Rivers; not Roads


Preface: My computer has broken. If you thought I was dead you were wrong. If you thought I was finally done with this blog and a quitter like everyone else that has ever started a blog, you are also wrong. In fact, this will be such a long post that most of you will not read it. For that reason I have broken it up into two posts so that you don’t have to store up on a weeks worth of food and water to make your way through. Good luck. 

There are times when it is near impossible to not be staggered by the abundance of living things in this world.

Would you know that there are over 1,000 species of fig trees; hundreds in Malaysia alone? The fig is an extraordinary specimen of life and the world’s unceasingly outrageous propensity to provide provision and sustain it in its most compellingly beautiful form. It is an example of a most baffling symbiotic relationship.  

Most tropical figs fascinatingly don’t grow from the ground up. Conversely, pollinated fig seeds cannot begin their life in soil, but rather grow on other plants, namely, other large and decaying trees. Only the fortunate fig that falls on a large semi-flat surface on a nearby tree will likely ever start its strange journey. But, contrary to some beliefs figs are not parasitic, they draw their sustenance from photosynthesis like all plants and only utilize the unused water and nutrients left on the outside of trees in order to start growing down. A growing fig will then cast its roots down, like a fisherman casting a net around a stump, in order to catch stable ground and more nutrients to grow. This way the fig saves precious time in the jungle’s never ending game to catch invaluable sunlight hidden in the dense canopy by having a head-start—it is already halfway up a tree. From there the fig tree grows. And as it grows, it begins to overtake its surrogate, climbing over it and eventually overtaking the tree, leaving its sprawled roots out in the ground as the older tree decays to nothing. Thus, this leaves a forest full of fig trees looking like they have sprouted legs ready to roam around the jungle at a moment’s notice. But much greater and much stranger things happen.

My travel partner Pat standing next to a massive fig tree. Pat is 6'6.

My travel partner Pat standing next to a massive fig tree. Pat is 6’6.

As the fig tree grows and begins to fruit, its saga plays out one of the stranger relationships in the natural world. Fig trees of course produce figs, but figs are not actually fruit, they are rather a “falsefruit”—meaning they are actually a series of thousands of tiny flowers mixed with seeds. And like all flowers, there are male and female figs, and every tree tends to produce one or the other, all for the purpose of pollination and reproduction. It pollinates and reproduces using fig wasps, and not just any fig wasp, but just one species that coincides with that particular fig tree. Half of all fig trees are female Caprifigs, or inedible figs, and the other half have predominantly male flower parts. All fig wasps are born in figs. A wasp enters the caprifig to lay eggs because the stem is too long to enter on the edible figs, but of course the wasps pollinate the figs of both as they look for a place to lay eggs. After the female wasp lays eggs in the fig it dies. Males always hatch first. They walk around the inside of the fig pollinating the micro flowers and fertilize the unhatched females. Before the females hatch the males eat an exit out of the fig, tear away the egg casings so the females can hatch, and they even eat the stem of the fig for seemingly no reason so that it can fall. They then die. The entire life of the male fig wasp is spent inside the fig, they never meet the female wasps; they don’t even have wings! But they do however, ensure the fig itself and the wasps reproduce. Females then leave, and have 48 hours to find another caprifig to lay their own eggs and pollinate another future colossal fig tree to ornament the jungle.

Even if you knew nothing of this story, it would still be beautiful, even if you never saw a fig wasp, which you haven’t; it would still be just as wondrous. Why would living things, mere atoms, go to such great lengths to perpetuate themselves? An imponderable question. This relationship is technically called “mutualism” and it refers to the mutual benefits that both partners in the relationship gain. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and wondrous dramas of our giving world—but it is not rare.  

Humankind too can share this kind of relationship. I like to think that I get a healthy dose of astonishment in most of my weekly undertakings, as my last (or every) blog entry might suggest. But my most recent adventure was one that tested, and one that didn’t fail to breathe life into the wonder of the world. It was divided into two parts.

The first leg of my trip was based in Thailand, and the first focus of the trip was its people. I had never really had much of an interest in going to Thailand before my year began here. What I knew about Thailand was either ancient Siamese history (probably predominantly gathered from the King and I) or things that I rather would not like to know about any place (it is the capitol sex and human trafficking across the world). These two things would probably do far more to turn me away from such a place rather than turn me towards it. However, I have gotten to know quite a few people that speak very highly of Thailand, not just of its cheap prices and good food, but for its people. 


                I spent a grand total of 6 days in Thailand, and almost all of it was spent in rural, often forgotten, often unreached areas of the country. I flew directly into Bangkok after Malaysia’s Hari Raya (post Ramadan celebration) and spent a short amount of time there—just one night. The focus of the trip was not to inundate myself with city life, as it can be quite similar everywhere now, but I had to see some of the major sites and I had to give it some respect—it is the largest city in Southeast Asia at 9 million people, and the wealthiest. All in all, I had to say that I liked the city.  

What Pho

What Pho

I didn’t do a lot of touristy things while in Bangkok. I stayed with a friend of a friend in a far too nice house in a far nicer than I expected part of the city. Also, I had a friend with me that had studied abroad there for nearly a year and knew the ins and outs of the entire town. I was very fortunate to skip around to the less traveled but perhaps more spectacular parts of the city; winding down narrow alley ways called soys, and perusing the more local, authentic cuisine. I actually found the city to seem quite developed, relatively clean, and culturally diverse and considerably less hustle-and-bustle than I expected. It was in no way like hot and fast cities of Ho Chi Mihn City or Phnom Phen . Of course, I did stay away from some of the more seedy areas. Regardless, I found exploring Watt Pho, one of the largest Buddhist Temples in the world, along with the stunningly constructed and decorated Watt Arun to be some of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen. Walking through the gate of the Grand Palace was yet again another jaw-dropping moment, riddled with fine artisan work, stuccoed walls, ancient murals and glittering glass and gold made it so one could hardly look in one place for too long in fear of going blind or perhaps missing a turn around the corner that could bring something more ostentatious. 


After a full day of city living, a good nights rest and a much maligned time in traffic, it was time to head to our next location. At this point I left a number of my friends to travel with another ETA. Neither of us knew exactly where we were going, but my travel buddy could speak some Thai so in the end, I couldn’t be that worried about anything. But the journey to the off-the-beaten-track town of Pla Pak started a little worrisome. Pla Pak is a very small town in the Isaan region of Thailand—just about 7 hours northeast of Bangkok situated on the Mekong river and the boarder to Laos. When we arrived at the bus station the minimal amount of Thai that we knew was looking to be a little bit wanting as we had trouble finding the correct bus and once we did, we had a number of people try to tell us that we were on the wrong bus or that we did not actually want to go to Pla Pak. But we did. We boarded the bus and set out over night for the small and secluded town where we had set up a couple of days to stay with a family in their home and try to learn a little bit about food, family and daily life.

Monks keep time while they perform prayers.

Monks keep time while they perform prayers.

The ride took us through the night, and in the morning we had a bit of a panic-stricken awakening not knowing when exactly to get off—we were not riding the bus to the end of the line. However, with some help of other on the bus who spoke no English, but tried their hardest, we exited the bus and walked onto the side of the road immediately surrounded by buffalo and luscious green fields of knee-high rice. The air was drier than I was accustomed, but from the earth radiated such a radiantly healthy green glow thus signifying to me that this was the season of easy-living in Thailand: constant cumulonimbus clouds rolled across the sky and were ready at any moment to drop their precious cargo of rain; it was after all rainy season.

Wi teaches us how to cook Som Tom, a spicy dish made from primarily cucumber and peppers. Wi eats Som Tom 3 times a day, everyday.

Wi teaches us how to cook Som Tom, a spicy dish made from primarily cucumber and peppers. Wi eats Som Tom 3 times a day, everyday.

We followed a man into the back of a pick-up truck which we hoped was heading into our small town destination; we road among a number of curious occupants, some of which included students, farmers, chickens and a rather large basket of frogs. A not so long ride later we hopped off at the small town center of Pla Pak. There, immediately across the street was the woman we had been in contact with: Wi. Wi was a homestay keeper. She allowed people to come stay with her and her family in order to receive some extra monetary compensation and learn English, from what I understood however, business was slow in this remote region, not too many western tourist were interested in making it out this far. I however, was keen on learning something about a new culture and way of life about which I knew relatively nothing. I was eager and excited to stay with and experience real culture, not simply a manufactured sense of enlightenment one receives by staying in a well-kept tourist area.

That is exactly what we received while staying with Wi. The both of us again jumped in the back of a pickup truck (a Chevy Silverado!) and road off to their family farm. Wi was quiet, warm, knowledgeable, and a little bit eccentric which made her pretty entertaining to be around. She largely managed the farm by herself, but displayed a business savvy and executive skills that where quite extraordinarily impressive, that is to say, that see worked hard to synchronize the efforts of those around her in order to reap the benefits for as many as possible.

Wi took us in and let us experience what life was like for so many in Southeast Asia, she also runs a farm. On her farm, this single woman requires the help from many, but also provides for many. The farm hands and herders of her farm are families—men and women—that do not get paid in cash, but in food, a safe haven to stay and in the much needed company of companionship that is actually needed in this remote part of the world. In addition, Wi takes in orphans, children that at least try to regularly attend school but hard times have required their parents to have them go elsewhere. These few young children are provided with food, shelter and cloths by Wi and the little money that she makes as a homestay hostess. The children in return help her with cooking, cleaning and maintaining the farm.

From the very first hour of staying there it was clear that this hive-like system or relationships was far from being about business or money, and had infinitely more to do with survival, deep understanding, empathy and perhaps most importantly happiness. Happiness can be hard-pressed, even scarce in some places and can attenuate during particular times, but I have found that people largely do what they can in order to provide nourishment for the happiness of themselves, and consequently, for others. Perhaps, this is mutualism at its finest. Perhaps it can be argued that human happiness doesn’t truly exist unless it is shared. And perhaps, this element is the most awe-inspiring condition of the Divine order, and its never-ending propensity to supply that which is needed. I am tremendously grateful to have been able to witness that snapshot of the human drama play out.



Outside of the farm the world was hard and poor, maybe even somber, but there was a reverence among people, a quite respect and warm reception if your eyes ever met another’s. We spent days learning how to cook, buying produce at the market, visiting the nearby Buddhist Temple, playing with the children of the town, and riding bikes and trucks through the ceaseless fields of green. We were even fortunate to follow the monks—normally secluded for pious reasons—on their morning walk as they rose with the sun to receive food from the villagers for the needs of the day. And at the conclusion of our time at the homestay, we were awarded a wonderful feast of traditional foods and ceremony that would bring us fortune for the year. They sent us on our way and a short truck-bed ride, a longer bus and another shorter bus trip later we arrived in Nong Khai.

Departing ceremony for us as we left the home-stay. We were given bracelets and a prayer

Departing ceremony for us as we left the home-stay. We were given bracelets and a prayer

Nong Khai was equally off the beaten path; I didn’t see any other foreigners around as we rolled down the streets and unloaded into the quant alleyway. The town is surprisingly larger than one might think. High in the Northern part of Isaan, Nong Khai is another of the border cities the ornament the mighty Mekong River as it winds its way through the whole of Southeast Asia. It’s relatively quiet but robust population is largely similar to other populations in the area, but it has some cultural affects that make it a worthwhile stop: namely, a myriad of Watts and Buddhist Temples, and on top of that, a bizarre sculpture park unlike any other in the world. We arrived there at the hostel during the twilight hours. We checked into the rooms, but as we did the hostel owner made note that we should probably turn around and take in the final light of the day as it emptied out of the sky to the brown-green waters of the Mekong. We settled into our rooms as the sun settled under the horizon, and only after it projected a bright pink across the sky did we make it out to do some food exploration.

View from my hostel. In the foreground, the Mekong River, in the background Laos.

View from my hostel. In the foreground, the Mekong River, in the background, Laos.

I’d have to say the food was the best in Nong Khai. It was simple, with the same modest ingredients used around the area, but it’s Pad Thai, salted fish and grilled pork dishes were downright phenomenal. The night life of the people eating was a fun happening to witness as well; where in many places the phrase “night life” refers to a drinking culture, in Northern Thailand it certainly refers to an eating culture. Typically, and especially in Nong Khai, people eat multiple courses and multiple stalls in the course of the night (I even witnessed three ladies shut down a food stall by themselves as they ate all of the pork it had). By in large, the food and the night life, were exactly my speed, and I have to say that I kept up pace pretty well.

The next full day was spent exploring the city. I rented a bicycle from the hostel put some serious work into visiting all of the Watts and ancient Buddhist temples in the area. I was, in fact, some work, but after nearly a full morning of “Watt hopping”, and even a few invites to partake in chant rehearsal, I made my way across town to visit Sala Keoku; one of the strangest accumulations of sculpture in the world.



I could’ve taken a cross-town bus if it was raining or cold, but the weather was clear and tolerably warm so I rode a bike out to the park. It’s about an hour ride, but once you get to within visual distance of the park sculptures you’ll realize you’re in a different sort of life-sized art gallery. No one goes there, but they really ought to. Upon entry you are caught amongst the stone slabs and iron rods that depict things not typically voiced by artists. Some are unpleasant, but impressive. Others are quite pleasant, and impressive.  There is a depth of emotion that plays out in the park that is quite rare, and a deep variety of religious and cultural icons that make the place both diametric and somehow balanced at the same time. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite places to visit in Thailand and well worth the bike ride.


After a light bike ride back to the hostel in an even lighter rain, my full day in Nong Khai was finished but I felt satisfied with what I saw along the streets, markets and temples. From that point however, it was time to leave the town, and the next morning I loaded onto a bus that took me to Udon Thani and then an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok where I would spend my final night in Thailand. But before the final night ended, I had been invited by a friend to attend a special dinner for study abroad students in enrolled at a University in the city. It was a six or seven course meal at one of the finer restaurants in the city. I couldn’t even begin to say what I ate but as luck would have it I was able to eat there for free and meet some nervous students during their first week of life outside the U.S.  After a desert of some Mango cheesecake, it was a sweet way to end the night, and my time in Thailand. The next morning I took a relatively easy taxi ride to the airport and jumped on a plan back to KL: the first part of my trip was over, but an adventurous second act was in the making. I was on my way to Borneo.

Par II of “River; not Roads” will be continued in another post. Be sure to not read anything else in the mean time. You need rest. 


“For from where did the food of my infancy come? From where does my desire, happiness, love and the needs of my being come?…According to Thine ordinance, whereby Thou distributes riches through the hidden springs of all things.” –Saint Augustine


Posted on October 16, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Every time I eat a Fig Newton I shall think of you and your year away. Mrs. R.

  2. What amazements, Michael! You should really consider being a guide for folks that like to explore; every day is such an adventure. Can you tolerate GR and Cheerios for breakfast? That seems too ordinary! Enjoy the concluding weeks, Dave/Barb

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