherman in longboats, who would always wave.
Someone took out a guitar, someone else made bass and snare drum sounds by hitting a speaker case, and others sang. Near evening, the air cooled, the music switched from up-beat to slow and melodious. A pretty young American woman sang “Someone Like You” by Adele, as we slowly passed a beautiful tall standing buddah on our right and the air cooled and the sun set behind us, and I felt happy and at peace.
The boat unloaded its tourists at a pier at Phom Phisai, where the banks were already crowded with thousands of spectators. I strolled through the crowds in front of the stalls selling food and souveniers and chatted with my new friend Nicolette. We sat and drank a beer. We walked into the belly of a gaudy wooden Naga serpant, fashioned to look like a cave inside, covered with glitter and fake jewelry like the entrance to a ride at disneyland.
As the sky darkened, people began to launch lanterns, mini boxy hot-air balloons of crepe paper and wood and a little candle inside. More and more sailed into the air, carried by the wind up the river to our left, higher and higher, until they were a new constellation in the sky. Some locals started setting off small fireworks, and the air sparked and crackled.
Suddenly there was Abdul, boying face flashing a big goofy grin. I introduced him to Nicolette. They seemed to instantly inderstand each other. We walked a little, not needing to talk much, waiting. We leaned on a rail looking out over the dark smoothly flowing waters.
I asked Abdul if he had a chance to set off a lantern. “Not yet” he said, his eyes brightening. The spark in Abdul’s eyes seemed to ignite Nicolette’s. “You want to light a lantern?” she asked with sudden animation. “Wait here, I’ll go get them.”
In a moment she re-appeared from somewhere with three folded up-lanterns, a twinkle in her eye that suddenly explained to me all about who she was and why she was here: because she loved the this country for it’s culture – not because it was cheap and tropical, but for the life and color and beauty of the people. She was delighted to share her Thailand with others who felt the same. We borrowed a lighter from someone, and with guidance from Nicolette, Abdul and I unfolded the lantern, held it from the top while we lit the wick, waited for the lantern to fill with hot air, then let go with a little push, and watched it sail outwards and upwards to join the constellation expanding out over the river.
We sat at plastic chairs under a tent in to eat a local specialty, a whole fish covered with salt and broiled. We peeled back the skin and forked the succulent, savory white flesh off the bones. Several transsexuals sat at the table next to us, occasionally sending smiles and winks my way. This is common in Thailand, and nobody was offended.
Suddenly Abdul’s face light up, and he looked at us enthusiastically. “This fish!” he says, pointing to the fish, “with this sauce” he says, pointing to a little plastic tray, “is heaven!” Nicolette laughed with delight at his delight.
We found a spot to sit on the river bank, and watched the black water, waiting for the lights. Despite the lanterns, the fireworks, and the fishing boats in the water, the Naga fireballs are said to unmistakeably stand out from other lights. The evening wore on, as we sat exchanging an occasional word, waiting.
It was time for the Nagarina to leave back to Nong Khai. We walked back upstream and found the Italians. We left Abdul in their care, and Nicolette and I walked back to the boat to start the long cruise back up-stream.
But Abdul had not given up. He told Gino and Daniella to leave him in the village. He stayed by the river as the hours passed, and all the festival-goers went home, and the street vendors loaded their tables and awnings onto trucks, and it was quiet and dark. He stayed until past midnight, watching the inky black river for any sign of movement or light.
Abdul was alone, disappointed, broke, and now scared, wondering if he had done something stupid and would not be able to get back to the MutMee to sleep. Finally, he went to talk to some people who were closing the last street-vendor’s stand. In broken English he communicated his plight.
They were very friendly. Abdul helped them finish stacking chairs and carry the tents out to a truck, then somebody drove him all the way back to his guesthouse, an hour away in Nong Khai, with the unquestioning generosity of the Thai people.
Legends and Skeptics
Adding to the allure of the legend of the Naga Fireballs are stories of unbelievably large beasts that are sometimes seen in these waters. Wherever you go in the world where there are Thai people – perhaps your local Thai restaurant or massage parlor – you will likely see a photo on the wall showing a dozen American soldiers holding a giant serpent-like fish, over 20 feet long, with the caption “Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973”.
But a soldier in this photo, if you chanced to meet one of them, would tell you that the caption in this revered photo is false – that the great serpant-like creature was found on the other side of the Pacific, washed ashore near a naval base in Coronado, California – a rare, deep-sea dwelling giant Oarfish that for some unknown reason had surfaced and died.
This fake photo reinforces the worldview of those skeptics who love to destroy myths and superstitions, analyzing them like buildings with structural flaws, pinpointing the weak points and making them come crashing down.
But there is a class of skeptic-extremist that fall into the same trap as the overly-credulous, making the facts fit what they already believe. When a story sounds like superstition, they conclude that it is superstition, snatch at the first scientific explanation within their reach, making the facts fit that belief.
Once a TV crew spotted Laotian soldiers sneaking around and firing tracer bullets into the air, and the skeptic-extremist claimed the mystery of the Naga fireballs was solved.
But tracer bullets don’t explain the phenomenon that is observed. The fireballs don’t follow the apparent parabolic trajectory of a bullet. Thousands claim to have seen them, from quite close, exit the water. They may be man made, but they probably aren’t tracer bullets. They aren’t so easy to explain.
In the morning I woke up on a mat on the upper deck of the Nagarina as it labored against the current back towards Nong Khai. Cool air washed over me, and the Mekong reflected the cool pink-blue morning sky.
Back in town, I learned that hundreds of fireballs had been seen the previous night. The locals spoke of the fireballs as something normal – the same way they might speak of a fireworks show on New Year’s morning. From varying vantage points, people reported the same essential phenomeon. It was even on the local news, with precise details of how many fireballs there were this year, and where: over 300 – a good year – near the village of Nampe. Nampe was the village suggested by the locals Abdul had met online – the place he hadn’t gone.
Back at the MutMee, I sat at a table on the veranda. Suddenly Abdul appeared across from me. He told me about his adventures the night before. He was so upset at himself for not going to Nampe. His face, a thin mask over his soul, radiated disappointment. He was already planning to come back again in a few years, when he could afford it.
He went to check out of his room, then kill some time before his bus left to Bangkok that evening.
A Lucky Break
I sat and wrote. A, the woman who was doing the documentary walked by, and we chatted. She told me that she was going out to Nampe tonight. She explained that this year was a “double full moon” – that the full moon by the Thai calendar had been yesterday, but the full moon by the Laos calendar was tonight. So tonight was the night the Laos expected to see the fireballs. Plus the fireballs often appear two nights in a row, in fact sometimes a few appear days before and after the full moon. Then she rushed off, because she and her crew were leaving soon.
Abdul came back. I told him what I’d heard. His face burst into a grin. “Do you want to try to go to Nampe tonoight?” he asked. “Yes”. “How?”
Then A came back. She was hurrying. She said that a couple of her crew were sick there were two spare seats in her van. Did we want to come along?
I asked “Now?” “Yes, but we have to hurry.” I hesitated, because I was busy writing, and eating a nice breakast, it was barely 10am, and what was I going to do all day in a little village while I waited for sunset? I looked at Abdul. His face showed sheer amazement. I remembered the transformation I was trying to induce in my soul, and said “let’s go!” We all rushed out to the van.
The production crew traveled in this decked-out 12-seater Mercedes van, with lights built into the roof that you could turn on when you wanted to party. I don’t know why a film crew had it. We stopped for lunch then hit the highway.
Ben, the British Australian to be featured in the documentary, sat next to me, as we drove past corn and rice fields on the well-paved highway paralleling the river. He expressed an accepting, slightly ironical attitude towards this odd position he’d landed himself in as a subject of low-budget Thai documentary. We talked about his interest in beers and his experiments with home brewing, and the use of lactobacillus and fungi and other microbes in beers. I told him of my experiments brewing Kombucha. We talked about theories of the cause of the Naga fireballs, and agreed no explanation we heard was quite satisfactory. He said he wanted to see them, because things like that change the way he thinks about the world.
We stopped at a roadside stand where girls were selling corn boiled in saltwater, white kernels mixed with black and yellow, chewy and savory and delicious.
After about an hour, the van turned left at a small dirt road leading into the village of Nampe. Small mostly well-kept houses, some wood with corrigated aluminum roofs, others cement blocks. Chickens on lawns, the smell of pigs. We stopped next to an orange-robed Monk on foot, and A leaned out the window and asked in Thai if he thought the fireballs would appear here tonight. He said “definitely”. We parked on a lawn next to the temple, just a few hundred feet from the river, next to several other cars. One taxi arrived with a couple of westerners.
The crew put down some mats on a spot on the cement along the riverbank and went off with the camera to interview some locals. Nampe was quieter than Phom Phisai. We sat and gazed out over the river to the mountains of Laos on the other side. Ben spoke of his travels in Laos, of the city of Luang Prabang in the mountains long cut off from the rest of the world and still steeped in tradition. He said “I miss those mountains”.
Families were gathering along the bank. A group of monks sat under a Veranda to our right. On someone’s yard there was a trampoline with kids playing some game and a radio playing popular Thai music.
The sun set. The full moon rose behind us. Minutes passed, and I started to feel that pang of disappointment. We’d come all this way, but were just not in the right place at the right time.
Then I heard a cheer. People were pointing across the river to the right. I caught out of the corner of my eye a glimpse of a tiny red light. Small, across the river and downstream, maybe a mile away. It didn’t look like anything special. A firework? An airplane?
I looked back at Abdul, and read the same thoughts that were going through my mind. It’s so small. Is that all?
Another cheer. This time I was looking in the right place.
What I Saw
Red lights, moving upwards. They did not glimmer as something burning – they looked just like the red electric lights on an aircraft wing or a radio tower. They each lasted 2-4 seconds. They appeared to originate from a point just above the black hills on the opposite bank. They were far away, I would guess around a mile. They could have originated from over the water or even from the opposite bank. They all rose rapidly, maybe 1000 feet in the air, then suddenly disappeared. They were moving upwards at a slight angle to the right, not vertically. They moved at a nearly constant velocity, though I believe some moved slightly more slowly at the end of their flight than the beginning. Some moved slightly faster than others and these seemed to rise slightly higher than others. They came in groups: 2-4 would rise from the exact same spot, at the exact same angle, then there would be nothing for several minutes. One seemed to flicker at the end before disappearing. I heard no sound.
They moved in a perfectly straight line, with no hint of an arc, or of the parabolic trajectory of a projectile, so familiar to the human eye. If they rose 1000 feet in 3 seconds, they had the speed of very slow bullets. However, in three seconds, a projectile would have decelerated by about 100 ft/s, or in other words be going 1/3 slower than at the beginning of the trajectory. However, deceleration if any was hardly noticeable. If they were objects with mass, it seemed they were being pushed or pulled.
In these ancient villages around the Mekong, astonishing facts blend and tangle with myth. Locals say that when the water level drops in dry years, and they thrust long bamboo poles into the soft silt and mud of the riverbed, they cannot reach a bottom. What is buried under those layers of tropical sediment? What strange thermo-chemical conditions are brewing? What bizarre life-forms thrive?
Not all the Mekong fish stories are fish stories. In 2005, researchers pulled a monster from the depths of the Mekong unlike anything anyone living had ever seen: a 9-foot-long catfish. It was weighed six hundred and forty six pounds – shattering the world record for the largest freshwater fish ever documented. In photographs, smiling researchers look like they are maneuvering a paleolithic prop from “The Land Before Time.”
The explanation for this myth of the Mekong, for the elusive monser lurking in these waters, was that there really was a monster.
Someday, science may explain exactly what causes the Mekong Lights. Then, like the electricity and the sky blazing with stars, they will no longer be a mystery that stirs the soul, but a fact, cold and bland as oatmeal.
But that night, to thousands of Buddhists, they were the breath of the Queen of the Naga rising in spectacular tribute to Buddha. To Abdul, they were a mystery as pure as the stars to ancient man.
As I watched dozens more lights shoot into the sky in comaraderie with the magnificent Thai people, I looked back at Abdul. His face had transformed with happiness. He had realized his dream.