Phon Phisai – Fireballs and Lettuce Wraps

Mekong River, Phon Phisai

Naga Fireball Festival

The Mekong River separates Thailand from Laos in the northeastern region of the country. Phon Phisai (โพนพิสัย ) is a small town nestled on the riverbank of the famous stretch of water. It’s a place I have visited many times before and each one of those trips has been to visit Phon Phisai’s busy day market alongside the Mekong River.

Naga statue,Phon PhisaiPhon Phisai has drawn the interest of Thai TV documentaries before concerning its Naga Fireball Festival. The festival is typically held around October each year at the end of Buddhist Lent. A mythological serpent (Phaya Naga) living in the depths of the Mekong River is said to shoot fireballs (bang fai) into the night skies to form steps for Lord Buddha to walk down from heaven.

The festival attracts massive crowds at Phon Phisai each year and is top of my must-do list in Thailand. Crowds at nearby Nong Khai are even bigger and reach hundreds of thousands for the duration of the festival. However, Phon Phisai is the place to be for your best chance of witnessing the fireball phenomenon.

In 2002, former Thai TV station ITV ran a documentary that made claims the Naga fireballs were a hoax. The TV documentary backed up its allegations with a film showing the fireballs were AK-47 tracer bullets fired from the other side of the Mekong in Laos.

The Thai nation reacted furiously to the documentary, so much so, that locals floated wreaths on the Mekong River in Nong Khai and flexed substantial financial demands toward ITV for the damage the TV programme had caused the province. Subsequently, ITV issued a public apology. At the time the now-defunct TV broadcaster was owned by ITV Public Limited Company which was a part of the Shin Corporation.

Phon Phisai market

Phon Phisai Day Market

The market at Phon Phisai stretches along the promenade on the banks of the Mekong River and is a very busy concern. If you want fruit and vegetables, then bring a big bag because there’s plenty on display. Meat, fish and its dried variety are in abundance too. Bring a handkerchief as well, because the smell from the dried fish is overpowering.

Phon Phisai market stocks brand label clothes with designer logos, but their mock-up is too easy to spot. There’s plenty of second hands if that’s your wear. DVDs, clocks, knives and socks, the market has got the lot but for one noticeable thing, to me at least. Phon Phisai market lacks a smile. In my opinion, the Thasadej market in Nong Khai is similar too. Perhaps the Mekong River and the shadow of neighbouring Laos have that effect.

Miang Kam (Lettuce Wraps)

Phon Phisai restaurant

There is one thing at the market which is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of Wi and I. That’s our compulsory visit to one of the markets small fish restaurants and another chance for me to conjure a perfect miang kam.

Miang Kam ingredients

Miang Kam roughly translates as a wrapped bite or mouthful and is precisely that. The food pictured above is all the ingredients needed to make these lettuce-wrapped bundles. Here’s the list: fish, noodles, sweet and sour sauces, vegetables and the added bite of chilli peppers if that’s what you like. I love them, without the chilli, of course. As always in Isaan, sticky rice and som tum (spicy salad) are on the table. The food in the photo above cost 150 baht. The bottle of coke was extra.

Miang KamTo make the perfect miang kam or pan miang as it’s sometimes called you take a lettuce leaf and then place some delicious white fish meat onto it. Next, put some noodles on top and add tomato, shallots, ginger, mint and perhaps a sliver of chilli pepper. Top off the filling with a sauce, my choice being a sweet syrup with peanuts and then fold the leaf into a wrap and pop the whole bundle into your mouth. A miang kam is simple to make and delicious.

I don’t know why the majority of people in Phon Phisai lack a smile; well perhaps there’s a trace of one sometimes, it is Thailand after all. However, the town and market are still well worth a look.

Book Early to See the Fireballs

 If you are planning a visit to Phon Phisai for the Naga Festival, then book your hotel early. Rates at the Boontawee Hotel and Suan NV Resort are both quoted at 250-350 baht and are subject to price change. During the Naga Festival, room rates would be considerably higher. They have 17 and 9 rooms respectively so you’d probably be better off booking into a hotel in Udon Thani or Nong Khai.

One day I will make it to the Naga Festival, and a hotel won’t be needed as our village home is only about 35 kilometres from Phon Phisai. Miang Kam in the morning and fireballs at night sounds perfect. I’ll just have to keep a lookout for those tracer bullets.


I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

15 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Martyn unfortunately the only Naga fireballs round here are likely to belong to a male cobra looking for a mate 🙂

    I would love to visit to see this phenomenon, I have heard various explanations including gas released from the river bed, but never tracer rounds!

    We sometimes buy a version of the wraps from a Vietnamese take away in Prachuap but its double the price here.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Auto Insurance Thailand-Compulsory and Voluntary =-.

  2. Lawrence says:

    Hey, what’s this about the ‘shadow’ of Laos?

    I think you should investigate some very odd installations belonging to EGAT in the Nong Khai area in order to understand the fireball phenomenon. Some of them appear to need tunnels starting at the river bank. Doubtless originally ‘something’ unusual happened, but now the date can be predicted accurately a year in advance. That’s pretty strange, you might think.
    .-= Lawrence´s last blog ..Champassak, Lao PDR =-.

  3. malcolm says:

    Martyn, the fire balls shooting up out of the river are high on my list of things to see, Ciejay said she went when she was a teen with Mom and Dad and can remember that it did look like fire balls and lights coming out of the water and she said it has been going on for many years , the food on the table looks like something I might enjoy too, and I would like to visit the market , soooo maybe we’ll (Ciejay and Me ) just have to plan a trip up country . Take care and thanks for the post . Malcolm
    .-= malcolm´s last blog ..!!!!!!!!!!!!! TIMBER !!!!!!!!! =-.

  4. Steve says:

    OMG…the pics are awesome just as the Miang Kam is. I already miss Thailand enough, why do you need to rub it in?

    Martyn, if you say this is a MUST DO then I am definitely putting it on my must do list…probably not until 2011 though 🙁 sucks to be me 5555

    Phon Phisai here I come!

  5. Hoo Don says:

    Mike, cobra’s, don’t remind me. I’m hitting the village Christmas time and there’s more chance of seeing them than Santa Claus. If you need a link to the ITV story then click here
    I remember the documentary on Thai TV years back, I’ve just got to witness the real thing.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Lawrence, electrical generators and a mythological serpent, I’d tend to take your side on that one although I did watch the ITV program years back and would put a little money on that. The shadow of Laos, most countries have a shadow over them, a bordering nation whom they think are a little beneath them, I think the Thai’s regard Laos that way. Though I’m not saying they’re right.

  7. Hoo Don says:

    Malcolm the Naga Festival in Phon Phisai is a mega big event and I’m with you in that I’ve just gotta see it. If you do visit the festival then please make sure you check into a Nong Khai or Udon hotel because Phon Phisai will be booked months in advance. Don’t forget to visit Sala Keo Kou and the Ban Chiang site, it will make a very interesting trip for you.

  8. Hoo Don says:

    Steve I read your Missing You Thailand post and likewise a lot of the blogs I read leave me with similar feelings but hey, live quietly today and wait for tomorrow. Thanks for the thumbs up on the pics, that means a lot to me. David Bailey I ain’t and I don’t wanna be but it’s nice to hear the snapshots are appreciated.

  9. Talen says:

    Martyn, Great read…I have heard and seen some blurry pictures that implicate the Lao and fireworks but I still want to believe in the Naga..I will be in country this next year for the event that happens in quite a few towns up and down the Mekong.

    Hopefully I can get a picture of the Naga or at least have a few beers and tell tall tales about the Naga.
    .-= Talen´s last blog ..Thai BBQ For You =-.

  10. Hoo Don says:

    Talen like you I have just got to see it and Phon Phisai is the number one spot to see the fireballs. All the festivals lining the Mekong are mega big events and attended in their hundreds of thousands. The festival is at the wrong time of year for me but on my last trip I only missed it by days but I couldn’t reschedule my trip. It is truly at the top of my must do list for Thailand.

  11. Catherine says:

    Martyn, the Naga Fireball Festival is yet another must see in Thailand for me too! And I will be sure to order some of their luscious lettuce wraps.

    I wonder how many dishes in Thailand wrap…

    I usually order the one that uses betel leaf (areca nut) to wrap: Cut up limes, fiery hot chilis, roasted peanuts, tamarind sauce, chopped ginger, tiny dried shrimp, shallots… and something else (but I cannot remember).

    Here is one version of it…
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Gourmet Holiday Hampers in Thailand =-.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine – The betel leaf wrap is indeed meang kam, it’s just that the leaves are different although I’m sure the picture with this post has a few betel leaves with it too. The Naga Festival is the one that tops my list in Thailand and maybe not next year but the one after I’ve just got to see.

  13. MeMock says:

    I love Miang!

    A great social food and delicious to boot!

  14. Mr Samui says:

    I am thrilled to read about the Naga Fireball Festival. I too have had this on my list of things to see and do!

    However being a dedicated “foodie” I must admit the market is really what I would want to experience. The cuisine in Thailand and SAE is amazing, particularly as each province appears to prepare its own delicacy and signature dishes.

    I cannot get enough!!!!

  15. Chef D says:

    realy nice looking dish, how easy is it realy to prepare?
    .-= Chef D´s last blog ..The toast francais ( =-.

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