Thai Serpent Beliefs: Naga, Phaya Nak and Ngeuak


The naga, revered and feared in Thai as the phaya nak or the nak, is a serpent with a variety of depictions ranging from a river serpent and bringer of rain to being a protector of Buddha or a benevolent deity. There are two main schools of thought that attempt to explain the origins of the nāga: the Indianized school that argues that naga beliefs stem from Indian mythology, and the local school that argues that indigineous serpent worship had existed in Thailand long probably before Brahmanism and Theravada Buddhism became prominent in Southeast Asia (Chang, 2017). In this essay, the word phaya nak will be used to refer to the Thai interpretation of the Indian naga, which in certain contexts may be used interchangeably due to how the naga has been arguably syncretized with the local Thai indigenous serpent beliefs. Other names of the phaya nak such as the ngeuak will also be discussed.

Naga: Through the Lens of Religion

It is unsurprising that Thailand is hugely influenced by Brahmanistic and Hindu beliefs, due to its proximity with India and the fact that Thailand used to be a part of the Khmer Empire whose primary religion is Hinduism and later Buddhism. Typically, if one were to stroll through the Buddhist temples located throughout Thailand, one would see countless sculptures of phaya nak adorning the roofs and stairways of the temples. The depiction of the phaya nak as guardians of holy temples is believed to be inspired from the Makara, the holy mount of Varuna from Vedic mythology (Chang, 2017). However, the Thai interpretation of the Makara was made to resemble a crocodile-like serpent, especially during the Sukhothai period when Makara ceramic statues were sculpted with two horns, holding a pearl in their mouth similar to that of the Chinese dragons (Chang, 2017). The portrayal of the naga as a protective force continues in the Khmer depiction of Buddha in the 7th – 13th centuries. Here, Buddha is seated atop of the naga’s serpentine coils in a meditative state, and this sculptural style could be later seen in Thailand after the Sukhothai kingdom was established as the first Thai state (Chang, 2017). 

Myths of the phaya nak when told through Buddhist lens often portray them in a benevolent light. A famous tale is the one that led to the depiction of the phaya nak protecting Buddha. In the Khuddaka Nikaya, it is written that there was a great rainstorm that lasted seven days, causing Mucalinda – the Naga King – to encircle Buddha’s body seven times with his coils and spread his great cobra-like hood over Buddha’s head to shelter Buddha from the rain. After the storm ceased, Mucalinda transformed his appearance into that of a youth and venerated Buddha (Chang, 2017). An oral tale taken from Northeast Thailand also speaks of the naga as the embodiment of Phra Upakut, a deity who brings and protects against evil. In this tale, the naga is the son of a mermaid and Buddha, perhaps pointing towards the naga’s origins as a water serpent (Chang, 2017). Another oral tale also from Northeast Thailand portrays a naga as being devout, transforming himself into a human being as he wishes to be ordained as a monk, explaining why newly ordained monks are called nak (Chang, 2017). Therefore, it can be seen that within a Buddhist worldview, the naga is a force of good, much like Buddha.

Naga: Through Indigenous Lens

It became clear that when studying folklore surrounding the phaya nak in Thailand, there appears to be two types of tales: myths of naga as incorporated into Buddhist beliefs and stories of the phaya nak when viewed through local, indiginous lens. The difference in the two depictions of the naga is stark, as rather than showing naga as an enlightened being or a being seeking enlightenment, the phaya nak is capable of love, anger and even destructive wrath. A tale from Northeast Thailand is that of Padaeng and Nang Ai (Chang, 2017). It revolves around the Naga Prince Suthonak who fell in love with the human Princess Nang Ai, causing him to shapeshift into an albino squirrel wearing a jewel around its neck to attract the princess’ attention. However, the squirrel was shot by a poisoned arrow and later eaten by the people of the princess’ city who shared its meat. The death of the naga prince was avenged by his father, the Naga King Thao Suwan Phangkhi, who killed all the people within the city. 

Intriguingly, tales of the naga wishing to marry human royals are also common outside of Thailand, including in countries such as Cambodia who too was part of the Khmer Empire. This can be seen in the story of the Khmer king who was expected to mate each night with a nine headed serpent princess to continue the royal lineage and ensure the prosperity of the kingdom (Tu, 2009). There also exists a Khmer tale of how Princess Nang Neak, daughter of King Naga, was married to Prince Preah Thong. In the 13th century, the Thais adapted this story into their own legends, claiming that the first king of the Sukhothai Kingdom has lineage from the naga princess (Tu, 2009).

There also exists local folklore where the naga is an ancestor of races of humans. In a legend by the Tai Lu people – an ethnic group of China, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Vietnam – which speaks of how the Tai race originated from the water serpent (Tu, 2009). Whilst fishing in the Mekong river near her home in Southern Yunnan, a young woman named Nang Sa touched what she believed to be a log floating in the water. Later, she gave birth to ten baby boys of which a naga king claimed to be his sons. Frightened, Nang Sa tried to escape with the children but her youngest son failed to escape. Thus, the naga king found the boy and bathed him in the Mekong river. When he grew up, the boy was appointed as the leader of his tribe and their descendents became what is now known as the Tais, the ancestors of the Thai and Laotian people (Tu, 2009).

What all these stories about the naga have in common is the naga’s ability to shapeshift. As aforementioned, in tales told from a Buddhist worldview, the naga shapeshifts into a human form to become ordained as a monk. In stories lacking overt Buddhist influences, the naga shapeshifts into an animal to attract the attention of its human love interest. Even in the Traibhumikatha, it is written that there are two different kinds of naga: the ‘water-born’, and the ‘land-born’ (Ruang, 1987). The latter can change their form when they are on land but are unable to shapeshift in the water. Vice versa, the water-born naga can transform themselves in the water, but not on land (Ruang, 1987). Strangely enough, neither kind of naga can shapeshift in the place where it sleeps nor when they are sloughing their skins. It is also stated that they can take forms as angelic as the devyata, with female nagas becoming as graceful as the female inhabitants of the celestial heavens (Ruang, 1987). When they are hunting the land in search of food, they can transform into whichever form most suits their needs, such as water snakes, cobras, green pit vipers or other forest beasts (Ruang, 1987).

Case Study: Chiang Saen Basin 

If one wishes to study how the naga is perceived through indigenous perspectives in contemporary times, then a good case study is that of the naga beliefs in the Chiang Saen Basin. Before the city was named Chiang Saen, the basin area was home to the town of Yonok which the locals believed was built by a prince who was assisted by a naga lord disguised in human form (Moonkham, 2017). The town ‘Yonok’ was named after the aforementioned naga lord, and after five hundred years of prosperity the town faced destruction by the hands of the same naga, as a consequence of the immoral deeds of its king (Moonkham, 2017). In a study conducted by Moonkham (2017), interviewees have described the story of Yonok’s fall as the following:

“People believed later it was a naga who escaped from their world and came and played with water up here. It transformed itself into a big white eel […] after they found the white eel, the people were surprised about its size as it seemed unusually humongous […] then they killed it, and after they killed it, they dragged it along the place where it became the stream (Huay Mae Rak) […] the place where it was killed became a river (Kok River) […]  the place where it was distributed became another river (Lua River) […] and the place where they found it became a village (Bann Mae Ha).”

“The smell of cooking the eel went over every house in the town and they all ate it, […] except one widow named Mae Bua Khiaw who lived isolated by herself on one of the hills outside the town. Nobody came to offer her anything. Then one young gentleman came and asked her what was happening and what was the smell of the food they were cooking and eating. Mae Bua Khiaw told him that ‘they caught the big white eel from the river today and distributed it to everyone, but nobody would come and offer me anything, plus I am too old to go anywhere,’ […] Then the young gentleman told her to not feel despair and suggested to her that no matter how loud or terrible the noise she heard, she should not at all come out and the widow agreed, […] Later that night she heard noises very loud like a falling sky and the earth quaked, […] and in the morning, she saw the whole town disappear, only the big lake in the middle of the town, […] That young gentleman was the Phanthu Nakkharat, the same nak who built the town.”

Several implications could be inferred from this tale. First, is that the nagas are not creatures who are of this world, but rather lived elsewhere and would occasionally come up through the waters to interact with the world of humans– where the nagas come from will be discussed later in the essay. Second, is how the rivers that formed the lands are actually parts of the naga’s body. This actually reflects the local folklore of Chiang Saen where it is believed that ‘all rivers, waterways, and lands, are either under the protection of or were created by the naga’ (Moonkham, 2017). Not only do rivers meander like snakes through the lands, resembling the slithering of nagas, but it is also believed that nagas who created the waterways use the rivers to travel in and out of their underworld which is why they act as protectors of such waterways (Moonkham, 2017). The local beliefs of the Chiang Saen basin can therefore be deemed to be a very animistic view.

Additionally, there also exists a belief that ‘to know, say, or in any way use the name of the naga is offensive to them if it has not been allowed’ (Moonkham, 2017). Because of this, rather than mentioning the names of nagas, the majority of the river names around the Chiang Saen basin are named after characteristics or actions related to the naga, such as Kham (which means ‘gold’), Rak (which means ‘to drag’), and Kok (which means ‘to kill’) (Moonkham, 2017). Not only are the naga the owners of the waterways, but they are also the owners of the land too. Prior to striking the first pole of a house into the ground, certain ritual ceremonies must be performed to ask for the naga’s permission and the structure of the house itself must follow the patterns of naga movements and positions (Moonkham, 2017).  Likewise, the naga is believed to be a predictor and powerful controller of rain, leading to ceremonies every April that worships the naga in order to receive water for crops (Moonkham, 2017). Hence, there is also a specific shrine erected in honor of the naga in Chiang Saen basin (Moonkham, 2017). 

Nagas are also capable of picking out humans to be their mediums. Mae Khwan, a medium interviewed by Moonkham (2017), was an orphan in destitute and working at a temple in the Chiang Saen basin when the naga possessed her. The possession caused many people to visit her in order to ask her to predict the rainfall or to tell if someone was sick, of which she was accurate in foreseeing. Similarly, Mae Wanna is also a devout Buddhist working at another temple who could communicate with the naga (Moonkham, 2017). She claims to have met Phor Pu Phanthu Nakkharat – the naga lord Phanthu – through a dream. She agreed to be the naga’s medium on the condition that she did not have to be possessed. In her interview with Moonkham (2017), Mae Wanna explained how the naga sometimes communicate through a yellow, gem-like oval-shaped stone which she allowed the interviewer to touch during their conversation. She believes that the reason the naga came to her is to help guide the populace through her so the calamity that befell Yonok will not happen again.

What is most interesting is the belief that the nagas are ancestors of the people. Similar to the aforementioned folklore of the Mekong where the son of the naga king is the ancestor of the Tai people, Mae Wanna also believes that she is a descendant of the naga. She believes that the people who come to Chiang Saen have some connection with Phor Pu Phanthu Nakkharat, that they all ‘somewhat relate to him or the naga’ in general (Moonkham, 2017). She claims that Phor Pu Phanthu Nakkharat is the one who brought them here, even the reason that the interviewer Moonkham came to visit too. In her own words: ‘We are the children of the naga, […] this land is the land of him, he built it and he destroyed it because some people offended him and became immoral’ (Moonkham, 2017). 

Her belief reflects the views of the Abbot of the Phrachao Lanthong temple who stated that:

“The naga is with us since the beginning of time, […] especially with people of the Tai ethnic groups, […] they embedded this belief in their blood since the emergence of the Tai people […] it cannot be separated from us, […] it is like our individual self.”

Many oral traditions from the Chiang Saen basin are believed to have emerged from spiritual beliefs which existed prior to the introduction of Buddhism. This is supported by how the abbot of the Phrachao Lanthong temple claims that naga worship was practiced by locals long before around 200 BC when Buddhism arrived in the region (Moonkham, 2021). Likewise, it could also be argued that the term ‘naga’ was developed later on as attempts were made to try and describe the mythic serpent in a Buddhist context, suggesting that the existence of the naga as we know it today may have emerged from ancient serpent cults (Moonkham, 2021). Archeological evidence in support of this theory can be seen in the painted earthenware pots discovered around the Siam peninsula. In places such as Ban Chieng, Udonthani, Ban Kao, and Kanchanaburi, painted earthenware pots depicting many wave-like serpent designs decorated around the pottery body were found (Tu, 2009). These findings indicate the possibility that serpent cult worship was possibly practiced by the primitive society in the Siam peninsula during the Metal Age around about 2000–3000 years ago (Tu, 2009).

Naga: Chthonic or Celestial

Regardless of what the nagas are, there is still the question of where they are from. In Thai folklore, it is believed that nagas live in the ‘underworld’, known in Thai as Muang Badan (Misaengruthkul, 2019). This is similar to Indian legends, where the underworld is said to be mostly submerged underwater and is split into seven sections, with one of the sections (‘Nakalok’) being ruled by higher-leveled nagas (Misaengruthkul, 2019). This underworld – although underwater – is still situated above the ‘narok’, a realm which could be loosely described to be hell, known commonly in Buddhist cosmology as ‘nakara’ (Misaengruthkul, 2019). The main difference in the belief held in Thailand is that the underworld is not clearly split into seven sections. Instead, the underworld is home to a variety of otherworld beings, including the naga. Not only are the nagas believed to dwell within the underworld, but they also have several servants in the form of water Prai, mermaids, aquatic creatures, reptiles, venomous animals and all kinds of snakes (Misaengruthkul, 2019). Regardless, the location of the Thai version of the underworld is still situated above the narok/naraka (Misaengruthkul, 2019).

Additionally, Muang Badan also serves as an endless water source that keeps the Mekong River and all other rivers from drying out (Tu, 2009). This also mirrors the belief of locals at Chiang Saen, who claim that there are ‘six naga holes in total around Chiang Saen’, with one of them being ‘under the water by the Mekong river bank’ (Moonkham, 2021). Presumably, these naga holes located under the water are the entrances to the underworld, drawing a parallel to the Indian belief that the underworld is mostly submerged underwater. The location of the entrances to the underworld are implied to be deemed sacred too, as the locals at Chiang Saen declined to tell Moonkham (2021) where exactly the holes are located as ‘it’s not supposed to be known by everyone’, only that two of the wholes are on the Thai side of the Mekong River whilst four of them are on the Laos side. Therefore, these folk beliefs only support the association that nagas have with water and the chthonic underwater worlds.

It is only from a Buddhist worldview in which the naga gains a more celestial attribute. According to the Buddhist beliefs, nagas are servants of Thao Wirupak (also known as Virūpākṣa) – one of the Four Heavenly Kings who guards the west direction of the cardinal directions – and are tasked with protecting the teachings of Buddha (Misaengruthkul, 2019). According to the Pali Canon, it is said that the Four Heavenly Kings dwell within the Cāturmahārājika heaven, one of the worlds of the celestial devas of Buddhist cosmology. This religious depiction of the naga as dwelling up in the heavens is a clear departure from local folklore of nagas dwelling down beneath the waters in the underworld.

Naga: Ngeuak and Phi Ngeuak

Another interesting aspect to note about folklore surrounding the naga belief in Thailand is how the term ngeuak is used interchangeably with nak. In the Chiang Saen basin, the naga is also known as the phi ngeuak (Moonkham, 2021). In places like Laos, similar belief exists where the ngeuak are feared and believed to be ‘fickle and unpredictable, and must be placated by people’ (Hashimoto, 2008). Some Laotians also believe that those who drowned in rivers died due to being eaten by the ngeuak (Hashimoto, 2008). Moreover, there is a legend in Luang Prabang which stated that in primitive times, the kingdom was populated by two ngeuak, who became the wives of the king by transforming themselves into human figures (Hashimoto, 2008). This greatly mirrors the Thai and Cambodian tales, mentioned earlier in the essay, of nagas marrying royals. The question of what exactly is a ngeauk is difficult to answer, but the Lexicon of the Royal Institute B.E. 2525 provides several meanings of the word, one of which means ‘snake’ in the old Tai language, similar to the usual depiction of nagas as serpent (Nimmanahaeminda, 2005). Likewise, in the Oath of Allegiance by the Ritual Water Curse (Ongkarn Chaeng Nam), the word ngeuak was sometimes used to mean naga (Nimmanahaeminda, 2005).

It should also be noted that the ngeuak are sometimes called phi ngeuak, as is the case in the Chiang Saen basin. The prefix phi can be roughly translated to mean spirit or ghost. Just as in Laotian beliefs, there are also folklore in Thailand where if someone died by drowning inexplicably (such as drowning in spite of being a proficient swimmer or drowning in shallow water), it is believed that they were killed by the phi ngeuak (Thongtow, 2019). Water spirits known as phi naam are born from the spirit of those who drowned, and are sometimes called the phi ngeuak as well (Thongtow, 2019). Much more menacingly, it is believed that the ngeuak would drink blood, whether human blood or cow blood or that from other animals (Thongtow, 2019).

Perhaps, there is an element common across all folktales that connects the belief regarding the naga and the phi ngeuak, and that element is water. The naga dwells within the waterways, same as the ngeuak who dwells within bodies of water and sometimes causing death through drowning, allowing the drowned to become a phi ngeuak. Water is often associated with death and bodies of water are regarded as the portal between realms, a famous myth being that of the river Styx that separates the land of the living from the land of the dead. There is a similar belief in the Lanna kingdom of Thailand, whereupon funerary rites involve placing a small packet of cooked rice into a shoulder bag laid in the coffin (Nimmanahaeminda, 2005). This is done in order to aid the dead in crossing the bridge over the river to the opposite side, as there would be no return once the dead person reached the other side, and scholars have found that this belief existed among the Tai in general, being shared by the ethnic races of the Tai-Yai and the Tai-Lue (Nimmanahaeminda, 2005). Through water, there is perhaps a connection between the venerated naga and the much feared phi ngeuak who sometimes behaves like a restless dead.


In another potential essay, I would like to draw attention to the similarities between Thai phaya nak and the fairy folklore of the western world. From the watery underworld of Celtic folklore to the fae-esque belief that ‘to know, say, or in any way use the name of the naga is offensive to them if it has not been allowed’, to the parallel between fairy consorts and naga marriage, to the naga’s shapeshifting abilities and their capricious nature, there is a lot to be potentially discussed in this topic. Nonetheless, all that is certain is that the nature of the naga or the phaya nak is a complicated one, made even more perplexing when taking into account local folk beliefs regarding the ngeuak or the phi ngeuak.


  1. Chang, Y.-L. (2017). Exploring Naga Images: Textual Analysis of Thailand’s Narratives. Journal of Mekong Societies, 13(1), 19-35. Retrieved from 
  2. Tu, P.A. (2009). The Significance of Naga in Thai Architectural and Sculptural Ornaments.
  3. Ruang, L. P. (1987). Traibhumikatha: the story of the three planes of existence. Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 
  4. Moonkham, P. (2017). Mythscape: An Ethonohistorical Archeology of Space and Narrative of the Naga in Northern Thailand
  5. Moonkham, P. (2021) Ethnohistorical Archaeology and the Mythscape of the Naga in the Chiang Saen Basin, Thailand. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and National Studies of Southeast Asia, 9(2), pp.185–202.
  6. Miseangruthkul, V. (2019). Naga and Underworld: Belief Development in Buddhist Perspective. Academic MCU Buriram Journal, 4(2), 104-114. Retrieved from
  7. Hashimoto, S. (2008). Spirit cults and Buddhism in Luang Prabang, Laos: Analyses of rituals in the Boat Race Festivals. International Journal of Sport and Health Science, 6, 219–229.  
  8. Nimmanahaeminda, P. (2005). Water lore: Thai-tai folk beliefs and literature. MANUSYA, 8(3), 27–39.  
  9. Thongtow, P. (2019) An Ethnosemantic Study of Spirit Terms in Ubon Ratchathani. Retrieved from

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Ivy Senna

occultist, animist and astrolater.

One thought on “Thai Serpent Beliefs: Naga, Phaya Nak and Ngeuak”

  1. Thank you soo much for the work and research put into this topic. I’ve been a Buddhist but just found out this year that Dragons are directly tied in with the religion. That’s the coolest thing ever. Then I found out that all our Southeast Asian local serpent stories directly connects with the Hindu nagas 100%. Was doing many research but this article takes the cake with soo much new history and connections. The dragon never dies. Thank you work.


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