Friday, March 26, 2010

Dragon Fire Festival

Hello Writers Rising!
My name is Lynne Walker, and I'm a new contributor, invited by Katherine Jenkins, one of my fellow writers in our Seattle writing group. I'm interested in all kinds of writing, from fiction to non-fiction, including journalism. So I thought I'd start by posting a short travel piece about an unexplained mystery in Thailand. I've been catching up on what you've been writing, and I'm looking forward to reading more of your blog postings in the days ahead.

The Dragon Fire Festival
The full moon often scalds the Thai landscape with strange surprises, and I find myself holding my breath to see what crawls from the shadows. Who is this emerging from the fields at this dead hour of the night? What is that strange shriek, in a place where no shriek ever has an innocent explanation? I have become a believer--the countryside is riddled with ghosts. And in a small town not too far away, dragon fire erupts from the Mekong River, but only in October, and only when the moon is full.
The fire-breathing dragon apparently spends the entire year resting on the bottom of the Mekong and emerges just once, to show off, on the banks of the chosen town of Phon Phisai. Thousands of locals turn out to wait for the dragon’s breath to rise from the Mekong River. Pink lights burst out of the river on this one night and arc silently into the sky. The town celebrates the dragon’s spectacular display with Bung Fai Payanak (บั้งไฟพญานาค) or the Dragon Fire Festival. The Dragon Fire Parade drums its way down Main Street during the day, and at night a river parade of lighted bamboo floats glides past, to keep the dragon company. This legendary spirit, which some say shielded the Buddha from the rain and sun while he meditated, stirs to life each year at the end of the Buddhist Lent, breathing celebratory fireballs into the sky.
When we arrived in Phon Phisai in the afternoon, the boardwalk along the river was already bustling with people. Vendors hawked dried squid, speckled bird eggs, cotton candy, balloons, grilled chicken, soccer-sized grapefruit, roasted bananas, beer and soda. Wooden boats dotted the tranquil waters of the Mekong, and opposite us shone the lush green coast of Laos.
After eating, we staked out a spot to sit on the riverbanks, and at dusk we heard a piercing whistle. Was it the sound of the dragon rising from the murky Mekong to breathe fire into the sky? No—it was only the introductory fireworks for the evening. In fact, the entire evening was filled with fireworks, from start to finish—enough to frighten any lurking dragon away. Once it was dark, the river parade of floats began (this also can be viewed in Nong Khai). White lights, and in some cases dozens of candles, covered bamboo structures designed to look like ancient Oriental sailing ships and other marvels. Vendors moved through the packed crowd selling noisemakers and coiled dragon puppets with red battery-powered eyes. Paper lanterns drifted higher and higher into the night until their fiery glow vanished. To add to the mystery, the electricity powering the vendors’ stalls along the river kept going off throughout the evening.
I asked one Thai woman if she “believed” in the dragon fire we all were waiting to see.
“I believe,” she said cautiously, and then cracked a sheepish smile.
A group of Thai schoolgirls handed me a survey in English. Do you believe it’s a spirit? the survey asked. Do you think it’s fireworks? Natural gas? Do you think it should be researched?
“By all means, research it,” I agreed.
An excited roar suddenly rippled through the crowd. People stretched and craned their necks to see.
“Mai mee arai,” people murmured all around me in Thai. “Nothing, it was nothing.”
“Do you believe?” a Thai woman inquired, turning the tables on me.
“When I see it, I’ll believe it,” I replied, and everyone around me burst out laughing.
It was wall-to-wall people and a spirited roar swept through the crowd every time a light—any light at all—feebly flickered. A deep rumble began to grow as the crowd pointed and shouted. At last, I saw it—small red lights, arcing into the air like emergency flares or Roman candles, minus sparks or smoke or sound. I zeroed in on a tall American with a camera.
“Oh, sure, I believe,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s definitely something.”
But why were the searchlights from a motorboat in exactly the spot where a pink light had erupted a moment before?
“Police inspectors,” one local told me. “They are making sure no one else is out there. They are inspecting for fraud.”
This quirky detail-- inspectors in motorboats racing about to certify the dragon fire-- seemed completely in keeping with the good-natured spirit of this festival which celebrates an authentic Thai mystery. (posted in greater detail on my blog Strange Islands)


Katherine Jenkins said...

Welcome Lynne!!! Nice to see your writing here! Hope you will share more. Love the Thai Dragon Festival story! I'd like to see the lights too! I tend to lean toward signs and superstitions....what we "see" depends on what we believe and each person will be different. You depicted the sights and sounds of this festival so beautifully. I felt like I was sitting there with you!

Lynne Walker said...

Thanks for your invitation and warm welcome! I'm enjoying reading the blog postings.