Thai town in uproar over charges that fireball phenomenon is faked

by AFP, Nov 15, 2002 | Destinations: Laos / Thailand / Vientiane / Nong Khai province

Residents of a remote town in northern Thailand are up in arms over a TV investigation which found that a famous fireball phenomenon in the Mekong River which draws hordes of tourists annually could be fake.

Thousands of locals held an angry demonstration Tuesday over iTV's claims that the fireballs, reputedly spouted by a mythical dragon, were actually caused by tracer bullets fired by Laotian soldiers across the border.

A spokeswoman for the Nong Khai tourism centre said residents rejected the accusation, and were worried that it might deter tourists who give the impoverished area a much-needed financial windfall.

"People understand that the media has its duty, but they are not happy that they are reporting on this without all the proper information," she told AFP.

"It may affect the number of tourists coming next year, because Thai people always trust media reports," she added.

Every year on the first full-moon of October, which conicides with the end of Buddhist Lent, red, pink and orange fireballs soar up into the sky from the Mekong, drawing large crowds of spectators.

Thanks to a new Thai-made movie about the phenomenon, the crowds doubled in size to at least 200,000 for last month's performance, an influx worth an estimated 200 million baht (4.8 million dollars) to the local economy.

Legend says the flames come from a mythical Naga, or serpent, living in the river, while scientists speculate they are caused by natural gas deposits in the river bed which are drawn to the surface by the moon's gravitational pull.

The event known as Naga's Fireballs, which has been reported for generations, has long mystified scientists and the government has ordered an official investigation into its origins.

But iTV, known for its investigative reporting, screened a special report which showed Laotian soldiers joining the celebrations by firing tracer bullets into the sky.

The footage purportedly showed that as soon as the troops fired their weapons, cheers erupted on the Thai side of the river, which forms the border between the two countries.

The program drew an angry response from locals who said it was insulting to those who sincerely believe the phenomenon was supernatural.

"The report suggests we are either a bunch of deceivers or gullible people fooled by Laotian soldiers," a protest leader told The Nation newspaper.

Laos' ambassador to Thailand Hiem Phommachanh has now weighed into the debate, calling on the media not to create discord between the neighbours.

"Proving such a phenomenon requires scientific methods with modern equipment. Lao people have lived with it for generations but we have no budget to prove what is behind the event," he told The Nation.

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