Phimai’s Mystical Banyan Tree Forest

I’ve always been a sucker for mythology and fantasy. This probably stems from my somewhat isolated childhood on a farm. I’d spend days in my little den of a bedroom in the attic, creating my own catalogue of mystical beasts and diving into novels about nautical adventures or reading up on mythological Greek gods.

When I first found out that we were going to visit a legendary banyan-tree forest in Phimai, a town of around 5,000 people in Eastern Thailand, I was so excited I had butterflies. I began reading up on the forest and its surroundings.

Phimai’s famous banyan tree forest is the oldest in Thailand, and one of the oldest in the world. It looks like something out of A Nightmare Before Christmas:¬†picture¬†a hauntingly beautiful forest with the trees dark roots and branches gnarled and broken looming over your head like a witch’s twisted hands.

phimai baynan tree grove

Our guide, George, gives a tour of Phimai’s banyan grove. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

You walk in and immediately you feel a change in temperature and energy in the air. This place is heavy. Our local guide, George, began telling us about the Banyan tree. This intricate network of roots and branches all stemmed from one tree, he said.

In Thailand, some believe that if a tree is more than 100 years old, it becomes a home to a spiritual guardian, and the banyan tree is no exception. This forest is more than 500 years old, so we imagined it housed quite a few spirits.

phimai banyan tree spirits

Small statues honour the spirits who reside here. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

Thai tree spirits are female and mostly of good nature. The Thai people pay their respects and well wishes to tree spirits such as these and tend to mark them with colourful scarves and ribbons, which you’ll find all over the country (and especially in this Phimai forest).

Marking the trees with these colourful ornaments is not only ritual, but also a sign that the tree can never be cut down.

phimai banyan tree tour

In Thailand, colourful decorations mean a tree cannot be cut down. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

I’ve noticed that that many Thai people we’ve met have been very spiritual, and taken omens and spirits seriously. But while the banyan tree forest and its origins have a strong history with Phimai, it has now become a tourist attraction.

Tourists from all over Thailand, Southeast Asia and China come to see this forest and make certain wishes. Fortune tellers and have now set up shop in the forest, waiting to read someone’s desperate palm or give them good fortune on their wedding day. (Abra and I got our fortunes told for fun, because why not?)

phimai banyan tree forest

Looking in at the banyans from outside. (Outpost / Michael Fraiman)

Meanwhile, people will go through a certain ritual of tossing out a stick with a fortune on it at the forest’s various shrines.

Although seeing this mystical place used so casually by tourists makes me yearn for the days when it was a solemn and quiet place, it is still a powerful and beautiful presence to witness, and I am glad to see it make its mark worldwide.

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