Phadaeng Nang Ai

One of the best-known folktales in Isan, the romantic legend of Prince Phadaeng (ผาแดง) and Princess Nang Ai (นางไอ่) explains the formation of Sakon Nakhon province’s Nong Han (หนองหาน) lake, the largest natural lake in the northeast. Some people in Udon Thani tell the same tale about their famous “Red Lotus Lake,” which is also called Nong Han.

This version of the story was written by my friend Amaralak (Pim) Khamhong. For a while it appeared in the Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook as a boxed text entitled “The Legend Of The Lake.” But since it’s not used anymore, I’ve posted it here.

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Phya Khom was the ruler of Ekthita city. He had a beautiful daughter named Nang Ai whose beauty was known by everyone in every land. Prince Phadaeng of Phaphong city came to visit Nang Ai secretly, and they fell in love immediately. They spent a night together and promised that they would be rightfully married soon.

shallow lake with lots of grass growing in it
Nong Han lake, Sakon Nakhon

In the sixth lunar month during the rocket festival, Phya Khom invited people from the surrounding lands to participate and vowed that whoever’s rocket went the highest would be rewarded with treasure and his daughter’s hand in marriage. Prince Phadaeng was not invited; however, he came with a great rocket anyway knowing that he must win in order to marry Nang Ai. At the contest, Phya Khom’s rocket failed to fire, as did Phadaeng’s. In anger Phya Khom broke his promise and gave nothing to the winner. Phadaeng then went back to his own city with great disappointment.

While the contest was taking place, the naga Phangkhi, son of Suttho Naga, ruler of the under-ground land called Muang Badan, came in disguise to witness the beauty of Nang Ai and fell deeply in love with her.

After he returned home, he was unable to eat and sleep; so, despite his father’s objection, he went back again. This time he disguised himself as a white squirrel and hid in a tree near Nang Ai’s window. Once Nang Ai saw the white squirrel she wanted to have it, so she ordered a soldier to catch it for her. Unable to do so, the soldier eventually killed the squirrel with a poisoned arrow. As Phangkhi was dying he made a wish: ‘May my meat be very delicious and enough to feed everyone in the city’. His wish came true and all the townspeople, except the widows who had no official duties, got a share of his meat.

When Phangkhi’s followers, who witnessed his death, returned to Muang Badan and reported the news, Suttho Naga was so angry that he called in tens of thousands of soldiers to destroy Phya Khom’s city. They headed off immediately to Ekthita.

Meanwhile, Phadaeng was so lovesick that he couldn’t stay in his own city any longer and rode his horse back to see Nang Ai. When the two met again, she gave him a very warm welcome and offered him food cooked with squirrel meat. Phadaeng refused to eat and told Nang Ai that the squirrel was Phangkhi in disguise and that whoever ate his meat would die and their city would be destroyed.

Suttho Naga’s army arrived at Ekthita by nightfall. The destruction they inflicted was so severe that the foundation of the city started to collapse. Phadaeng told Nang Ai to take the kingdom’s rings, gong, and drum and they fled on his horse. When Suttho Naga learned Nang Ai had run away, he began to follow her. The earth sank wherever he passed. Thinking that Suttho Naga was following the rings, gong, and drum, Nang Ai threw them away but the Naga still followed. When the horse grew tired, Suttho Naga caught up with them and grabbed Nang Ai with his tail and carried her down to Muang Badan.

The battle had caused the whole area to sink and it became a huge lake, called Nong Han. The widows who did not eat the squirrel meat were safe and their houses were left undamaged on a small island that has been called Don Hang Mai (Widow’s Island) ever since.

Phadaeng returned to Phaphong, but could not bear the sadness from the loss of Nang Ai. He chose to die in order to continue to fight for her. After his death, he became a ghost leader and his army fought the naga in Muang Badan. The fight lasted so long that the god Indra had to come down to stop it. Ever since, Nang Ai has been waiting for Indra to decide who should be her husband.

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