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.
Phon 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.
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.
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 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.
To 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.
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