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Naga Hoax Exposed

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Historical Feature

Photograph purporting to be the a Naga queen proved a brilliant exercise in how to market a myth

Sometime in the late 1990s street vendors and shop owners all over Thailand began displaying and selling an impressive photograph which described the capture of a mythical Naga by men of a United States military unit operating at the Mekong River during the Vietnam War.

The Naga is a serpent, or water spirit, steeped in Buddhist mythology. Carvings in stone and wood can be seen in many Buddhist temples all over Thailand. Nagas are believed to inhabit the murkier reaches of the Mekong River as mythology suggests this is where the centre of the kingdom of the Nagas is located. Every year, in late October or early November, people gather along the shores of the Mekong to watch a phenomenon called the Naga fireballs. Many locals believe the fireballs are caused by lurking but unseen Nagas.

The caption on the photograph was intended, of course, to convey a statement of either incontrovertible or difficult to ascertain fact. It read, in poor English: 'Queen of Nagas seized by American army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, 1973 with the length of 7.80 metres.'

Rumours quickly spread that the American soldiers seen holding the Naga all died after eating the flesh of the dead creature. Another rumour claimed the plane carrying the carcass of the dead Naga back to the United States crashed.

It wasn't long before the photograph could be found hanging on the walls of guesthouses, small-scale hotels, noodle shops and ordinary homes as well as being offered for sale to gullible tourists and even more gullible locals. Just who first found the photograph and hit upon the idea to market it in the fashion they did has never been discovered.


Naturally enough it wasn't long before some people became sceptical about the photograph, doubting its authenticity and believing it to be a good example of the art of photo manipulation. In fact, the suspicion regarding the photograph was wrong on one count, but correct on another.

The date and location of the alleged capture of the Naga were immediately suspicious to anyone with a reasonable working knowledge of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War as it pertains to Thailand and Laos.

The Paris Peace Accords had been signed in January 1973 and by March that year all US combat forces had been removed from Vietnam. There were no US Marine Corps personnel north of the Sattahip naval base at that time, and the closest bases with US troops were in Udon Thani and Nakhon Phanom. There had never been a US military base on the Laotian side of the Mekong, although the base at Nakhon Phanom in the extreme north-east was just across the Mekong from Laos. Known as the 'City of Hills' the Americans nicknamed it 'Naked Fanny' because it was so close to Laos. They called it 'the worst base we had in Thailand, but the best one we had in Vietnam'.

Some sceptics pointed out US forces had not been issued with the style of brown t-shirts shown being worn by the soldiers in the photograph as early as 1973. The background of the picture clearly shows a secure military base with aluminium fencing topped by barbed wire with a US Navy sailor in a white cap.


The real story behind the photograph is far more prosaic. First of all, the photograph is indeed genuine, but is of an oarfish, a creature rarely found alive and rarely seen. The precise photograph of the oarfish being passed off as a Naga was first published in an issue of an American magazine called Ocean Realm in late 1996. The same picture was reproduced again in the April 1997 edition of the US Naval publication All Hands.

In an article written by William Leo Smith for Ocean Realm, he stated instructors with the US Navy SEALS had found the body of an oarfish measuring almost eight metres in length washed up on the shore at place called Coronado in California while they were out for a morning jog.

The Navy 'notified the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography [who sent three people] to the Naval Special Warfare Command…' They looked at the specimen, took a few photos in situ on the beach and interviewed the SEAL instructors who found the fish. The scientists could not find any 'obvious reasons for death…Externally, the fish had a few large gashes on its right side…behind the head, and a noticeable piece of the forehead had been removed as well.' They surmised the oarfish's '…wounds were caused by a propeller of some sort.'

The body of the oarfish was brought back to the Naval Special Warfare Command base where it was washed off and pictures were taken of the 100 kilogram-plus creature, 'with different Navy personnel.'

The article noted, 'Oarfish tend to be more tropical species…However, they are found worldwide…predominantly in the tropics.' Little is known about the oarfish although it is known they are not good for eating. Some scientists baked a piece of the fish and said it shrank a lot and tasted like fibrous paper.

Local ingenuity, a dash of the mystical and eerie, and some clever marketing all combined to create one of the most recognisable pictures of late twentieth century Thailand.

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-- Pattaya One 2010-12-14

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Rumours quickly spread that the American soldiers seen holding the Naga all died after eating the flesh of the dead creature. Another rumour claimed the plane carrying the carcass of the dead Naga back to the United States crashed.

I saw the photo many times but never heard any of the supposed "rumors". I have a feeling that part of the story is more of a myth than anything to do with the fish itself. ;)

Edited by Ulysses G.
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