A Big Fish Tale: The Thailand Naga Photograph, by Trevor Ranges

A Big Fish Tale

Andy Z. is a minor celebrity in Thailand. However, most people, Thai and farang alike, would probably not recognize his face; none would know his name. Nonetheless, many are familiar with a photograph in which he appears. The photo is on display in bars, restaurants, guesthouses, and markets around Thailand. It was even featured in last year’s box-office hit, Mekong Full Moon Party. Those who know of the photograph generally agree with the caption above it which reads: “Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973 with the length of 7.80 meters.”

Many people would be shocked to know it is Andy in the photo. In fact many have denied that it is him: “The first time I saw the photograph in Thailand I was at Chatuchak Weekend Market,” Andy explains. “I pointed at myself in the photo and said to the man who was selling copies of it, ‘That’s me’, but he just shook his head, laughed, and said ‘No, no, no.’”

It is not that he looks so different now than when the photo was taken that makes so many disbelieve his claim. It is because today he looks so much like he did on the day the photo was taken. In fact, Andy is now only 30 years old.

“No one would ever believe that it was me,” Andy recalls. “’No. Impossible.’ They kept saying ‘The words say 1973.’”

In fact, the photo was taken on September 19, 1996 at the Naval Special Warfare Center, Coronado, California. “We were on our morning physical fitness run,” Andy recalls, “when we came across this huge fish lying on the sand.” At 23 feet in length and 4 feet in circumference, it was quite a shocking site for the Navy SEAL cadets. “We called it the AGE fish, because if you saw it underwater you would rocket to the surface, exploding your lungs, hence AGE (Arterial Gas Embolism).”

After carrying the enormous fish back to the Naval Amphibious Base the SEALs contacted scientist H.J. Walker from The University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Walker identified the fish as an oarfish (Regalecus glesne), a reclusive fish that inhabits the depths of warm tropical waters around the world. Encounters with this enormous fish are rare and not much is known of their habits. The oarfish normally stay down at extreme depths of 700ft or greater.

Walker surmised that this particular fish had wandered to the surface because it was sick or dying, and then perished as a result of a laceration from a boat propeller. Andy’s recollection of the fish’s condition confirms this hypothesis, and a quick examination of the original photograph supports this conclusion, as a large cleave is apparent just behind the head, and another long gash runs along the bottom of the fish for several feet.

The Thai version of the photo has clearly been changed to mask these injuries. “In reality, the fish’s head was about to come off, but all the photos in Thailand have been touched up,” Andy explains, “especially the eyes.” While the eye in the altered photo does appear unrealistic, the smudging to cover the cuts is deceptively effective.

The original photo was taken by a Naval Special Warfare Center Public Affairs Officer, and was first featured in the Coronado Eagle, a small local paper, and then in the April 1997 issue of All Hands, a US Navy-owned publication.

How and when the photo first appeared in Thailand is a mystery equal to that of the mythical Naga which is supposedly represented in the photograph. The Naga, an underwater creature from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, is superior to humans, and is keeper of the life-giving energy that is inherent in fresh water. The claim that the photo was taken in Laos probably stems from the ancient belief that the King of Nagas reigns in an underwater kingdom called Muang Badan. Muang Badan was believed to exist deep beneath the Mekhong River, with its capital city lying below Nong Khai Province.

Nong Khai is a common place to find copies of the photograph and is a likely place for the origin of the Thai version of the photo. Famous for the annual fireball displays which occur on the full moon night of the 11th month of the lunar year, Nong Khai hosts tens of thousands of visitors who travel there to witness the breathtaking event. Called the “Bung Fai Phya Nak”, the Naga Fireballs, this seemingly natural phenomenon has been anecdotally ascribed to the Naga king paying tribute to the Lord Buddha in commemoration of the end of Buddhist Lent. It seems credible that the local legends of the Naga, the fireball phenomenon, and the pilgrimage of thousands of sightseers were fertile conditions for an enterprising individual to reinvent the photo of the oarfish as a part of local folklore.

When I asked one vendor about the story behind the photo she explained that the caption was indeed true and that all of the soldiers had died after eating the meat of the fish. Interestingly, this story has elements of both fable and fact behind it. The Thai-Isaan folk epic Phadaeng Nang Ai, which recounts the creation of the Mekhong River, describes the consumption of the Naga Prince Phangkhi by the people of Phaphong City and the killing by the Naga King of all those who ate his son. Coincidentally perhaps, the SEALs were challenged by Walker to try eating some of the fish. He had sampled one on a previous occasion and had said that the meat, when cooked, tasted like paper. Whether he or the SEALs had knowledge of the legend is unknown. Regardless, the SEALs declined his offer.

Even a government agency may have drawn a connection between the legend of the Naga and the photograph of the oarfish. On its website, which provides information about the Naga fireballs, the agency recounts the story of the 23-foot Phra Ya Nak – “The biggest freshwater fish captured in the Mekhong”. According to the site, the Naga was captured alive by US military personnel on September 28, 1996 and subsequently sent to the US for examination. The fish supposedly died the following month. It seems quite likely that this is a reference to the incident that occurred that very month in California; the only difference between the two, other than location, is a quote from unknown sources claiming the creature had “seven skin colors and light green blood”.

Even in the West the oarfish has been mistaken for the incarnation of mythical creatures. In fact, historical reports of a 56-foot serpent-like fish found on the shores of Scotland, believed now to have been an oarfish, may have spawned the legend of the Loch Ness monster. Early accounts of sea serpents in the Atlantic Ocean are also thought to have been rare encounters with giant oarfish. That being said, the Naga may well be real, but like the Loch Ness monster, it just hasn’t been verifiably photographed yet.

Contributor’s disclaimer: In a request by Andy Z. he asked to remain anonymous and unidentified in the photo. I also wish to make it clear that I am in no way attempting to disprove the existence of the Naga or the challenge the authenticity of the Bung Fai Phya Nak.

– Trevor Ranges

Published by Trevor Ranges

Trevor is a Southeast-Asia based writer, editor, educator, and thought-leader.

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