Best known for its ancient Khmer ruins, the laidback northeastern Thai town of Phimai is also home to one of Thailand’s spookier sights: Sai Ngam banyan tree grove. Sai Ngam feels like the setting for a twisted horror film where the trees come alive and strangle unsuspecting passersby, and locals believe it is home to potent terrestrial spirits. For photographers, or anyone who appreciates the eerie, Sai Ngam makes a visit to Phimai all the more worthwhile.
One of the world’s most distinctive trees, banyans germinate their seeds within crevices on the very tree from which the seeds came, and after a while, no individual trees can be discerned. Instead, an inseparable, interwoven grove of trunks and branches takes shape, making it nearly impossible to decipher which branches belong to which trunks.
Sai Ngam is supposedly the largest of these banyan groves in Thailand, spanning an area of some 1,350 square metres. A series of dirt and brick paths meander beneath the trees and the grove is surrounded by water on all sides.
Banyans are also an important tree in southern Asian mythology and religion. The Buddha is believed to have become enlightened under a type of banyan known as “sacred fig” or “Bodhi tree”, a descendent of which still stands in northwestern India. In Hinduism, the banyan is considered to be the powerful god Krishna’s resting place. And, in animist beliefs prominent throughout Southeast Asia, banyans are thought to be occupied by a particularly powerful variety of spirit. Needless to say, Sai Ngam is considered sacred by locals, who regularly offer incense sticks and colourful streams of flower garland to a spirit house near Sai Ngam’s original 350-year-old trunk.
If you are into photography, some stunning shots can be taken at Sai Ngam. Eerie shadows are cast as sunlight filters through the trees on clear days, and breaks in the trees can feel like portals to frightening, other-worldly dimensions when it is cloudy. The whole area floods with ankle to waist-deep water in the rainy season, but if you do not mind getting your feet wet, some mesmerizing shots are just waiting to be taken.
Thanks to the area’s spiritual mystique, local fortune tellers have made the road near Sai Ngam their preferred place of business, and one-of-a-kind “black magic” souvenirs like handmade voodoo dolls can be purchased here.
A few nearby restaurants also sell cold drinks and the usual papaya salad (Som tam) with roasted chicken. After poking around the quirky vendor stalls along the road, you might stroll beside the nearby ponds, streams and flower gardens, where more surreal photos can be shot.
Sai Ngam is located a couple of kilometres east of the main clock tower intersection at the center of Phimai town, and signs are well posted throughout the pleasant 20-minute walk or five-minute bicycle ride that winds past a public park and a few sleepy old temples before arriving at Sai Ngam. It can get packed with local tourists and merit-makers on weekends, so visit on a weekday if possible; as sights go, this one really needs to be experienced with minimal people around. Admission is free.