Naga: Thailand's Fearsome Mekong River-Dwelling Guardian Spirits

Ailsa Johnson / © Culture Trip
Ailsa Johnson / © Culture Trip
Photo of Kyle Hulme
23 March 2018

Is it a dragon? Is it a snake? Well, it’s both, and much, much more. Whether on the roof of a temple or in the depths of a river, you’re bound to have encountered a Naga during your travels around Thailand — here’s more about them.

Scary serpents

From looking at a statue of a Naga, it’s easy to see why they’re such feared guardians. With their angry expressions, sharp teeth and often a multitude of heads, Naga aren’t for the faint hearted. Whilst the Indian versions tend to resemble cobras, those in Southeast Asia take on more of a dragon form. They are protectors of Gods, and are said to inhabit the Mekong river that runs through much of Southeast Asia. Their fierce reputation has scared locals from polluting the river for the fear of angering these semi-divine serpents, and such a reputation is enhanced further by the fact that Kamchanod Forest — a haunted forest on an island — is said to be their home, as well as the border between the human world and the netherworld.

A naga in action | © Akuppa John Wigham / Flickr

Role in religion

Naga aren’t just a creature from Thai folklore — they play a large part in the mythology of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. They have frequent interactions with Gods; from acting as a bed on which Vishnu slept and dreamed the world into creation, to a King Naga shielding the Buddha from a storm with their many heads, they are mentioned in several stories throughout the scriptures of both faiths, which has led to them attaining a revered status in various Southeast Asian nations. Their role as guardians has seen them become a popular choice for temple statues and decorations, where they are thought to deter bad spirits and bad luck.

Naga shielding the Buddha | mister addd/Flickr
Akuppa John Wigham

Naga fireballs

One event that has seen the Naga remain popular is the phenomenon of the Naga fireballs. Each year, at the end of Buddhist lent in October, huge crowds gather along the banks of the Mekong river, with many choosing a spot near the city of Nong Khao. From here, they’re treated to an astonishing spectacle, as fireballs shoot out from the river and up into the sky. Many locals believe these fireballs to be from Naga, releasing them from the depths of the river, but this event isn’t without its skeptics. Some claim the fireballs are tracer rounds fired by soldiers, whilst others point to natural explanations such as flammable gas bubbles or plasma orbs. Whilst the jury may be out on what causes the fireballs, it serves as another example of the wonders of Thailand and its intriguing folklore.

The Mekong River | WIL/Flickr

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