Travel Notes: The Tree of Life
Whenever something happens these days, even if it is the most mundane of events, no matter its insignificance, someone, somewhere, somehow will not hesitate to broadcast it through various social media adding, with absolute and authoritative confidence, what should have happened or what one should have done in a given situation.
I have never really liked to give advice. I have been asked a few times, mind you, but I have often felt uncomfortable with the idea of giving advice on key life turning events.
It seems to me that we cannot seriously give meaningful advice to another as we often do not really know another person as well as we know ourselves. In that light, and given that I happen to know very little about myself, how could I guess as to what thoughts or emotions someone else may hold at any given point in their life? I will always lend a friendly ear and, if asked, I may even venture a thought or two and indulging in a good conversation can feel great too but advice? I do not think I am suitably qualified to impart any on anyone.
Seen from that perspective, and if you were to believe this, then it may be logical to assume that we humans seem trapped in our individual solitary cells and we desperately try to connect with others, who also happen to be in their own cells. By signs and sounds we try and express ourselves. Alas, beyond communicating reciprocal everyday needs, our deeper thoughts often end up meaning to others something completely different than what we intended to mean.
It seems to me, if you allow me the use of a metaphor, that we come to this world like hopeful and bright green shoots and then we grow into a tree, often with a complex system of roots and branches, like a Banyan tree. Similar to this tree, we grow into thick woody trunks which with age cannot be distinguished by the main trunk and that, dear reader, seems closer to the intricacy and complexity of one’s own life than one could first surmise at first glance looking at it from the outside.
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I cannot be certain when it happened exactly or why it happened or even how it happened. Even if I were to recall its origin, it would not add anything of value to the story that I am sharing with you and in that light there is no particular motivation to remember the when, the why or the how. All I seem to recall is that it must have been February because that was the month Khun Winyat’s birthday happened to fall. Thinking about it, he always had his birthday in exactly the same day of the same month every year but that would not be for another couple of days and so we were not pressed for time and decided to stay for lunch.
The food, although simple in its preparation and presentation, smelt good or, perhaps, we were famished from the long drive and we ate in silence. On the other side of the water, from time to time, I looked at the Banyan trees and from where I sat they looked awesome.
Its name, Banyan, in case you do not happen to know, originated from India and was linked to the “Banias” or Indian traders who used to rest under its large, leathery green leaves.
Arguably one of the most distinctive types of tree in the world, banyans germinated their seeds within crevices on the very tree from which the seeds came from and in time no individual trees could be discerned.
What you would see as a result was an inseparable interwoven grove of trunks and branches which took shape making it nearly impossible to understand which branches belonged to which trunk. Resolving a Rubik’s cube seemed like child’s play in comparison.
Khun Winyat finished his Gai Tod (fried chicken) sooner than I could finish my fish and he simply sat, composed, in his chair delaying the lighting of his cigarette until I had finished eating but I did not hurry as it is not fun getting a fish bone stuck in your throat. It was a Sunday after all and the nearest emergency and accident room would have been quite a long drive away.
On my plate was a big fish and it tested good and, as with all good things, it would eventually come to an end but it took me a little while to get to that point. When I did, Khun Winyat uttered two simple words which I had heard many times when in the presence of food in Thailand “Aroy maak?” I nodded to signify my satisfaction and followed with a second nod of my head to express appreciation, which Khun Winyat interpreted as the sign that he could finally have his smoke.
I liked Khun Winyat. He had been recommended to me as a reliable driver by a kind lady, who worked as a receptionist in a middle range hotel where I was staying. At 1,200 baht a day in an area not known for either a frequent or reliable transport network, the suggestion to hire him had seemed like a good idea and I had made the booking.
Khun Winyat had turned up on time in a Toyota Corolla, which although not new, was spotlessly clean. He was not much of a talker, not in English anyway, but I had been impressed by his zealous manner. He had turned up wearing simple but clean clothes and his car, once aboard, had a vague vanilla scent. He had handed me a map and with the assistance of the receptionist I had pointed at the places I wanted to get to. It would take us most of the day and allowing for some photos, a comfort rest and a bite to eat we should have been able to return in the early part of the evening.
During the journey, I had discovered that, although he enjoyed the odd cigarette, he never smoked inside the car and, with the exception for water, once aboard he would never eat or drink and I decided that I would follow his example. I never felt a desire for smoking but although I do enjoy my food, I would not snack inside his vehicle as a form of respect.
All had worked as planned and I had booked him again many times since that first occasion. If you happen to think that I should be more adventurous and get on a bus, minivan or train you are right. If you happen to think that the roads in Thailand and the standard of driving are not as high as the country you come from, you are likely to be right too. Indeed, I do not disdain from using all these mode of transports from time to time but there are certain journeys I wish to make where knowledge of the area and access to a car are a much needed asset and add to it that Khun Winyat always made me feel like he was a responsible driver and there you have an explanation for my choice.
I wanted to ask Khun Winyat where he hailed from but I never did. Sometimes we quickly assume that some facial features are typical of a race but as far as I am concerned and based of the physiognomy I have happened to observe, it seems to me that people inhabiting Thailand today are rich in ethnic diversity with not only Thai but also Khmer, Laotian, Chinese, Malay, Persian and Indian stock with the logical outcome that there is no typically Thai physiognomy or physique.
There are petite Thais, statuesque Thais, round-faced Thais, dark-skinned Thais and light-skinned Thais.
It is estimated that 80% of all Thais are connected in some way with agriculture which, in varying degrees, influences and is influenced by the religious ceremonies and festivals that help make Thailand such a distinctive country.
However, it is also true that modern city living and the advent of the internet are witnessing a gradual but steady migration from village and agricultural life to urban settlements and it is not perhaps surprising to notice how industrious people become when they want to carve a reasonable existence.
From my understanding, Khun Winyat had not always worked as a personal driver for hire. From what I had understood he had worked many years as a long distance lorry driver and that perhaps explained his extensive knowledge of the roads.
Apparently, there had been a time when he was married. Indeed he still carried a photo in his wallet. The image showed him next to a pleasant looking woman, a little rotund perhaps or maybe it was the angle and the lighting in the photo that gave that illusion. She seemed a shade or two lighter than Khun Winyat’s complexion whose eyes brightened significantly and even smiled more than usual when showing me that photo.
I knew that his wife was no longer with him. She had left him unexpectedly one day and departed for the same place where we are all destined to go to eventually but from which, to my knowledge at least, no one ever returns.
Sadly, for a couple who seemed to be devoted to each other, there were no children to speak of. I imagined the topic of wife and children may be painful for him and I had not asked any other questions. Whether Khun Winyat had interpreted that as a sign of discretion, which was my intention, or whether he had perhaps thought that I could not care less, I shall never know.
For most Thai people, fortune, wisdom, manner, habit, luck, profession, marriage, family, love life, etcetera are under the influence of their birth time, and are evidenced by palm lines, fingerprints, facial features, moles, birthmarks. For this reason, fortune tellers use some of these characteristics to predict the futures of their clients.
Various marks are classified by ancient hermits into three different anatomical categories: Mole (Fhai) a small black bead on a person’s skin. Birthmark (Bpaan) flat, discoloured portions of skin, which may be thick or thin, red or black, which were present at birth. A birthmark may sometimes also be hairy. Freckles (Khee Maeng Wan) small spotted skin discolorations which may have been present at birth, but also might be caused by excessive exposure to the sun, or by aging. The fortune tellers, however, do not pay attention to freckles in making their predictions.
However, Khun Winyat did not have any of these distinct features. He was gifted with skin that from what I could see was smooth, unblemished and from his forearms and the portion of flesh visible above his collar and in the triangular opening at the top of his shirt he happened to be hairless.
I would not have needed his assistance to reach my next destination. I only had to cross a small bridge on foot and, I assumed, I would be back within an hour or so. That I figured would have been adequate time to do what I wanted to do.
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As soon as I crossed the bridge my steps were met by a series of dirt and brick paths which were meandering beneath the trees and the grove was surrounded by water on all sides.
The first impression that came to mind was from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. To describe the environment in which he found himself prior to commencing his descent to hell, he wrote:
“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark for the straightforward path had been lost. Ah me! How hard a thing it is to say. What was this forest savage, rough, and stern. Which is the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter it is, death is little more; but of the good to treat, which there I found, speak will I of the other things I saw there. I cannot repeat how there I entered. So full I was of slumber at the moment in which I had abandoned the true way.”
I found myself in Sai Ngam, which, allegedly, has the largest banyan groves in Thailand, covering an area approximately 3,250 square meters.
Dante, I am afraid, was nowhere to be seen. I could have turned around but my curiosity pulled me in.
Perhaps I am not the bravest man in this world and I noticed that there were distinct eerie shadows cast as the sunlight filtered through the trees and once I walked further in, it became cloudy and that made breaks in the trees feel like portals to frightening, other-worldly dimensions or that is the sensation I developed as I found myself alone in the middle of this unfamiliar habitat. Notwithstanding, I proceed further in feeling very small and humble while surrounded by the tangible and visual evidence of hundreds of years all around me.
Banyans are viewed as important trees in Southern Asian mythology and religion. The Buddha is believed to have become enlightened under a type of Banyan known as “Sacred fig” and in Hinduism, the Banyan is considered to be the powerful God Krishna’s resting place.
In a country where spirits and ghosts have a significant meaning, Banyans are thought be occupied by a particular variety of spirit and needless to say, Sai Ngam is considered sacred by locals who will offer incense sticks and colourful streams of flower garland to a spirit house near Sai Ngam’s original 350 year old trunk.
We were in the Phimai district, less than 60 kms from Nakhon Ratchissima but in that very moment, had you asked me, I would have told you that we were in the underbelly of the world.
Once I had regained my composure I realised that there was the other odd visitors there too and inside the area people could not only walk but also take photos and sit and relax.
Perhaps, I reflected, when the day comes that we have to depart, this is what it may be like. A frightening sensation at first, a path through an unfamiliar landscape, which we have never seen before, followed by the quietness and stillness of an ancient and tranquil place where we can walk all we want and sit and think all we want. And then what?
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I sat on a bench and looked intently at the unusual surroundings trying to add them to my beautiful world of aching memories. Would I succeed in saving a few scraps of what I was witnessing in the world and make it visible to others? I reflected on all the travelling I had completed in my life up to that point. My mind seemed full of colours, recalling winter nights and summer mornings. There were airports, train stations, boats, straight motorways, rolling hills, winding roads and busy commuter hubs. There were new villages, new landscapes, new images, new experiences piled one on top of another. Travels from which I had gleaned little other than a restless and at times painful and at times joyful overflowing of the heart.
It was ironic how life made fun of us. On one hand, one could throw caution to the wind and live life to the full letting one’s senses play, following instincts and discovering primitive sensations which would not, however, spare us from getting old. In this scenario, one could just live like a flower in a forest, colourful today and rotten tomorrow and then disappear as if one had never existed in the first place.
On the other hand, one could live conservatively while surrounded by a stifling prudence as a form of self-defence, totally focussed on work as if the latter was a prison where to build our own monument as a testament to the fleeting passage of life. In this situation one renounced life itself as if enrolled on a tour and in the process one could lose one’s identity and one’s freedom, thus, missing the lust for life.
In all truth, I concluded, life only made sense if one achieved both and yet how could someone create something without losing one’s senses for it? How could we live to the full if we also wanted to create a legacy?
I looked at the scenery laid before my eyes and wondered how we humans could branch out beyond our wildest dreams and still remain grounded like a Banyan Tree. Was that impossible?
Perhaps it was possible. Perhaps there were faithful men and women who had not lost their sensuality for one another. Perhaps there were people who had been successful at their chosen profession without compromising their lack of freedom and/or risk.
Perhaps there were but I had never met one.
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