From ancient kingdoms and legendary heroes to mythical creatures and ethereal ghosts, Asia is steeped in local legends.
Many of these myths were born from civilisations responsible for creating art, monuments and feats of engineering, the likes of which we struggle to comprehend today. So let’s ask the question – did they really have to rely on stories that existed in their imaginations only, or were they based on true events…
The Cave and the Princess
No one can forget the incredible rescue of 12 Thai boys and their football coach from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. But what is not so well known is the legend behind the cave, whose name means ‘the cave of the reclining lady’. Legend says that in ancient times a mythical princess fell in love with a stable boy and soon became pregnant. When the king found out, he ordered the boy to be killed. Heartbroken, the young princess committed suicide by stabbing herself in the stomach. Her blood became the water that flows through the cave and her body became the surrounding mountains. The locals believe that her spirit remains in the cave so leave offerings at her shrine near the cave entrance.
The Myth of Mahabalipuram
The ancient port city of Mahabalipuram in India‘s Tamil Nadu is famous for its magnificent, World Heritage–listed temples and carvings. Legend says that six other similarly spectacular temples stood next to the famous Shore Temple. So beautiful were these structures that many of the gods become envious. In a jealous rage, the god Lord Indra, summoned up a ferocious storm that submerged the entire city under water. All the temples were lost except one – the Shore Temple. Fishermen claim to have seen the tops of submerged temples out at sea, and during the 2004 tsunami it’s said that suspected remains of the temples were revealed.
The Lady of the Legend of Phnom Penh
In 14th century Cambodia, there lived a wealthy lady called Penh. One day, during a bad flood, she found a hollow tree floating in the swollen river. Inside were four bronze statues of Buddha. Seeing this as a sign she asked her neighbours to create a man-made hill nearby. On the top they built a beautiful temple to house the Buddha statues. The temple soon became known all over the country, and in later years the capital moved to Phnom Penh. That, so the story goes, is how the city got its name – Phnom Penh meaning ‘The Hill of Lady Penh’.
Kyaiktiyo Rock and the Buddha’s Hair
The incredible golden rock at Kyaiktiyo in Myanmar seems to defy gravity, balancing precariously on the side of a hill. Legend has it that the rock is perfectly balanced on a strand of Buddha’s hair, and it is only this that stops the rock from crashing down. The hair is said to have been donated to the king by a hermit who received it from the Buddha himself. Buddhists believe that if you complete the pilgrimage to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda three times in one year, you’ll be blessed with great fortune. For this reason, pilgrims flock here in their thousands to meditate, chant and light candles. Whether the story is true or not, it really is an amazing sight.
Thailand’s Muay Thai Hero
The sport of Muay Thai is surrounded by myths and legends. One of the most popular is about a Thai hero called Nai Khanom Tom. In 1774, Nai Khanom Tom was a war prisoner in Burma. The Burmese king wanted to see whether their martial art was better than Muay Thai, so called for a competition. Being a great fighter, Nai Khanom Tom defeated ten of Burma’s best opponents. Impressed, the Burmese king gave Nai Khanom Tom his freedom and he returned to Siam as a hero. To this day, every 17th of March, the Thai people hold fights to honour Nai Khanom Tom.
The Dragons of Halong Bay
Geologists believe that the incredible landscape of Halong Bay is the result of 500 million years of geological changes, but the Vietnamese has a different theory. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and is it believed that the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the land from invaders. Their tails gouged out valleys and crevasses and they spat out jewels that turned into islands. The Mother Dragon lay on the land she had helped to protect forming the iconic mountainous landscape that we know and love today.