Great Balls of Fire!!!

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, October 19, 2007

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." Albert Einstein

Many years ago I heard about the balls of fire that rise out of the Mekhong river each year at the end of Buddhist Lent near Nong Khai. I had heard that they were as big as small cars. No one knows quite why or how it happens. Some believe it is done somehow as a tourist stunt, some believe it is the Naga Spirit spitting the fireballs out, some believe it is some sort of natural release of gases from the river. Either way it has been on my list of things to see for quite a while. This year I was determined to try to get there.

When buying the house recently we discovered that the lady selling the house was originally from Nong Khai. She confirmed that this event happened at the end of Buddhist Lent for a couple days each year since she was a child. So it has been happening for well over 20 years. (Which sort of makes the idea that it is some high tech tourism stunt seem less likely). She told us the dates she thought it would be on this year and I started making plans with Kanchana. (she told us the 24th of Nov).

As with many of Thailand's festivals, the dates are not set and they depend on the moon and other factors. So for tourists trying to get to this sort of event, it isn't going to be straight forward. There is also a lack of English information about these things. So Kanchana did most of the booking and research and it was interesting that even for her it wasn't straight forward. No wonder this has not become a popular event for Western tourists. We spoke to some people in Nong Khai and had to change the dates we were planning on. No one can really say for certain when the fireballs will appear. But the locals know that is seems to occur every year at a date that is partially determined by the end of Buddhist Lent in Thailand and partially by the end of Buddhist Lent in Laos. Now it seemed that the 26th was the best date to see the fire balls.

Anyway, tomorrow we are going to Chaiyaphum and then we are heading on to Nong Khai.

At this point I expected that this wasn't going to be a long post. It'd just record the details of seeing the fire balls and try to describe that to you. But I think it is going to be much more than that. So if you just want to research how to see the fire balls, please skip to the end part, as lots more stuff happened in between.

24 Oct 2550.
Chaiyaphum (about a 5 hour drive from Bangkok)- on the way to Nong Khai we are stopping off in the small village 17 Km outside of Chaiyaphum, where Kanchana grew up. Some-one in her family has died and we need take part in the ceremony (or at least that is what I understood was happening, although I couldn't understand how the dates were so flexible).

We are also taking Kanjana's uncle to Chaiyaphum. He has been staying at our place for the last few days and again been trying to convince his sons to go overseas to work and make better money. They currently live and work in Bangkok.

Thirdly, we are using the trip as a way to clear out some of the junk from Khun Yai's room. She has been collecting all sorts of useless garbage for years. Including things like old newspapers, empty shampoo bottles and occasionally we find things in her room that she has taken/stolen from us. If we tell her it is garbage and to throw it away, she says people in Chaiyaphum want it and she is collecting it for them. So we are taking half a car load of boxes of junk to Chaiyaphum where her sister will store it until after we leave and then it will probably be thrown out.

On the way Kanchana tells me a bit more about her family's history. Originally they came from Korat and it was her grandfather who moved to the area just outside of Chaiyaphum town and started the village here. He worked very hard and produced a successful village and her family originally owned almost all the land around the village. But the next generation, Kanchana's mother's generation, has lost almost all of it due to laziness, gambling, stupidity and ego/showiness/desire for status. Most of their kids (Kanchana's generation) have then moved away from Chaiyaphum and many of them are quite intelligent, hard working and decent people. Strange how the generations are so different. The next generation - I think we are safe that Vava won't degenerate back to the last generation, but Alif????Hmmm, currently he would sadly fit in with Kanchana's aunts at the moment - hopefully he'll grow out of it.

Hmmm, this is supposed to be about the Fire balls in Nong Khai, and it will be, but I need to get the stuff that is happened in Chaiyaphum out of my head first. So skip ahead if you want, as the following is disturbing - or at least it is to me.

Some random background stuff first:
*Kanjana's mum is a little bit mad. (this runs in the family - scary)
*Kanjana's aunt - if they had a competition for non-stop annoying loud talking in the Olympics, she would represent Thailand and probably win gold.
*Both of Kanjana's aunts have built large expensive houses that they can't afford so as to show off. Next to each other.
*Kanjana's uncle is quite poor; he has been ripped off by his sisters when he needed to borrow money from them.
*Kanjana also used to own land in the village but has also lost it to the evil sisters, but I don't know the full story.
*Family is important in Thai society and I would recommend that anyone married to a Thai try to get on with their spouse's family as it is a big thing. I have tried. Remember ages ago I tried to help the sisters and the whole village and the local temple by organising Australian volunteers to come here and help out. But then one of Kanjana's cousins (or was it an aunt?) got greedy and tried to get lots too much money out of the deal. So we cancelled it and took the volunteers to another village nearby which appreciated them more and that ended up really successful. Anyway, I am lucky because Kanjana also doesn't really like her family and their shit attitude much either.
*The Isaan region of Thailand is Thailand's poorest area and prone to drought more than the others. Its culture is close to Laotian, but also sometimes to Khmer and also to Lanna culture, as Isaan is a big area covering borders with all those areas. They (the people of Isaan) are the largest minority group in Thailand.
*Kanjana estimates that up to 10% of the girls from her school went to work as prostitutes in Pattaya or Hua Hin, etc after school. These are girls that didn't need to do that. They didn't do it due to extreme poverty or hardship or needing an operation or any such reason or even because they were tricked or forced. They did it because they are greedy and wanted more. Being a farmer or a farmer's wife wasn't good enough for them, but working hard or studying also didn't appeal. They perhaps wanted to help their greedy parents fulfil their wish for a bigger house and more status than their neighbours by being rich or whatever. Subsequently there are a number of western men living in this area. Typically (and I am the last person who should be generalising about these relationships) the woman married the man for money and status and the man married the woman for her great body and sex. Their marriages aren't particularly happy, the men have little or no understanding of Thailand or Thai culture or language, the girls have little or no understanding of western culture and neither has much interest. They live in big flashy houses that are far away from the Western world but are just as cut off from the Thai world that surrounds them.

Perhaps that is partially why I am simply a farang when I am here. No matter how good I can speak Thai the people in this village will never find out. They assume I am a rich westerner. They assume I can't speak Thai. They assume I can't eat their food. They have small minds and they have already placed me in a box before talking to me and they are not interested in discovering anything different to their preconceived ideas. Kanjana's family here is exactly the same. Often their conversations, that they assume I can't understand, go on about how farangs (the Thai word for Westerners) do this or can't do that, or live this way or whatever. They are basically poorly educated, small minded bigots. But added to that they are greedy and their life revolves around trying to show off more than someone else and get more status. Argh! I try not to hate anyone, but it is hard to remain calm and compassionate to these people. They treat me as a semi human idiot that doesn't know anything. As usual they ask me if I can eat their food, assuming I can't and not waiting for an answer. So I laugh in their face and explain, in my poor Thai, that it isn't just Isaan people that have mouths. All people in the world eat. And as usual I eat their food. I find I cannot wai (the normal Thai way of greeting and paying respect to people) anyone here, as they show no respect for me, so I cannot show any back to them.

As well as assuming I am just another stupis farang, I strongly suspect they judge Kanchana by their own standards as well and assume she has married me for money, greed and a big flashy house.

We take a visit to the market in Chaiyaphum. It is also disturbing. Most people in Chaiyaphum are fat. Seriously. It is definitely more than 60% of people I see that are overweight here. There is a lot in the market. A lot of meat. And a lot of fish that are suffocating to death while waiting to be brought. Surely all this won't get eaten today. These animals have died for nothing, or just so fat people living in what was only a little while ago a poor area that was capable of sustaining itself on a small amount, can now buy too much, stuff their faces, get obese and show off. Argghhhh!!!!

OK, I could go on. But that is enough. I feel slightly better now. Soon to Nong Khai.

25 Oct 2550.
OK, the next morning was more of the same and I am feeling really unhappy about the way I am treated, but I have told you enough about that already. Oh, the funeral service was a general one to remember all the family members who have died in the last 20 years or so, no one has died recently.

Hmmm, just to re-cap. Mainly my experience of Thailand and Thai people is a happy one. Thai people are generally very friendly, very welcoming, very non judgemental.
Here, just outside Chaiyaphum I am confronted by family members that are loud, obnoxious, greedy, bigoted, and totally uneducated - and not due to lack of opportunity - due to lack of interest. They really make me feel unhappy.

We left Chaiyaphum at just after 10am (Khun Yai is staying here a bit longer) and drive Kanchana's uncle to his house about an hour and a half or so away and then continued on the way to Nong Khai. The road was pretty busy and most of it is a flat really boring and tiring drive. There was something I haven't seen before. Large groups of Thais on their motorbikes/scooters travelling as a group and carrying small bags. I think a group of uni students or something going to see the fire balls and camping along the way. Interesting as I have thought about riding my motorbike to Vietnam, and by the time you get to Nong Khai you are more than half way there.

Anyway we finally arrived at our accommodation at around 1700 Hrs. It is nice. Just simple - a couple of rooms in a nice Thai style house. We started to collect and clarify the information that we have been able to get so far:
*The Laos and Thai end of Buddhist lent happen at the same time - which makes more sense.
*There is still some discrepancy as to how many days the fire ball phenomenon occurs for each year, but most people are saying it happens for 2 days each year - but others say that it can happen for more. I think the 2 days is more accurate.
*We checked up on where and when to see the fire balls. We, at this stage, are planning on getting to a position inside Wat Tai at 3pm. The fire balls should start appearing around 6pm and will be finished by 11pm.
*It seems people are still not 100% sure of when the event will occur. Seems most likely tomorrow, but if not then the next day or the next day. But basically it should normally happen on the full moon at the end of Buddhist lent which is tomorrow.

We drove into to Phon Phisai to do a recce of the area and found that it was crowded and in a festival atmosphere. Tomorrow night it will be very crowded.


26 Nov.
Wake up and head into town. Thellie and Pookie arrived late last night from Chiang Rai and we will meet them in town. First we go to Sala Kaew Ku Sculpture Park. Good. Interesting. You can see some of it in the pictures.

Then into town. It is very busy. We eventually catch up with Thellie and Pookie and have lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant and then head to our accommodation for quick showers and then to Wat Tai. All this is about 45km West of Nong Khai town and from the information we have been given, this is the best place to see the fire balls.

Oh, speaking of information, now we are told again that the Thai and Laotian Buddhist Lent are on the same day this year, but sometimes on different days.

I am still pretty exhausted from the driving and still in a bit of a bad mood from the Chaiyaphum visit. I don't know why, but they really disturb me. A few other things are going on. Like it has become obvious that the Thai military coup was almost a waste of time. The politicians are now squabbling for power again and it seems pretty clear to everyone that they aren't at all interested in making wise decisions to help the Thai people. World politics is pretty much the same. It is extremely clear that the world's environment is in need of urgent attention, but it is clear that the elected leaders of the world represent the rich businesses and the short term profits of those businesses are their main concern. So some of this makes me depressed. And with people like those I saw in Chaiyaphum, I feel there is absolutely no hope for us. :-(

Oh, the other thing that makes me feel uncomfortable. There are almost no trees here. Nong Khai is much better than Chaiyaphum and it is mainly Chiayaphum again that disturbs me, but driving across Isaan - there are very few trees. Just farmlands and citites and towns. There are very few forests. So much of Isaan has been cleared for farming. It re minds me of Australia where they have also cleared so much of the country to apply European farming techniques to a country that cannot handle them. Or perhaps Easter Island, where they removed every single tree so as to build pointless monuments. Isaan as I mentioned suffers from droughts. I wonder how much of these are caused by the human deforestation? People here just haven't known when to stop. I really can't say Isaan is poor. I saw Mercedes and BMWs in Chaiyaphum. They are poor at managing their resources. They are poor at sharing. They are poor at making good decisions. They are poor at living modesty as part of the natural environment. But they are not poor in the common use of the word, except through their own mismanagement. And if they are waiting for the government and "leaders" to fix this and show them the way - they will be waiting a long time, as the politicians only care about grabbing for power and money. Hmmm, and leaders - well actually both the Buddha and the King of Thailand have taught people to live modesty and not want too much and care for the environment. But the people have ignored them. Instead when they get money they chop down more trees, use more chemicals, buy more golden statues of Buddha. Eventually this area will be arid and farming will not be possible and eventually it will be uninhabitable by humans.

Anyway - back to the fire ball stuff.

Anyway, the area around Wat Tai is very crowded. I am concerned about Kanchana in this crowd and with all the travelling we have done. But anyway we find a seat and sit and wait. I have a bit of a chat to Thellie and clear my head of some of the work stuff that is related to Mirror Foundation. That is useful as my brain is a bit full. Then we continue to wait. There is a big crowd and it is quite loud. There are fire crackers being let off and boats going up and down the river. We feel a bit like we are the only people here that are interested in seeing the fire balls, as mainly everyone else seems busy eating and drinking and having a party. Actually it doesn't feel at all that any special natural event is going to occur here.

We have been consistently told that the number of fireballs that appear depend on the health of the environment. But here it is a crowded mess. I don't really understand. I like the ability of Thai people to relax and have fun and not be too serious. But why do they need so much noise and rubbish to relax? And is this really the place and the event to be acting in this way???


Now as I mentioned - it is crowded here. There are kids and families and just in front of us there is a tent and a mum and baby. There has been some people floating lanterns into the air and some firing off firecrackers. They are pretty, but I don't really know why they are doing that now, when we all are trying to see natural or mysterious fire balls. Then one of the university professors from Rajabat Uni in Chandrakasem lights a lantern from just behind us a bit. He lets it go. There is no wind where he is, so it floats into the crowd. It almost hits Kanchana. I push it into the seated row of people behind us though as I assume it'd be better to burn and kill rich people than us. That was probably a bt unfair, but I am pretty unhappy that someone almost killed my wife in a painful way. I go to pick up the burning lantern as I want to shove it in the guys face. But strangely enough it is hot. So I put it down and yell at him and make it quite clear that what he did was very dangerous and very stupid. I point out that there are children in the crowd. There is no where for us to run if he sets us on fire. I think my message is pretty clear. Even a half wit would understand now that it is not acceptable for him to light a lantern and let it float into the crowd where it is likely to kill someone.

Kanchana tells me that he was probably doing it to wish for luck or money or something. Great. More greedy stupid people to deal with.

About 10 minutes later, I look around to see this same idiot lighting a new lantern. I go to him and grab some water and tip it on his lantern. I am tempted to punch him in the head, but putting out his lantern should suffice. But no. He still doesn't understand. He wants to light it and he say there is no problem. His idiot American professor friend tries to tell me that this is Thai culture and I should let him do it. Arghh!!! They are waving a red flad at a bull. I really really want to punch the crap out of them. If it is Thai culture to be a bloody idiot and endanger people's lives for your own greed, then I am in the wrong country. I want nothing to do with this crap.

Please note if you are a student at Rajabhat Uni Chandrakasem- at least two of your lecturers are amongst the stupidest people on the planet. Kanchana feels pretty bad about that as that is where she got her first degree from and her teachers were good.

Anyway, Thellie reminds me that punching then will make our group enjoy the night less, which I know. So I abuse him and a bit more and throw more water on his lantern so as he can't kill us and I sit down.

We wait a couple more hours. The crowds start to disperse. We wait longer. We have all come a long way to see this, but really we are all feeling that nothing is going to happen.

Eventually we leave, drive Thellie and Pookie back into town as they are going back to Chiang Rai tomorrow and then we finally get to bed pretty late. We are due to go back tomorrow but I don't think I could drive home tomorrow. So we may as well try to see the fireballs again.


27 Nov 2007

Wake up. Tired and feeling a bit sick.

Today we go into town. I want to check email. My work now is largely done by email and sometimes people contact me at very late notice wanting to volunteer. We also noticed a museum in town the other day and want to see it and learn more about the fire balls. We eventually find the museum. It is closed and looks like it has been for a while. We then look around for an internet shop. We eventually find one. It is run by a woman that is married to an American. It seems quite clear by the way the woman dresses and speaks and the way her husband acts that she is an ex prostitute. Another staff member is dressed in the same way and telling an old white man on a video chat line about how much she likes to have sex with him. He is clearly currently in another country and she is clearly not at all sincere. The American guy is talking to another old American guy that has another prostitute in tow about getting a driver's licence in Thailand and getting visas and residency.

I am feeling tired and sick. I have been treated like crap in Chaiyaphum. Someone who is a university professor tried to set my wife on fire. No fire balls appeared and any wonder - the people treated the whole thing like a circus and paid no respect to the natural environment. And now more people that are not of the highest decency nor the highest intelligence are here in front of us, showing off their wealth and talking about how they can get things that we'd find it very difficult to get. Hmmm.

I am starting to wonder why I bother doing the work I do. Why bother helping people? I am wasting my time. It seems that so many people are ignorant, greedy arseholes that are destoying the planet and destroying their own culture and society. What is the point of me trying to help people? I am feeling pretty unhappy.

Anyway - we finish in town and head back out to Phon Phisai. We try to find out more information about what we can expect and we also find a new location to see the event. A couple of km back towards Nong Khai from Wat Tai.

in the afternoon we go and set up our spot and we sit and wait. It is not crowded here. There is a little noise and some fire crackers set off, but nothing too much.

We wait and watch and Alif who is totally incapable of sitting still for 30 seconds wanders around.
Kanchana goes to the toilet.
Then someone says they see one. I miss it. Another appears Vava sees it.
Then another and I catch a glimpse. It is small. About the size of a tennis ball I reckon. And it is a long way away. It seemed to fly off at an angle, not directly up, but I am not sure if my bearings were right. That is about all I can tell you.

Kanchana missed them. A bit later on. A bit closer to us , she sees a smaller light rise up. But it comes up much less than the others did. I glimpse that as well, but not really see it. Was that another one??? We don't know.

We wait around a bit more and then go home.

That is it.


28 Nov

OK. Wake up, pack up, go. This trip has cost a fair bit in petrol and accommodation and has it been worth it??? Was it worth it for Thellie and Pookie to travel all the way on the bus from Chiang Rai. In some ways no. I wouldn't recommend it. But in other ways, it is worth having adventures like this and chasing down amazing events and experiencing them for yourself. As it turned out the fire balls raising from the river weren't really that amazing from what we saw. I still have no idea about them. Hmmm, I suspect that they are gas as many others have suggested, but?????

Should others come and see them? I would probably say no. Very few seemed to have appeared this year. And if they are natural and from gas trapped in the river bed that for some reason ignites in the moonlight at this time of year - it seems there is a chance that they won't occur in the future. There is much pollution in the river, boats, the river is dredged sometimes during droughts to let boats through, the Chinese and Laotians are building dams - the natural system that has caused the fire balls (if it is that) is under a lot of change. I don't have much hope for the event continuing.

When we stop for dinner we find a Thai paper that has a story on the fireballs. My opinions start to change. It says this year there were 66 Bang Fai (the fireballs) in all the areas. This year Ampur's Ratanawaapbii, Phon Phisai, Thaabor and Saengkhom had Bang Fai. Ratanawaapbii had the most. There they came at 1815 hr. Only 2 at first, but then 5 minutes later many more.
Last year Ampur Ratanawaapbii had 100 out of the 273 for that year.

The paper also said that the area at Phon Phisai was too noisy and too much light and too many people. They said there were too many motorbikes and too many young people doing inappropriate things. Hmmm, at least we aren't the only ones to think that. And it wasn't just young people.

So that is very interesting. I wish we had that information before. Hmmmm. I still feel that the future of the event is in doubt. I am in no rush at the moment to drive all the way to see them again. But it would be good to see more of them and see them closer. So if anyone is thinking about it, they should avoid Wat Tai and go to Ratanawaapbii.


We got home pretty late. Very tiring. Alif has stolen some money from Vava and lied about it. :-( All of us are a bit sick. I have lots of emails/work to catch up on. And worst I am still feeling unhappy / depressed about the world and Thailand and people in general for the next few days.

I eventually get over it. But I suspect I should never go back to Chaiyaphum.

I have included below the Bangkok Post article that appeared the day after we got home also to give you more info:

Naga fireballs event fails to impress eager crowds
Holy serpent only released 67 this year

By Mongkol Kannikar

The Naga fireballs phenomenon left spectators somewhat disappointed on Friday night as only 67 fireballs were spewed by the Naga from the Mekong River this year, compared to the hundreds that can normally be witnessed in the yearly event.
From dusk till dawn, curious visitors descended en masse on the banks of the Mekong River as it snakes through the districts of Sangkhom, Tha Bo, Phon Phisai and Bung Kan, and Ratana Wapi sub-district of this northeastern province, thought to be the best locations to witness the natural phenomenon.
The fireballs spectacle, which has left scientists scratching their heads in disbelief, occurs around the full moon of the 11th month of the lunar year, or at the end of Buddhist Lent.
According to local legend, the fireballs are discharged by a Naga, a mythical serpent in the Mekong River, to celebrate the return of the Lord Buddha from heaven at the end of Buddhist Lent.
According to an unofficial report on FM 90.5 MHz radio station, altogether 67 Naga fireballs were counted in the sky this year. The first one was witnessed in Ratana Wapi sub-district around 6.10pm. Observers at Wat Tai in Phon Phisai municipality found the event extremely disappointing this year because not a single fireball was disgorged from that part of the river.
Ratana Wapi sub-district this year saw 43 Naga fireballs, the highest number, followed by Phon Phisai (16), Sangkhom (5) and Tha Bo (3). Last year, a total of 301 fireballs were observed.
More than 20,000 visitors, both local and foreign, also flocked to Khong Chiam district of Ubon Ratchathani to get a closer glimpse of the mysterious spectacle, where 27 flares were seen.
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paul on

Negative attitude?
I am sure someone will write to me and tell me that I am no good for writing the things I have in this one. But I have just recorded what I saw and felt. If you don't like it - join the club. I don't like it either.

I have met some amazing people in Thailand. In fact in my short life in Thailand I have met more inspiring, talented, compassionate, wise people than I did in my long time in Australia. Thailand is capable and deserves much better that what I saw was happening. It is sad.

paul on

A little after this trip, one of the girls that had volunteered and lived in a small village in Chaiyaphum, that I arranged, contacted me to say that they had been talking to their 'family' in Chaiyaphum and were planning another visit. Even the girl's mum in Australia had learnt a little Thai so she could speak on the phone. So anyway, that made me feel very good. Clearly the people in that village left a very good and happy mark on the volunteers and they have continued to be in contact years after. So it is a good reminder that there are some very nice people there also.

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