Travel Notes: The Curious Case Of The Sunset And The 15 Porches
I have been thinking about my travelling times in Thailand, whether good or not so good, for many years but only in the light of those reflections have I begun to see my experiences clearly.
I sat as comfortably as I could and listened attentively to the man before me;
“In languages originating from Latin, the word compassion is made of the prefix “with” (com) followed by the Latin word for “suffering” (Passio). Therefore, for native speakers of these languages, there is an inability to be detached while aware of other people suffering and we sympathise with those who have less than us. However, to have compassion for a woman who happens to have less than us means allowing ourselves to stoop to her level. In other words, lower ourselves. This is why we should treat love born out of compassion with suspicion as it arguably signifies a second rate, inferior sentiment which is quite remote from real love itself.
For some reason, although I remembered that lecture, I had failed to understand its meaning until the events that I am about to share with you reminded me of it.
My deepest experiences, like, no doubt, most of yours, have been the result of chances with each chance offering a message out of necessity and on reflection it seems to me that it is only chance that will speak to us while events which repeat themselves time after time are often mute. Often, we call the former “coincidences”.
A co-incidence refers to two or multiple separate incidents happening at the same time and the observant among us may have noticed that when fortuitous events occur around the same time they seem to immediately converge quite naturally like birds flocking to St Francis’ shoulders.
I opened my eyelids and noticed the sun forcing its way into the room I was staying in. It was the first time that I had found myself sleeping on a floor with literally, only a thin mattress separating my body from the wooden boards. As a way of minimising the heat, half of the walls were covered in wooden panels too and now that the sun bathed them, it gave the room a pleasant mellow feel, which was visually more pleasing, compared to the one I had noticed upon arrival the evening before.
Khun Winyat had suggested that an overnight stopover was advisable after all the driving we had completed for one day and that in turn I was likely to appreciate the rest of the journey much better after a good night sleep. I also knew that Khun Winyat did not like travelling at night. I understood that and I did not wish to have a tired driver behind the wheel with so many places still left to see.
He had made a phone call and arranged our accommodation. It was already dark when we had arrived. He had introduced me to the lady running the home-stay as a good friend and given that the overnight fee had been agreed for as little as 400 thb, who was I to complain?
The shared washroom, if we could call it that, had been a novel experience with cold water trickling from a plastic hose, its hole on the ground and the monotony of a bathroom consisting of half tiled and half concrete walls only briefly interrupted by a cheap plastic framed mirror and shelf unit, which had lost its original whiteness a long time ago. And yet everything was spotlessly clean.
Breakfast consisted of chicken and boiled rice with the only variant being with or without garlic. Judging by the way Khun Winyat was slurping his serving, it seemed to taste better for him then it did for me. You see? This was my first time, my first experience of breakfast in an average Thai household and away from a Bangkok hotel catering for westerners’ taste buds. It was a very simple affair and I actually liked it.
It was while scooping a measure of instant coffee from a cheap plastic container by way of transferring a spoonful of granules to my cup that I first saw her. With a damp cloth in her right hand she was assiduously wiping the outside of the windows frames. My eyes followed her movements while she wiped and stretched and reached further and squatted and then straightened herself with ease looking ever so supple and then started all over again. I noticed how absorbed she was in that menial task and yet her movements did not seem to lose any of their innate femininity despite the vigorous physical act she was exerting.
Thinking about it now, there wasn’t a particular individual feature about her which would be worthy of describing as extraordinary but I found her very beautiful in a most ordinary way. Her hair was dark, straight and, judging by the way it undulated with each movement of her head, it also seemed soft. Her skin looked healthy enveloping every inch of visible flesh without any blemish. Her elongated limbs and slim features made her look taller than what she really was. She bounced from one position to the next, shoeless, with a vitality so typical of her youth. The more I looked at her and the more she grew on me like an unstoppable blossom.
I cannot remember for how long I looked at her but Khun Winyat probably noticed that as he called her over. She lowered her head and cupped her hands into a deep wai or as deep I had ever seen anyone wai-ing and at one point I even thought that she was going to kneel before me. I had been informed that as an older person and a foreigner I did not have to wai back to someone younger but instinctively I stretched my hand forward to meet hers. Unsure of what to do at first, she looked at Khun Winyat for some directions and when he nodded, the warmth of her palm met with mine and she said “Yin dee tee dai ruu cha krap” and beamed to me the widest smile supported by a set of very white teeth and it was at that point that I saw her beautiful lips and when she smiled her mouth was as appealing as a cracked fig.
Despite his limited English, Khun Winyat went to great lengths to explain that Pin was the owner’s niece. She had lost her only parent, her mother, when she was 8 years of age and had been adopted by her aunt. Now, eleven years later she had finished secondary school and was working in a local factory, six days a week, 11 hours a day saving the few thousand baht she was paid every couple of weeks in the hope of being able to afford University soon. On her day off, and as a way of contributing to her keep, she helped her aunt around the house with a few chores. The sooner she finished, the sooner she would have been able to have the rest of the day to herself which perhaps explained the alacrity displayed in the task undertaken. As for me, I was mesmerised by this beautiful white flower tinged with delicate spring colours.
By the time Khun Winyat and I had finished breakfast, Pin’s aunt had joined us at the table. She spoke passable English and I complimented her on the cleanliness of her house and how well I had slept. Noticing I was looking at the flowers, she asked me if I wanted to view the rest of the garden. I looked at Khun Winyat and he quickly said “we have time” and I turned back and nodded adding “with pleasure”. She called her niece and asked her to show me around.
And so it was that I was given a tour of the spacious gardens surrounding the house by this delightful young lady and she did an excellent job in telling me the name of each and every plant and flower and even describing some of their properties but I would be lying to you if I were to tell you that I remember any of them. Such was Pin’s magical spell on me that I was left in a state of intoxication from which I was in no hurry to be cured from.
We moved from one plant to another, spent time among the variegated display of flowers and throughout I was simply immersed in the blossoming scent emanating from this young woman.
When the tour of the garden came to an end and before leaving I could not help myself in asking her aunt what it was that she wanted to study at University. Her aunt smiled and told me “Botany”.
Actually, she said something else in Thai, which would have been impossible for me to comprehend unless I had had a pocket translator with me. She went on to explain that the garden was all her niece’s doing and that made an impression on me as it would have required constant dedication on Pin’s part.
We said our goodbyes, which provided Pin with the opportunity to display another very deep wai and for me to appreciate her wet mouth shimmering in her face. Soon after, Khun Winyat and I were on the road again and he hinted that the young lady seemed to really like me but I pretended not to pay attention to his comments and kept looking at the landscape.
We had planned a few excursions that day with the best left to the end, reaching the summit of a spent volcano from where one could view the phenomenon of sunsets and sunrises through 15 porches.
Meanwhile, as in a film, during the course of the day my mind reeled the scenes from the garden tour I had enjoyed that morning as they seemed filled with 15 sunsets! I kept reflecting, how tenuous opportunities were during the course of one’s life. How some of us seemed to have so much and others so little.
The day had run smoothly and I had managed to see what I had intended to see. We had stopped once in the afternoon for some refreshments and once again my mind had wondered upon that chance meeting and how lovely my time with Pin had felt.
At one point, during the drowsiness of the afternoon siesta, I even caught myself fantasising about rushing back to the home-stay and seeking Pin. In my semi-dreaming state, I had sought her mouth resembling the cracked fig and I had imagined teaching her how to make love like earth-worms and then like snails and eventually like crabs. I would have loved eating in the nude with her in her pleasure garden and then for both of us to return to love making like vagabonds who are finally re-united and hungry for each other’s lust. All this dreaming had come to an end in the late afternoon when Khun Winyat had reminded me that it was time to go as it would take us some time to reach our final destination but he was confident that we would arrive within 30 minutes or so from the sunset.
We left for our final stretch of driving and headed, hopefully, to the crowning moment of what so far had revealed itself to be a glorious day. We drove for some time and I could not tell you precisely if we had been driving for an hour or more but at some point, we started the climb leaving behind the paddy fields and Khun Winyat had said that it would be another 20 minutes or so and then the car park’s entrance would appear. As we climbed higher, the Dangrek Mountains on the Cambodian border began to appear to the southeast Then, shortly afterwards, we came to a sudden halt.
“Accident” he said after a while and then added “road closed”. From where we were it was difficult to ascertain what exactly the issue was but several cars ahead of us appeared to be in a motionless single file which bent and stretched as far as the eye could see. Did this mean that we would not make it on time to watch the sunset?
With less than an hour or so until dusk, I considered our options. We could have turned around and skipped our final destination. We could have patiently waited in the traffic hoping that it would move soon. Either of these actions could have been consistent with common sense but didn’t Oscar Wilde once say that consistency is the last resort of the imaginative?
I looked at the horizon and tried to understand its outline. I asked Khun Winyat “Car park teenai?” he pointed out with his finger to 3 pm and then moved his hand further right as if to imply a sharp turn at the end. From what I knew, I figured that from the entry point it would be another 10 minutes walk at least finishing with a number of steps and going through a number of unspecified chambers until my final destination. I was not too concerned with the short sleeve cotton shirt and black linen long trousers that I was wearing but when I looked at my shoes I thought that they were not exactly appropriate for the task I had in mind but they would have to do.
We were so near to our final destination that aborting the visit would have been unthinkable. Then again, reaching the car park on time looked less and less feasible with every minute of diminishing natural light. With options one and two discounted, I considered option three. “Meet me in car park” that is all I said to Khun Winyat and without waiting for an answer or even an acknowledgement I opened the passenger’s door and put my plan in motion and started running.
I ran past the first few cars. I ran past a young woman standing outside her vehicle and sounding quite agitated. I ran past a couple of young men who were chatting and smiling as if amused with the unexpected events. I ran past and older woman sitting on a stool while eating a snack next to another car, I ran past a pick-up truck and, one, two and then three mini vans with locals looking bemused at the sight of this white man running. I climbed higher and ran past a few more cars, a man and woman arguing, an elderly man on a mobile phone looking disconsolate and I ran past more cars and vans and pick-up trucks and finally I saw the real issue when I came across a lorry which had spilled most of his sugar cane load onto the road. The driver was on the phone and as I came closer I heard him speak feverishly but I no idea of what he was saying. By the time I had inevitably part leapt and part stepped on his spilled load I am sure he would have had much more to say but he was too fat and I was too fast for him to do anything about it.
I was now in the clear, ahead of everyone else and with an empty road before me but I did neither stop nor slow down and I kept running while the natural light kept fading. I finally ran into the car park and past the entry gate.
It was at that point that a rather aggressive guard came out of his booth yelled something and pointed at the sign with the word Foreigner and a price next to it.
I retraced my steps, handed over a 100 baht bank note but did not wait for the ticket and resumed my running.
I could now see the outline of the building at the end of a long concourse. I ran and ran and then climbed the many steps and once I had reached the top, I looked back at the distance I had completed. It must have been a good 400-metres all the way up from the entrance to where I was and for a moment I felt like Rocky Balboa when he reaches the top of the stairs alas there were no kids trailing on my steps but only a tired monk descending them.
To reach the site’s main sanctuary I had run past a number of different ruins. Many of these ruins contained images depicting Hindu Gods, Brahma and scenes from the Ramayana. Set against a scenic countryside backdrop, the view before me made quite an impact but I could not linger there too long and continued to run the now short distance until I came to the sign by the entrance.
It was then, while catching my breath from all the running that I entered, jogging at first and then walking briskly, the first chamber and then exited through the next one and repeated the same steps and movement through each of the interconnecting chambers. There seemed to be a power about the place that was at once mystical and eerie. It felt like stepping back in time and stepping into another world but my account here could not possibly cover every aspect of this site in this short description.
Eventually, I came through the final chamber and found myself emerging into what I would describe as a terraced area, partly paved and partly covered in dirt where a middle aged woman was addressing a large group of young people, presumably students, in a language I had never heard before. When I appeared before their eyes, all the young people looked up towards me and it took their teacher a few moments to realise someone was standing behind her and when she eventually turned she was speechless like her students and I broke that silence of astonishment by announcing “Welcome to my home” and everybody understood that and burst into laughter!
I made a few new friends that afternoon. Later a few students timidly approached me asking if they could take a photo and when seeing me smiling prompted everyone else to want to have a snapshot with me. They had seen foreigners before but apparently never one so close and in such circumstances. Therefore, I obliged and by the time one photo had been taken someone else was ready queuing for the next one. When they were finished with the photos, their teacher wrapped up their tour and there was just enough time to watch the sunset.
Allegedly, somewhere in the Samoan islands (as I eventually found out that the students hailed from those shores) my photos have turned into some form of a mini-cult item with copies saved in a number of albums and, allegedly, I have featured in some of their school essays as the running Farang who one day climbed to the top of the dormant volcano and welcomed them claiming that was his home alas it was the largest and best restored Khmer monument in Thailand, Phanom Rung.
And the amazing sunset through the 15 porches? Well, it appears that I had misunderstood parts of the information as the correct alignment would not have occurred until a few months later. Mai Bpen Rai as the locals say.
On the way back the students’ teacher introduced me to another academic, a visiting professor from Japan which was touring with their group and imagine my surprise when I found out that he taught botany. We chatted and exchanged email addresses.
By the time we reached the car park it was twilight and I spotted Khun Winyat waiting for me without his car, which, I found out, had been left parked near the spot where we had been forced to stop. He grinned when he saw me adding “Running Farang…dee maak”.
Given the lateness in the day, Khun Winyat suggested a further overnight sojourn at the same home stay. He made a phone call and we made our way there and he was during the journey back that he explained the lorry driver had lost his bearing and ended up heading in the wrong direction.
When we arrived, the lively young lady who had occupied my thoughts for parts of the day was not there. Neither was the fantasy of my mildly erotic dreams earlier that afternoon. Pin was actually there but not in the way I had remembered her. She wore the different and more sombre clothes of her factory uniform, which did little for her figure. She looked tired with slow movements and wearing languid eyes.
We all ate together and I was happy to share the information I had gained from my chance meeting with the Japanese professor. Her attention perked a little but we were all exhausted and soon after dinner we retired to bed.
I smiled realising how in the space of 24 hours I had become infatuated with someone I did not know. Earlier that day, the world could have collapsed and the only thing that mattered to me was that she was alive. The words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet came to mind;
“Good night good night parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
Before sleeping, I reflected how selfish and superficial my feelings had been in the first instance. How, for a fleeting moment my heart was ready to burst. How I had concocted an entire situation which only existed in my mind. And even she had played along, which was not a given anyway, what good would that have brought to either of us?
In that state of temporary blindness it was impossible to see others realistically but beauty was not just having a pretty face, was it? It was about having a pretty mind, a pretty heart and a beautiful soul and when it came to Pin, I knew absolutely nothing as to whether she possessed any of those and I was just another transient foreigner. Ah, love, I concluded, burning like the most intense of fires followed by ashes for thirty years!
I then fell into a deep sleep but there was no space for further dreams or at least, by the time I woke up again, I could not remember any.
The day after, we said our goodbyes and I decided to leave a small envelope with Pin’s aunt. It was my modest contribution towards Pin’s savings for her University studies and I was aware that as much as I found this young lady incredibly attractive, we led very different life styles, we headed in different directions and we came from totally different cultures and generations. At the risk of sounding condescending, to my way of thinking this was a non starter and I realised that my wish to help was out of compassion but there was not much else that attracted me to that situation.
Once I returned to Europe, I exchanged some mail with the Japanese professor. He was very kind and receptive to my suggestions. It took one more year before Pin started a University course in botany and in Japan of all places but she has been making good progress and I am pleased when I receive her brief updates in one of her heart warming notes.
I reflected that had we not sojourned in the home stay at that precise time and had I declined the garden tour, I would never have met Pin and had the lorry driver not taken the wrong turn eventually spilling part of his load and had I not decided to run, I would have probably never met the group of students and as consequence I would never have been introduced to the Japanese professor who taught botany. And was it extraordinary how all this had happened?
I smiled at the unusual set of fortuitous events which to me were welcome coincidences.
Nota Bene – A basic internet search will reveal that Phanom Rung Historical Park is one of the most diverse national parks and certainly one of the most important and most visited Khmer sites in Thailand. Based on Phanom Rung Hill, an extinct volcano that forms a gentle arc across the horizon, the park houses the largest number of Khmer monuments in Thailand. The whole site has been brought back to its full glory after nearly two decades of restoration and the result is extremely impressive. This is a vast site boasting temples, towers, Buddha images – all with a distinct Khmer architectural influence. The site also includes a Hindu Saivite (Shiva) monastery and sculptures of Vishnu. Suffice to say that this site is the nearest comparable example to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The temple was erected between the 10th and 13th centuries, the bulk of it during the reign of King Suriyavarman II (r AD 1113–50), which was the apex of Angkor architecture. The complex faces East and four times a year the sun shines through all 15 sanctuary doorways. The correct solar alignment happens during sunrise from 3 to 5 April and 8 to 10 September and sunset from 5 to 7 March and 5 to 7 October. However, please note that the date and time of this natural phenomenon can vary according to the seasons. Therefore, if visiting, you are advised to check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).