The origins of the naga are debated. Snake cults are thought to have existed in Southeast Asia long before the arrival of Buddhism in the region, particularly in Cambodia, so it is possible that this snake-like icon is indigenous. Another possibility is that the naga is a cultural migrant from Hindu India. In Hindu mythology, the naga, Sanskrit for serpent, is sometimes associated with the god Vishnu in his incarnation as Narayana, a cosmic dreamer reclining on the body of a giant naga and floating on an endless sea. Buddhism adopted the icon, and a story relates how, while meditating, the historic Buddha was sheltered by a seven-headed naga during a violent rainstorm. In Laos, it is probable that the present-day form of the naga, called nak or phayanak in Lao, is a fusion of both indigenous and imported beliefs.
The naga is both a symbol of water and its life-giving properties, and a protector of the Lao people. An old legend is still related of how a naga residing in a hole below Vientiane’s That Dam stupa was known to rise up at critical moments and unleash itself upon foreign invaders. While the naga is mainly a benign figure, a similar water serpent, the ngeuak, is especially feared by Lao fishermen. Believed to devour the flesh of drowning victims, ngeuak are said to infest the waters around Si Phan Don. As for the existence of naga in modern-day Laos, the Lao point to “proof” that can be seen in a photograph displayed in some homes, eateries and places of business. The photo shows a line of American soldiers displaying a freshly caught deep-sea fish that is several metres long; some copies of the photograph have the Lao words nang phayanak (Lady Naga) printed below. Where and when the photo was taken is a mystery, but many Lao believe that the photo depicts a naga captured in the Mekong by American soldiers during the Second Indochina War.