Every year, thousands of Thais flock to the Mekong River in Nong Khai to witness glowing red “fireballs” allegedly shot into the sky at dusk by a mystical underwater serpent.

As with Santa Claus, everyone knows the giant naga isn’t real. But who wants to spoil the fun by trying to prove it?

Welcome to 2021, where drones and social media have combined to help poop the party held every year on Auk Phansa, the end of Buddhist Lent in late October.

The Phisucn Bangfi Phyanakh (“Proof of Naga Fireballs”) page on Facebook sparked an uproar after it claimed that the fireballs actually come from 10 Laotian villages – not an immortal submarine snake – shooting flares into the sky to fool stupid Thais.

Thais were quick to respond with how smart they were by flying drones above the river and using their onboard cameras to photograph Bang Fai Phaya Nark (“Naga Fireballs Festival”) to catch the Laotians up to their lame tricks.

“It is obvious that people shoot flares into the sky from the Lao side, which can be proven by taking wide-angle photos,” said Jessada Denduangboripant, a biologist who lectures at Chulalongkorn University and routinely employs scientific methods to debunk popular superstitions. 

“People call these flares ‘fake fireballs,’ saying they have seen ‘real fireballs’ with their own eyes, [and] cite old people who claim to have seen the fireballs for many decades. Such claims cannot be regarded as verifiable evidence,” Jessada, who enjoys a large social media following, explained in a post on Facebook on Oct. 27.

For generations Thais have believed that a mythical Naga serpent, whose representations adorn every Buddhist temple in the country, inhabits the Mekong and releases magical fireballs occasionally at dusk.

“The fireball event is an unexplained phenomenon that generally takes place on the full moon night of the 11th lunar month, which also coincides with the end of the Buddhist Lent,” says the Thai Folk website.

The fireballs are smokeless, smell-less and soundless. They rise 20-30 meters straight up to the air then disappear without falling back to the earth as normal fireballs do. Their sizes vary from a thumb-size to an egg-size,” the website explains.

No one – particularly public officals and business leaders who depend on the tourism that the annual Naga Festival generates – wants the story to be untrue. But Lao National Television went above and beyond, dedicating an entire program to defending the Naga’s honor.

Laotian reporters visited four villages on the Laos side opposite Khon Kaen and asked village chiefs, soldiers, police officers and villagers if they had shot any flare guns. Nope, they said. The government forbids fireworks during Buddhist Lent so no one would dare shoot flare guns, the locals said.

Soldiers and police officers told the government television reporters they patrolled the coast of the Mekong all night and confirmed no flare guns were fired.

It was the Naga that made the fireballs.

A 68-year-old Laotian villager said he’s been watching the snake snort fire since she was 8. This year, she added, the river was so calm that she was able to spot more Naga fireballs than usual.

While social media scientist Jessada called on skeptical Thais to continue helping debunk the alleged miracle by taking photos that can be analyzed and used as evidence, others had their own suggestions.

“Next year they should shoot flares from underwater,” one commenter observed.

Another was more pragmatic. “Many people don’t care whether the fireballs are real or not. They just want to have fun.”

UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner, contributed reporting to this story. Their story can be found here.