Travel to Udon province to visit the portal to the serpent underworld
The sacred forest of Kham Chanote in Udon province—in Northeastern Thailand—is said to be one of three known portals to the watery underworld of the Naga Serpents, the semi-divine mythical water spirits that adorn every temple in the Kingdom as protectors of wisdom. The other two portals are to be found at the Black Stupa of Phra That Luang in Vientiane, and within a whirlpool of the Mekong River as it flows through Nong Khai province. But Kham Chanote holds special status because it leads to an underwater city of naga serpents. Being close to a naga city, it is much more likely that the nagas might choose this route when visiting the human world.
The site is best described as an island covered with chanote palms. Inside the dense undergrowth is a shrine to the naga lord, and nearby is the sacred rectangular well that lore tells us leads to their underwater world. It has been hugely popular among Thais since the media popularized a series of cases where people won the lottery after making merit here. People travel from all across the country for a better chance at the jackpot and to fill water bottles from the mysterious well.
Against all the advice I arrived at the weekend just days before the lottery numbers were announced. The sound of crisp 100 baht bills being dragged for luck along the stone naga serpent bannisters of the bridge to Kham Chanote was like scales scuttling across the rocks. The queue shuffled patiently forwards and there was the occasional acrid waft of ammonia salts that some visitors were using to mitigate the heat and crowded conditions.
The branches of trees were festooned with flower streamers while the bark was mottled with patches of powder and oil where keen fingers had rubbed for patterns. Further down the trail dozens of visitors moved crab-like over the exposed roots, staring closely at the surfaces to unveil numbers and snapping pictures with their smartphones for further study later. Eggs had been deposited in small ledges at the base of the chanote palms.
Around the shrine to naga lord Sisotho-nakarat, and his wife Sripra-toomatewi, a large group bowed their heads and were led in a prayer recital by the monk. Every available surface was covered in naga offerings crafted from banana leaves and flowers. Deeper into the trees there was a naga statue spouting water into a small pool where a jostling frenzy of visitors scooped the water into gourd-shaped containers. Behind this was the sacred well—the portal itself. The waters here were oily, dark and still. A few mounds of soil protruded and were studded with coins that had been thrown onto them for luck.
Thais generally seem to approach life in a relaxed way—summed up in the oft-heard phrases “mai pen raiˮ and “sabai sabaiˮ—but this gentle angle on life falls apart when it comes to getting winning numbers for the national lottery. Everyone is easygoing until a shot at riches is on the cards. When you mention to a local that you have noticed Thais are very easygoing until it comes to matters of the lottery, you are sure to earn a grin as they recognize themselves in the comment.
While poverty and wealth often co-exist side by side here, people of all walks of life are united in aspiring to hit the jackpot. As accepting as a person is that their place in the social strata is fixed and pre-ordained, they strongly believe that it may be possible to improve their luck by making merit at proven fortuitous places. This is, in other words, the Southeast Asian dream. In these rigid, hierarchical societies the realm of things over which many citizens feel they have influence has narrowed to the sphere of lottery numbers. In this aspect they consider that their effort and input can actually make a difference. Those winning numbers might be arrived at by carefully scrutinizing the bark of a tree or be revealed in a dream. Events happening all around could present possible jackpot numbers if only they are noticed, and to those paying attention to what is good around them may come the reward. The National Lottery is viewed as speculation rather than gambling. What each individual feels they know about making merit is what they believe gives them the edge over others to beat the system and tilt the odds in their favour. Their personal petitions and prayers are their insider knowledge in game of finessing their luck.
The underwater city beneath Kham Chanote is as big as human cities, say the locals, and the underwater world is at least as big as Thailand. But who (or what) are the naga serpents? Created to protect rivers and lakes, some are semi-divine and are therefore suitable objects of prayer. They work with the humans that respect both them and the natural world’s waterways and river systems. The gift of winning lottery numbers is a mark of respect towards deserving people, not simply in return for offerings of fruit and fish. They feel the sincere devotion from the merit-makers and worshippers, and they give back in return.
There are also different representations of the naga serpents. The more heads the naga has, the more powerful it is. Most have one head, some have three heads and some have five, and a very potent type has seven heads and uses its wisdom and power to lead the other serpents. In the Buddhist tradition there is a class of great nagas with nine heads, such as King Mucalinda who sheltered the Buddha during a storm as he attained enlightenment. Lord Sisotho at Kham Chanote is also in the league of naga serpents with nine heads.
Among the Buddhist origin tales is the story of a naga that took human form in order to be ordained as a monk. Reverting to serpent form while asleep, the ruse was discovered by his shocked roommate. His status as a monk was revoked but he was permitted to remain and learn from the teachings so that he could be reborn as a human. Based on this tale, the locals understand that the nagas are interested in us and our world because they want to be human.
Kham Chanote famously hit the news in 1989 when it was widely reported by the big papers of the time that a group of ghosts had hired a rural cinema crew to show them a series of movies all through the night. Dressed all in white, the “ghosts” were said to have watched a wide range of films yet showed no signs of emotion during the action or comedy segments. Locals, meanwhile, were convinced that the mysterious figures were nagas intent on becoming humans in a future life. That they had managed to come through the portal signified that their deep meditation practice and prayers had allowed them to make good progress towards their goal. During my visit I was told that many of the local people and families were probably nagas in their past lives. Speaking with some humility, they explained that it was not only by merit-making that they had become human, but also through some unaccountable luck—the kind that bubbles out from the sacred well. The hope of finding winning lottery numbers at this special place springs from the proven luck of nagas already being given the gift of becoming human. Who wouldn’t want to bottle that up and take it home with them?
On a personal level I couldn’t help but wonder if the relationship between humans and nagas might be changing due to the irreparable harm we are doing to the river systems of the region by dams and pollution. Locals said that the level of interaction remains at the same level it has always been and that the naga serpents know it is only a small number of people causing harm. The naga continue to work with those willing to effect positive changes that benefit the ecosystem and restore balance.
After spending time here at the edges of the realm of the water spirits, I felt drawn to the banks of the Mekong River and then onwards to follow its course. But not before taking a punt with the maze of lottery ticket sellers gathered at the entrance to the bridge to Kham Chanote. Once you start looking for numbers, they seem to appear everywhere.
Words and photos by Alasdair McLeod