The following day we left Bangkok and flew north to Udon Thani in the north of the country that would be our base of operations for the rest of the expedition. We were met at the airport by the other main player in the adventure Pongpol Adireksarn better known in the west under his pen name Paul Adirex. A best selling author both in east and west he specialises in action thrillers and has penned four best sellers one of which "Mekong" features nagas in which he firmly believes.

As well as this Pongpol is the campaign manager of the opposition party in Thailand. Charming and witty he was a joy to work with. When I asked him if his politics were left or right he answered, "In Thai politics there is no left or right, just right and wrong!"

In Udon Thani we checked into our hotel and were met by a some of Pongpol's friends and assistants including a friendly and enthusiastic young man called Pracha Manakarn - or "Pang" to his friends. Pang owned a pub in Udon Thani and wanted to become a tourist guide. I never did find out exactly what he did for Pongpol but he proved to be an excellent companion and addition to the team.

That evening a banquet in Pongpol's honour was held at a local restaurant. He seemed to be a very well liked man (unlike most western politicians) and a local celebrity. It was here that I ate Mekong catfish soup. I'm not a great lover of fish (as food that is) but the Mekong catfish had some of the most delicious flesh I have ever eaten. If you can imagine the most succulent melt in the mouth fish mixed with Parma violets you might get some idea.

The following day we drove to a statue garden. Here gigantic statues some 150 feet or more tall stand surrounded by jungle. One could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a lost city of the H. Rider-Haggard kind but the statues are only about 20 years old.

They depicted mainly religious characters. Thailand is a Buddhist country but their Buddhism is singular in that it has been heavily influenced by Hinduism. Hence alongside sculptures of the Lord Buddha gods such as Kali, Ganeesh, and Hanuman are found. This is an important factor that I shall return to later.

There were several massive statues of nagas including the multi-headed naga king shading Buddha as he meditates.

As well as the naga, other Thai monsters were present. The garuda is a creature half bird half man, who is said to bring the rains on his wings. There is also a magickal golden lion. All three live together in a mystic jungle. So we have a giant water serpent, a bird man, and a mystery big cat in the same country. Sound familiar?

garuda (monster archetype)

statue of naga archetype

It seems there are universal templates for monsters. One could just as easily be talking about Morgawr, Owlman, and the Beast of Bodmin.

Later in the town of Nongkhai we spoke to Malinee Phisaphan an old lady who had seen a naga five years earlier. Malinee ran an antique stamp shop and a cyber cafe!

She was highly intelligent and read, wrote, and spoke perfect English. She and a friend had been riding through town on a bus when they passed by a bridge.

Both of them saw a huge black snake in the water beneath the bridge. Malinee described it as around seventeen feet long and as thick about as a football (that is an English football). It could have been a large python but it would have had to have been melanistic. The next day was an important one. The naga mystery has been mixed up with several other mysteries in its complicated folklore. One of these is the naga fireballs.

On October 13th every year balls of red light are seen shooting out of the Mekong river. Locals believe these to be the breath of the naga and to herald the end of the rainy season. Huge crowds are drawn to celebrate and view the phenomena from the banks of the Mekong river.

The Fortean in me noted the balls of blue light associated with giant snakes in the Amazon and believed to be their bioluminescent eyes. I also thought of earth lights often reported over water. Perhaps two Fortean phenomena were occurring here side by side.

brochure with naga on cover

In the daytime, before the nocturnal lights appeared, a huge parade was run. This included hundreds of people in traditional dress, bands, and floats holding images of the naga. It ended with a temple made entirely from bamboo leaves being floated upon the river.

naga river float

I am a zoologist but I am also a pagan, a practising magician, and a believer in magick. I had prepared my own offering for the naga that I had brought all the way from England. It consisted of a piece of jade (oriental dragons are fond of jade according to legend) incense, and a resin statue of a dragon.

I was planning to float this down the river as an offering. Unfortunately I had not realised the steepness of the bank or the thickness of the crowd that night and had to postpone my offering's launch.

I found myself surrounded by 100,000 screaming Thais shining spotlights and laser pointers on the water and letting off fireworks. Traditional long boats illuminated with candles and lamps passed by as we waited for the phenomena to begin. Suddenly a shout went up, a fireball had been spotted. Shortly after I saw a red light spring upwards from the opposite bank then fade away. Soon more followed firstly in the singular the in twos, threes, and fours. Swiftly something dawned upon me, if this were a natural phenomena it would be occurring from the entire width of the river. All the lights were springing up from the far bank of the Mekong, i.e., the Laotian side. Also they were all coming from areas were lamps were visible and presumably people were present. They also look very orchestrated. The fabled naga fireballs seemed to be nothing more than fireworks, the relatively noiseless kind that fade away rather than exploding, much like maritime distress flares. I mentioned this to some of my Thai companions, who said they couldn't possibly be fireworks because they were silent and faded rather than exploding!

fireball festival

You have doubtless heard of the Loch Ness "hoodoo", the ill luck that befalls those trying to photograph the monster. Cameras jam or are forgotten, or something else happens at the crucial moment the hamper the picture. Well I suffered from Mekong hoodoo. Earlier that day I had checked the charge on the batteries of my video camera. They said I had over an hour of film left.

When I tried to film the festival the camera gave out halfway through the pre-fireball parade (but if you're here who is grooming the nagas ready for the naga parade?). Hence I had to rely on a stills camera.

A couple of days later as I tried to rewind, the back opened and all the film spooled out. I wouldn't read too much into this as I am the most cack-handed and incompetent technophobe you are ever likely to meet. So the fireballs bit the dust. I was satisfied that the Laotians were having a good chuckle at their friends across the river. But there were other riddles waiting for my attention. The next day we visited the village of Phon Pisai were Pongpol interviewed a Buddhist abbot (who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Brian Glover) and his monks about a strange naga encounter. The temple was the most spectacular building in the village, adorned with dragons and nagas.

Eight years ago there was an old temple were the fine new one stands. The ancient, tumbledown erection had become unsightly and dangerous so it was decided to pull it down and build a new one. But when ever work men approached a huge black snake would appear and rear up striking at them.

Workmen, monks, and abbot all saw it. It was very thick but they could not estimate the length as the creature never revealed its whole body but kept most of its coils in the building. Final an offering was given to the monster and it disappeared overnight.

richard and naga

Back in Nong Khai we interviewed a Dr Manus. He had a theory on the fireballs. According to him on October the 13th the Earth is in such an alignment with the Sun that the solar waves are at a certain length that in some way effects gas molecules in the river and energises them into fireballs. He had some gizmo for reading gaseous emissions and showed us that around the 13th and a couple of days either side the emissions rose. I'm no physicist but all this sounded a little dodgy to me. As it turned out Dr Manus was no physicist either, he was a paediatrician! He gave me the address of his website but I lost it on my way home and have not been able to locate his site on the net. If any readers have better luck please let me know.

The following day we were back in Phon Pisai to interview another witness. Officer Suphat is chief of police in Phon Piasi. Three years ago he and a group of thirty people had been walking on some cliffs overlooking the Mekong.

police chief Suphat (witness)

They had seen what at first they believed to be flotsam floating along in the river. As it drew closer they became aware that it was moving against the current.

Looking down they saw a gigantic black snake swimming with a horizontal flexation (indicative of a fish, amphibian, or reptile).

I asked Officer Suphat how long the monster was. His answer staggered me, seventy metres! I double checked thinking there had been a mistranslation but he clarified seventy metres or two hundred and thirty feet. A monster of truly Toho studios dimensions.

The crowd watched as the naga swam by then were overcome by fear and fled. He later asked a Buddhist monk about his sighting. The holy man confirmed what he had seen was a naga. He explained that some years ago a statue of Buddha was being transported by boat across the river. The boat capsized and the statue fell to the river bed. Since then nagas have come to protect it.

The officer's monster seems excessively long. I think what he may have seen were several nagas swimming in line, perhaps males in pursuit of a female much as the "Migo" footage from New Britain shows two crocodiles swimming in single file. Alternatively it could have been a long wake that made and already huge serpent seem even longer.

Another enigma awaited me in Phon Pisai, one that excited me as a zoologist. The bones of an actual naga were said to be kept as holy relics in the village! A strange story was attached to them. Their current owner had a dream in which he was visited by a naga. The serpent told him to cross the bridge into Laos were he would meet a man who owned naga bones. He was told to buy the bones. Duly the man crossed the bridge the next day and met the bone owner. But the Laotian refused to sell the bones and the Thai returned empty handed. Next night the naga came to his dreams again and told the man to return and ask the Laotian if he would sell half the naga bones. Once more the bone`s owner refused and the man came home with nothing. One final time the serpent entered the man`s sleeping mind and told him to try once more and that the Laotian would relent. The man crossed the bridge a third time and indeed the other conceded and sold him the bones.

This aside I was excited at the prospect of laying my hands on real physical evidence of the creature. We were told that the owner did not want to be filmed and would not let us take the bones away for DNA analysis as I had wanted. However we were allowed to film and touch them. I was confident about being able to identify snake bones and hoped we had stumbled across evidence of a titanic new species. The bones were brought to the police station and kept under lock and key until we arrive. They were brought out in a silver chalice. We waited with baited breath as the lid was removed to reveal a sodding elephant`s tooth! Quite how, in a country so jam packed with pachyderms anyone could mistake an elephant's tooth for anything else is beyond your humble narrator. Another mystery shot down in flames.

large tooth

My final full day in Thailand turned out to be the most exciting and fruitful. We drove for hours north along dirt tracks in the jungle then trekked on foot to an extremely remote village in the forested hills. I don't even know if this place has a name, I never found out. As Randi from It Ain't Half Hot Mum said it's the back of beyond and then some. Our witness was a sprightly old man of about seventy called Mr Pimpa.

Mr Pimpa

He had a frighteningly close encounter with a naga in some little known caves in the area. After filming and interviewing Mr Pimpa he offered to take us underground to the naga's lair. We were led to a small cave mouth in a hillside hidden by the verdant morass. It did not look like much but Mr Pimpa told us that it led to a network of caves that stretched for some ten miles beneath the hills and connected with the Mekong. Like a guardian a strangely flattened and cryptically coloured spider four inches across lurked on the lichen at the cave mouth.

cave entrance

The camera crew filmed the entrance and Peter the producer followed Mr Pimpa, Pang, and myself into the first cave. Roughly fifteen feet square and four feet high it did not look like much but by flickering candle light our aged guide showed us a tiny triangular tunnel in one corner. Peter with his expensive hand held camera went no further and I left my bulky camera behind too as Pang and I followed Mr Pimpa.

The tunnel was half filled with water and so low one had to crouch. It led on for some forty feet into the main net work. It was as if we had entered the fevered mind of Clark Ashton Smith. These caves were by far the strangest and most alien place I have ever been in. Imagine a hybrid of the labyrinth of Sogo in "Barbarella" and the "Caves of Androzani" from the eponymous Dr Who adventure. Now shrink them. None of this honeycomb was more that four feet high. The dank, unwholesome passages were usually half that wide. Occasionally they widened out into spaces of fifteen feet. These were peopled with unearthly rock formations like giant coffins or Greek pillars. All were festooned with offerings of jasmine wreaths in honour of the great serpent.

On several occasions we had to cross icy subterranean rivers and navigate razor-sharp stalactites that hung like guillotines from the ceiling. When not crouched we were on all fours or slithering like worms on our bellies through the primal slime. No bats hung from the ceiling but I observed what looked like tiny glowing strings of pearls hanging from the cave ceiling. These were drops of luminous saliva suspended on strands of silk by carnivorous midge lava like ghoulish fishing rods. I have only heard about these from caves in New Zealand and never else were. Unfortunately I was not carrying a specimen jar (a near physical impossibility down there) so I could not collect any. Does anyone out there have any idea if this is a new species?

We travelled for about a mile until we came to the place Mr Pimpa had seen the monster some ten years ago. It was an elongate tubular cave. The old man had been exploring by candle light when he had turned into this cave and come across a giant snake. Its head was in the shadows but the visible portion of its body was sixty feet long. Mr Pimpa pressed himself back against the wall in terror as the giant reptile crawled by at an agonisingly slow pace. Its scales were black with a glossy green sheen and it was around two and a half to three feet thick. Finally it disappeared along the passage and Mr Pimpa collapsed gasping in relief. In the dark his had fell against a tiny semi-precious stone which he pocketed. Scrambling back out of the cave system he returned to the village and told his weird tale. He later had the stone mounted onto a serpent shaped ring which he showed to us. He believed that despite the fear he felt at the time the naga brought him luck.Prior to his adventure he was a poor man who could hardly afford to feed his family. After it he inherited some land and became a successful farmer. The caves were now considered sacred to the villagers.

Fortunately the resourceful Pang had a tiny pocket camera and took shots of me in the Naga cave. He is posting them on to me shortly.

He led us back along a different set of passages and I regretted not having brought a ball of twine. Suddenly daylight streamed in and I looked up to see a vertical shaft ten feet high with perpendicular slime covered walls. Mr Pimpa shot up it like a monkey but a portly clumsy cryptozoologist is not the most agile of creatures. After several attempts I was forced to climb up poor Pang like a living ladder and be dragged the rest of the way by our guide. We then pulled up trampled Pang and trekked back off through the jungle to our crew.

I was impressed by Mr Pimpa's testimony. He had nothing to gain from lying to us and was not paid for his story and seemed genuinely supprised that people from the outside world were interested. He was a very nice man who went out of his way to be helpful.

That night back in the hotel I was shown the film taken by the director of Pata zoo of the supposed naga swimming in the Mekong. Most film of cryptids is bad, fuzzy, pixelated, out of focus, but this took the biscuit. It was a wobbly badly filmed log being bobbed up and down by the current. Nothing more, nothing less.

tv picture of water

We had a goodbye drink at Pang's pub, "Made in Udon Thani". It's a great place with live bands beautiful bar maids, good food, and good beer. If you're ever in Udon Thani be sure to check it out and give Pang my regards.

The next day we flew back to Bangkok and awaited our transport home. Bob, Derek, and Somyot returned to there abodes in Thailand. Peter, Sandra, (who live in Hong Kong) and I waited for our planes. We had a drink with an old friend of Peter`s Mike Dyer, a computer programmer who married a beautiful Thai girl and lives in the country full time.

Sandra and Peter's flight was several hours before mine so Mike kindly stayed and downed several pitchers of beer with me whilst I waited for mine. He told me of the idyllic life he had led, living in a shack on a beach in southern Thailand with a lovely Thai girl selling tee-shirts to tourists, until they built a hotel over his shack. At the moment his wife is very ill with a respiratory disease caught from bat guano in some caves. My best wishes go out to both her and Somyot's wife.

I slept most of the flight back, and returned to cold, rain, and floods. After the laid back attitude of Thailand it was as if a tidal wave of woe had broken over my head. But forgetting my moanings for a moment what conclusions did I come to?

Firstly, the fireballs seem to be man made, possibly in order to attract custom to the area (stall holders really cleaned up on the 13th). Secondly, the naga bones were elephant teeth. Thirdly, the naga film was a floating log in the Frank Searle mould.

But one mystery remains unbowed, the naga itself. The witnesses seem to fall into two categories, those who saw something in the river and those who saw something on land. Both however have mystic overtones e.g serpents guarding temples and statures or bringing good look.

Do you remember me telling you about the Hindu influence on Thai Buddhism? Well this I think is the key. Nagas originated in Indian legend and were brought down into Indo-China. I think all of the mystical elements of the original legendary naga have been grafted onto a real animal, something that has always inhabited the Mekong. But what is it?

There were once a group of snakes that did reach immense sizes. These were the Madtsoids, They first evolved in the Cretaceous period and were found world wide. At first believed to be giant Boids it is now known that they were a primitive basal group of snakes. These were highly successful for such archaic beasts and flourished in some cases, such as the Australian Wonambi until the end of the Pleistocene epoch only ten thousand years ago. Some species dwarf today`s anaconda. A vertebra from South America indicates a sixty foot snake as thick about as an oil drum. Primarily aquatic it is believed they were live bearers.

Reports from all over the tropics suggest that some species may have survived to the present day. As well as great size all these monsters snakes seem to have strange ornamentation on the head. The lau of the swamps of Sudan is said to have facial tentacles. The mano tauro or sucuriju gigante of the Amazon is believed to have horns, and Indo-China's naga has a crest. Horns are not unknown on snakes the rhinoceros viper of Africa and the horned viper of the middle east are just two. The horns are actually modified scales. Madtsoids killed their prey by constriction with huge muscular coils, so what of the nagas venom? Well, having both constriction and venom would be evolutionary overkill. As far as we know no Madtsoids were venomous. Perhaps this is a faucet of folklore, like the harmless salamanders of Europe which were supposed to be deadly poisonous.

So there you have it, my theory on the naga and giant snakes worldwide.

It is only a theory and will remain so until a well financed expedition with a lot of time makes a concerted effort to find a specimen. One last thing about these giant snakes, it makes you wonder about all the medieval legends of giant snakes in Britain, such as the Lampton worm and the Linton worm etc. Could there once have been a temperate hibernating species in Europe? Nah - that's just too fantastic... isn't it?