Phon Phisai – Fireballs and Lettuce Wraps


Mekong River, Phon Phisai

The Mekong River separates Thailand from Laos in the north eastern region of the country and 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 on the banks of the Mekong River.

Naga statue,Phon PhisaiPhon Phisai has drawn the interest of Thai TV documentaries before concerning its Naga Fireball Festival which is normally 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 larger and reach hundreds of thousands for the duration of the festival but Phon Phisai is the place to be for your best chance of witnessing the fireball phenomenon.

Former Thai TV station ITV ran a documentary in 2002 that made claims the Naga fireballs were a hoax. The TV documentary made claims backed up by film that the fireballs were actually AK-47 tracer bullets fired from the other side of the Mekong in Laos.

The Thai nation was furious to the extreme that wreaths were floated on the Mekong River in Nong Khai and substantial financial demands were bandied about toward the damage that ITV had caused to the province. Subsequently ITV issued a public apology. At the time the now defunct ITV was owned by ITV Public Limited Company which was a part of the Shin Corporation.

Phon Phisai 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 about. Meat, fish and its dried variety are in an abundance too, pinch your nose to make your purchase because the dried fish smells like hell.

Phon Phisai’s market stocks brand new clothes with designer names whose logos kind of match their peers and second hands if that’s your wear, maybe even third and fourths. 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.

Phon Phisai restaurant

There is one thing at the market which is guaranteed to put a smile on the face of myself and Wonderful Wi. 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 biteful or mouthful and is exactly that. The food pictured above are all the ingredients needed to make these lettuce wrapped bundles of 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) is on the table. The food in the photo above cost an amazing 150 baht with the bottle of coke extra.

Miang KamTo make the perfect miang kam or pan miang as it’s sometimes called you first 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 a 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 absolutely delicious.

I don’t know why the people of Phon Phisai never seem to smile, well perhaps there’s a trace of one sometimes, it is Thailand after all but the town and market are still well worth a look. If you are planning a visit to this quaint town on the Mekong River to witness the fireballs shooting from the river 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 look out for those tracer bullets.

© 2009 – 2013, Martyn. All rights reserved.

15 thoughts on “Phon Phisai – Fireballs and Lettuce Wraps

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 =-.

  9. 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.

  10. 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…

    http://www.seasaltwithfood.com/2009/05/meang-khum-betel-leaves.html
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Gourmet Holiday Hampers in Thailand =-.

  11. 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.

  12. 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!!!!

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

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