Tag Archives: Mekong River

Nong Khai, the Mekong River, and the Lord of the Naga

Nong Khai lies on the Mekong River, which forms the northeastern border of Thailand. Nong Khai is the site of the first Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, spanning the river to Laos.  Laos’s capital, Vientiane, is 25km away.

A pair of outstanding Phaya Naga welcome you to the city
A pair of outstanding Phaya Naga welcome you to the city

The Mekong River is the primary home of the Phaya Naga. Thai cities often have “mascots”, and the mascot of Nong Khai is clearly the Phaya Naga. A pair of really excellent Phaya Naga welcome you to the city (above).

A pair of equally outstanding, and very large, Phaya Naga greet you at the Mekong River (below).

Phaya Naga on the Mekong River
Phaya Naga on the Mekong River

A big draw for Nong Khai is the Naga Fireball Festival held during Buddhist Lent at the end of October, when Naga fireballs are said to be most common. Fireballs resembling an orange sun, varying in size from sparks to basketball sized orbs, rise from the Mekong River to as high as hundreds of feet into the sky.

Naga fireballs, from Wikimedia Commons
Naga fireballs, from Wikimedia Commons

Naga fireballs are believed by some to be exhaled by Phaya Naga. I wish I had attended the festival, in part because I find it surprising that it seems to include fireworks, suggesting a lack of concern with really knowing what you’re seeing. Thai people do love the supernatural, and love seeing Naga fireballs during the festival.

The video below examines the scientific and supernatural views on the Naga fireball phenomenon.

Sala Kaew Ku is Nong Khai’s other big draw. The most photographed sculpture at Sala Kaew Ku is probably Sulilat’s unique, and enormous, take on the Naga Buddha.

Naga Buddha at Sala Kaew Ku
Naga Buddha at Sala Kaew Ku

Along the Mekong River there are all forms of Phaya Naga, like the ones that top the lamp posts.

Lamp post Phaya Naga
Lamp post Phaya Naga

Phaya Naga also adorn the fence along the river.

Fence Phaya Naga
Fence Phaya Naga

Looking across the Mekong into Laos you can see a fairly nice temple complex.

Southern Laos across the Mekong River
Southern Laos across the Mekong River

You can also see a number of houses. They look similar to houses in northern Thailand.

Southern Laos across the Mekong River
Southern Laos across the Mekong River

There are house boats along the Thai side of the river.

Mekong house boat
Mekong house boat

The Thai-Lao Friendship bridge was largely funded by a gift to the Lao government from the Australian government. The picture below shows the bridge in the distance, and also some fairly large house boats.

Thai-Lao Friendship bridge over the Mekong River
Thai-Lao Friendship bridge over the Mekong River

Several temples are among the buildings lining the Thai side of the river.

Temple on the Mekong River
Temple on the Mekong River

They include a Chinese style temple.

Chinese Temple on the Mekong River
Chinese Temple on the Mekong River

Nong Khai has an aquarium that features some of the surprisingly large fish found in the Mekong River.

Nong Khai Aquarium
Nong Khai Aquarium

It’s a small aquarium, but it does feature a shark tunnel. This is the first I’ve seen, so I can’t offer a comparison. Flash photography is prohibited in the aquarium, but I was able to shoot video.

Please enjoy the full gallery of 16 pictures below.

I had no trouble getting to Sala Kaew Ku

Sala Kaew Ku is a garden of enormous bizarre and fantastic sculptures of a spiritual nature.

Huge Naga Buddha towers over the park's other sculptures
Huge Naga Buddha towers over the park’s other sculptures

Buddhist and Hindu imagery are represented, with multi-headed, multi-armed deities, human-animal hybrids, Buddhas, and Phaya Naga towering over visitors.

Huge Buddhas in a variety of poses
Huge Buddhas in a variety of poses

Both sculptures and park were built by mystic, myth-maker, spiritual cult leader and sculpture artist Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat.

Sala Kaew Ku
Sala Kaew Ku

Legend says that as a young man, Bunleua Sulilat fell into a cave, and in that cave met hermit Kaew Ku.  Kaew Ku became his spiritual mentor. Sala Kaew Ku means “Hall of Kaew Ku”.

Phra Rahu
Phra Rahu

Phra Rahu, above, swallows the sun, causing eclipses.

Below is the only depiction I’ve seen of Phra Mae Thorani in which she is not wringing water from her hair to protect the Buddha. In this sculpture she is coming to the aid of humans in a boat.

Phra Mae Thorani
Phra Mae Thorani

Bunleua Sulilat built his first sculpture garden, Buddha Park, near Vientiane, Laos , in 1958. He fled across the Mekong River into Thailand in fear of the political climate of Laos after the 1975 communist revolution, and in 1978 began work on “The Hall of Kaew Ku”, which would be more extravagant and feature larger statues than his earlier park. The newer park is located near Nong Khai, Thailand.

It is good luck to enter through this gate
It is good luck to enter through this gate

Pics above and below show the gate to a sort of small courtyard filled with mostly more life-sized statues.

Below is a look inside the courtyard.

Sulilat’s personality and sculpture and his blend of Buddhism and Hinduism attracted followers, and the sculpture park became the center of a religious sect. Followers gave him the title Luang Pu, usually reserved for monks.

Phra Phikanet (Ganesha) riding a rat
Phra Phikanet (Ganesha) riding a rat

Both sculpture parks were built by untrained volunteers working for free. Sulilat was wildly popular among his followers, but the locals thought he was insane.

First floor shrine
First floor shrine

The Sala Kaew Ku pavilion building has shrines/temples on 3 floors, and it seems appropriate that they in the “collection of Buddhas and other effigies” style. Among them are many pictures of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat.

Second floor shrine
Second floor shrine

Sulilat fell from one of his huge sculptures and his health deteriorated until his death in 1996. His mummified body is enshrined on the 3rd floor.

Third floor shrine
Third floor shrine

Large windows on the 3rd floor offer a nice view over the park.

View from the 3rd floor
View from the 3rd floor

Please enjoy the full gallery of 40 pictures below.

Wat Kham Chanot, temple of the Phaya Naga

Wat Kham Chanot is a Buddhist temple that is very focused on worship of Phaya Naga. It is located in Kham Chanot forest,  believed to be the border between the human world and the netherworld. Both forest and temple are located on an island in Kut Kham, a marshy lake in which a Phaya Naga is said to live.

The temple complex has expanded off of the island, and includes a large standing Buddha and a permanent country market.

Standing Buddha and market
Standing Buddha and market

Among the many items for sale are offerings to the Phaya Naga. The likenesses below are mostly constructed of folded banana or coconut leaves. The products of this art vary greatly, mostly in the quality of the heads. These are among the best I’ve seen.

Banana/coconut leaf Phaya Naga
Banana/coconut leaf Phaya Naga

Of course there are also temple buildings adorned with Phaya Naga.

Temple with Phaya Naga
Temple with Phaya Naga

The bridge to the island was once very small. The new one is a fairly recent improvement. The entrance is flanked by a pair of 7-headed Phaya Naga.

Wat Kham Chanot is usually busy, so there is a police presence. At the entrance to the bridge an officer told me to remove my hat, suggesting that the entire island is considered a temple. An earlier clue that I had missed was that we had removed our shoes.

Bridge to old Wat Kham Chanot
Bridge to old Wat Kham Chanot

The bodies of the Phaya Naga extend along the entire length of the bridge, all the way to the island.

Bridge to old Wat Kham Chanot
Bridge to old Wat Kham Chanot

Golden frogs can be seen in the marsh on either side of the bridge.

Golden frogs
Golden frogs

Located right at the end of the bridge, the shrine on the right, below, had a constant line of people passing through. We didn’t wait in that line.

Temples on the island at old Wat Kham Chanot
Temples on the island at old Wat Kham Chanot

Phaya Naga can take human form, like the one seated on the altar below. Note the many offerings.

Phaya Naga in human form
Phaya Naga in human form

Phaya Naga sometimes appear with the upper body of a man or woman and the lower body of a snake – or in the case of the figures below, upper bodies of both humans and numerous (or multi-headed) serpent-form Phaya Naga.

Phaya Naga at Wat Kham Chanot
Phaya Naga at Wat Kham Chanot

The font below is said to flow from a spring. People anointed themselves with the water.

Font of the Phaya Naga
Font of the Phaya Naga

The many small shrines are built among some really cool old trees.

Wat Kham Chanot
Wat Kham Chanot

Paya Naga are also said to live in the Mekong River and estuaries. People of Laos and Thailand attribute the naga fireball phenomenon to Phaya Naga, along with standing waves, damage to vehicles and objects, and serpentine tracks that are frequently found. Scientists compare these and sightings of Phaya Naga with those of bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

Wat Kham Chanot
Wat Kham Chanot

“Naga fireballs, also known as bung fai paya nak or Mekong lights, are a phenomenon said to be often seen on the Mekong River. Glowing balls are alleged to naturally rise from the water high into the air. The balls are said to be reddish and to range in size from smaller sparkles up to the size of basketballs. They quickly rise up to a couple of hundred metres before disappearing. The number of fireballs reported varies between tens and thousands per night.” – Wikipedia

Wat Kham Chanot
Wat Kham Chanot

Recently a festival was held on the Mekong River. On TV I saw fireworks being launched from underwater to simulate naga fireballs. This is something I’ll try to learn more about.

Off of the island we visited a variety of small shrines, like the one below to some respected and deceased monk.

Shrine to a venerable monk at new Wat Kham Chanot
Shrine to a venerable monk at new Wat Kham Chanot

There were a number of large gongs available, and visitors could try various approaches to getting interesting sounds from them.

There are many ghost stories and hauntings associated with Wat Kham Chanot. Phaha Naga are said to sometimes go to the houses of people near the temple when they need something. Although people ask them for favors, they are very afraid of them.

After leaving the busy Wat Kham Chanot we stopped by an unfinished temple populated only by workers.

Unfinished temple
Unfinished temple

I find this temple exceptionally beautiful, and I like the open air design. There is something vaguely Nordic about it.

Unfinished temple
Unfinished temple

These Phaya Naga are some of the coolest I’ve seen, and I couldn’t resist using them as the featured picture for this post, in spite of the fact that they are not found at Wat Kham Chanot.

Phaya Naga
Phaya Naga

The inside too is simple and beautiful.

Unfinished temple
Unfinished temple
Unfinished temple
Unfinished temple

This temple has a paddock for deer. Wat Kham Chanot is said to have a small zoo of turtles, but I didn’t see that.

Deer
Deer

Please enjoy the full gallery of 20 pictures below.