The Sai Ngam banyan tree grove is one of Thailand's spookier attractions. It feels like the setting for a twisted horror film where the trees come alive and strangle unsuspecting passersby, and locals believe that potent terrestrial spirits dwell here. For photographers, or anyone who appreciates the eerie, Sai Ngam makes a visit to Phimai all the more worthwhile.
Banyan trees 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, intertwoven 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 coiling branches that reflect in calm ponds and moats on all sides. Many Thais believe that banyans are occupied by female spirits, and locals regularly offer incense sticks and colourful streams of flower garland to a spirit house near Sai Ngam’s original 350-year-old trunk. The mystique was deepened when Queen Saovabha paid a visit in 1911.
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’s cloudy. The whole area floods with ankle- to waist-deep water in the rainy season, but if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, some mesmerising photographs are just waiting to be taken.
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 restaurants sell cold drinks and the usual som tam with grilled chicken. After poking around the quirky vendor stalls along the road, you might head to the south bank of the Moon River to view the grove in its entirety.
From the centre of Phimai it's a 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, which can get packed with local tourists on weekends.
How to get there
From the clock tower in the centre of Phimai, head east and bear left a couple of times before continuing straight east past the ancient Pheang Reservoir (now Rama IX Park), following signs pointing left to Sai Ngam. Admission is free.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 4th August, 2016.