Myths and Legends
You will have seen images of Nagas more often than you realise if you’ve ever visited Thailand.
Almost all Thai temples feature images of Naga somewhere, often to decorate stairways and in some depictions of the Buddha, where the creature uses it’s multi-headed, cobra like hood to protect him.
So, what’s a Naga?
The Naga is a huge anaconda-size serpent-like creature, sometimes mistaken for a huge snake or dragon, but they are neither, being a unique semi divine creature.
Naga are believed by some to be real and living mainly in or under the Khong river that divides Thailand and Laos.
They’re thought to be the cause of the Naga fireball phenomenon (see below).
These mythical creatures have a single head with horn like projections, but can change in an instant to having lots of heads.
Nagas are considered to be good guys which keep bad stuff at bay, so be thankful they’re around.
Naga aren’t just Thai folklore as they play a part in the mythology of both the Hindu and the Buddhist faiths.
A Naga created a shelter with it’s hood to keep the Lord Buddha dry during a storm, and acted as Vishnu’s bed when he dreamed the world into existence.
Sightings of the mythical creature have resulted in numerous grainy and unclear youtube videos, with much the same result as the famous Loch Ness Monster.
However, you shouldn’t be too skeptical about giant creatures in the Khong river.
Giant catfish have been living in the river for as long as can be remembered, some weighing in at 300kg, while the Khong Giant Stingray was only discovered in 1990. These bottom dwelling monsters weigh up to 600kg and are often up to almost 2 meters across.
So the possibility of another as yet unknown creature living in the muddy waters is fairly high.
Naga Fireballs Festival
The noisy but fun Bung Fai Phaya Nak is an annual phenomenon that takes place in late October on the Khong River.
Glowing balls of fire shoot up from the river after dusk several hundred meters into the air, ranging from hand sized to football sized.
The number of fireballs each night can vary from a few to several hundred. Many people believe they are emitted by the Nagas which live in the river.
To this day there has been no solid scientific evidence to prove what causes the fireballs.
Thousands of people gather on the riverside in Nong Khai province at dusk during the Buddhist OokPansa festival in hopes of seeing the Nagas disgorging their fireballs.
The event has become complicated by the fact that lanterns are floated over the river, and projectiles are fired across the water to encourage the Nagas to put on a good show.
Plus there are a series of beautiful illuminated floats paraded along the river too. This makes the fast moving fireballs much more difficult to see.
The Garuda might be best known as the national airline of Indonesia, but it is actually the national symbol of Thailand.
Known officially as Phra Khrut Pha, it’s found on all government issued documents and appears in lots of public places, and is actually a Royal symbol. The video gives a great background to the Garuda myth and use of the Garuda symbol.
The Garuda is often depicted with the head, beak, wings and talons of an eagle, but the body of a man. In mythology, although he was considered a righteous and merciful being, not even the gods could defeat him.
Lord Vishnu was so overwhelmed that he offered Garuda a higher place than he himself had. That eventually evolved into it becoming a Royal symbol.
You might see Garudas adorning the walls of some large businesses in Thailand. They are granted a Royal Warrant to display it, something similar to the system used in the UK.
Perhaps better known as a brand of Thai beer, the Singha has been denigrated from its position of power and dignity that it had in Thai mythology.
This Lion-like mythical creature has been a part of Thai history for as long as anyone can remember.
It is regarded as the symbol for power, strength, courage, leadership, dignity, loyalty, perseverance and endurance.
We aren’t sure if the popular beer will do all that for you!
It’s often depicted as a guardian of temples, homes, and even businesses. You’ll see good examples at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
The Singha in Thai-Indian mythology roamed the Himmapan Forest, on the slopes of Mount Meru the heart of the Buddhist and Hindu cosmos.
The Hong is a celestial swan with a long and graceful neck, an extended beak, wings, and a gorgeous flowing tail.
Because of it’s nature it’s often associated with boats or boat shapes.
When the lotus-leaf clapper of the bell (which dangles from it’s beak) is moved by the breeze, prayers are lifted to heaven.
The celestial Hong is a fairly common sight on the roof of temples and street lights, being an auspicious animal, and bringer of miracles.
It’s name is used in a modern Thai expression denoting unsurpassed beauty and grace.
One of the main Royal Barges, used for ceremonies, is designed like a Hong.
Naresuan The Warrior King
King Naresuan was a real warrior around whom a famous legend has been built.
The Warrior King has been the subject of dozens of movies and TV series as he remains one of Thailand’s most popular historical heroes.
Born in Phitsanoluk about 1556 as Prince Naret, he was also known as the Black Prince.
A few years later, his father King Maha Thammarachathirat had to surrender Phitsanoluk to the overwhelming forces of Burmese invaders, which also seized Ayuddhya, taking control of a large slice of Siamese territory.
The King was forced to hand over the Black Prince to the Burmese. He was held as a hostage in the city of Bago.
Being an astute youth and looking to the future, he carefully watched his captors doing their training and preparations for war, and became an expert in weapons and tactics.
After six years as a captive he was released in 1570 and headed to Ayuddhya.
For some years the Ayuddhya kingdom was in an uneasy alliance with the Burmese, and by this time the former Black Prince was now the Crown Prince of Phitsanoluk, who led his forces through many campaigns against Laos and Lanna.
In 1587 he was called to Bago by the Burmese to help put down a local rebellion.
When Naresuan arrived with his forces, he became aware of a plot by the Burmese to attack and destroy him and his army.
According to legend, Naresuan poured water from a gold goblet to proclaim to the deities in the presence of his supporters and army, that from that day Siam had severed its friendship with Burma.
The Prince then moved his forces back to Ayuddhya to be ready for a Burmese assault on the city.
On the way, Naresuan is credited with shooting dead a Burmese prince during a skirmish, scattering the enemy forces.
Over the next few years, the Burmese suffered a series of defeats during attacks on Ayuddhya.
In 1590 Naresuan was officially elevated to King following the death of his father.
This encouraged the Burmese to mount another massive attack which was decisively driven back by Naresuan’s forces.
The Burmese retreated having suffered some serious losses.
The single most legendary event of King Naresuan’s life is undoubtedly the hand to hand battle with the Burmese Crown Prince on War Elephants.
Legend has it that during a battle in 1593, King Naresuan and a handful of other leaders riding elephants, that periods equivalent to modern day tanks, charged through the Burmese ranks and encountered one of their leaders resting his elephant under a tree.
Naresuan called out to him and challenged him to single combat.
The fight was fierce and one blow from his opponent’s sword split Naresuan’s helmet.
Eventually the Warrior King won the duel and killed his enemy, and as reinforcements arrived the Burmese were routed.
King Naresuan the Great died in 1605 from a sickness believed to be smallpox.
His victory over the invading Burmese is celebrated at the Don Chedi monument in modern day Suphanburi province.
The Legend of Suriyothai
In the 16th Century Siam and Burma had been at war for decades with Burma apparently intent on subjugating the rebellious Siamese.
In 1548 they launched an all out attack on Siam, intending to sweep through the country and seize control of the capital at Ayutthya.
King Maha Chakkraphat mobilised his army when he got wind of the planned invasion, gathering his forces at Suphanburi, west of Ayutthaya.
The invading hordes met little resistance and quickly swept through Siamese territory, eventually setting up camp just north of Ayutthya in preparation for a siege of the city.
King Maha Chakkraphat set out with a detachment to probe the strength of the Burmese lines. With him was his consort Phra Si Suriyothai and one of their daughters.
The King was mounted on a war elephant, while Suriyothai and her daughter were together on another war elephant.
The two women were dressed in male high raking uniforms and were easily mistaken for men.
The Siamese army soon met an advance column commanded by the Viceroy of Prome, and a battle began.
Legend says that King Maha Chakkraphat’s elephant panicked and charged away from the enemy, with the Burmese viceroy giving chase.
Fearing for the life of her husband, Queen Sri Suriyothai rushed her elephant to block the viceroy’s way.
The viceroy then fought the queen in single combat, cutting her from shoulder to heart with his spear, while at the same time killing her daughter as they were both on the same elephant.
It was said that the viceroy didn’t know he was fighting a woman until her helmet came off, exposing her long hair.
There is a memorial park to her near Ayutthaya, featuring a large statue of the queen riding a war elephant.
Several movies have been made of this brave Queen’s exploits too.
Father of Muay Thai
For those of you who don’t know what Muay Thai is, its often described simply as Thai Boxing, but it is in fact a fierce martial art originating in the mists of historical wars.
In 1769 Mangra, the Burmese King, ransacked the Siamese capital city of Ayutthaya, stripping it of its gold and other treasures.
They used Thai captives as slaves to carry the pillaged treasures back to Burma.
One of these slaves was a fighter named Nai Khanom Tom.
Mangra organised an elaborate celebration of his victory. The captured slaves, were ordered to fight the best Burmese warriors for his entertainment.
When Nai Khanom Tom was brought into the courtyard to face his opponent, he asked for a moment to prepare.
He began making his way around the courtyard dancing in a slow ritualistic fashion while waving his hands and arms.
The Burmese fighter looked on timidly, fearing that Nai Khanom Tom was cursing him with evil spirits before their match.
When told to explain what he was doing, Nai Khanom Tom said the dance was to respect to his Muay Thai teacher, the art of Muay Thai and his country.
Legend claims that this was the origin of the traditional Wai Kru ceremony which takes place before every Muay Thai match.
Nai Khanom Tom beat his Burmese opponent effortlessly, who insisted that he had been cursed by the strange dance.
Nai Khanom Tom went on to easily defeat 10 more Burmese warriors using his Muay Thai skills.
Impressed by the slave’s fighting skill, the Burmese King granted his freedom and rewarded him with several women as his wives and concubines.
Nai Khanom Tom returned to Siam a hero and spent the rest of his life teaching Muay Thai.
Muay Thai day on 17th March is celebrated in his honour.
We hope you’ve been entertained by our review of just a few of the many thousands of Thai myths and legends.
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