I recommend Khitchakut to any manufacturer of off-road vehicles looking for an exacting proving-ground. If your car can survive a couple of trips up this mountain with eight grimacing pilgrims in the back (make that seven grimacing pilgrims plus one grimacing Kuhn Pobaan on his day out), then the Alps will be a doddle and the Khyber Pass will be a cinch.
At base camp we are disgorged from the pick-up and proceed on foot up a brick and wood staircase which takes us to the top. There are many landings at which the elderly can stop, wheeze, pray at a shrine and put money in a box. For the very elderly there are chairs on poles on which they are conveyed to the top by two strapping lads. They don’t look strapping enough for my bulk so I decide to make the ascent under my own steam.
As we pass upwards through the jungle a succession of young men in orange jerkins are making their way down the mountain carrying sacks on their heads. By the outline of the contents and the light military escort it is clear that these are sacks of coins. Down they come, twenty-five or thirty men skipping down the stairs with about ten kilos of money each. As they descend they pass the slow crocodile of the faithful huffing and puffing their way to the top, each no doubt with a pocket or purse full of coins.
Thus the true function of the place is made manifest: people climb the mountain to be relieved of their money which is collected and returned to ground level in sacks. I suddenly think how much simpler it would be if the people simply deposited their money in the bank down there in the village. It would save so much huffing, not to mention puffing. But this idea won’t catch on. It would deprive the porters of their jobs and deny the faithful the opportunity of experiencing the delights that await them at the summit.
Gasping, I finally reach the top. Up there are a lot of people milling around, all of whom have successfully survived the climb. I instantly feel a bond with these people; we have endured the same physical hardship and lived.
But my bond extends no further than this. While I sit in the sun and await the arrival of Mrs Pobaan, a determined but slow mountaineer, the other people on the top of Khao Khitchakut spend their time throwing coins into the pots that are laid out before innumerable likenesses of the Buddha, feeding bank notes into the boxes with slots in the top that are placed everywhere hereabouts and paying homage to Buddha’s footprint which is to be found on a huge slab of sloping rock.
Buddha’s footprint? He came here?
It’s in the rock?
So it seems.
Must be fossilised.
What does it look like?
That last question is difficult to answer as the footprint itself is concealed under a blanket of yellow marigold petals which pilgrims have purchased for this purpose at one of many marigold stalls. What I can say is that the footprint is about four metres long.
He must have found it difficult to buy shoes.
But it’s handy. Had the Buddha possessed feet in the European size 39-41 range, his print could really only be attended by one or two worshippers at a time, but with its huge perimeter his four-metre foot allows room for a couple of dozen pilgrims to pray in the front row together. And the faithful don’t seem at all perturbed by the unrealistic size of the footprint. I am reminded of an experiment I read about involving seagulls.
Yes. They nest on the ground or on precarious ledges on sea-cliffs. Eggs rolling away can be a problem—they might get snaffled by another bird or pitch over the edge onto the rocks below. Seagulls are wise to this risk and have developed a sort of hooking action to retrieve wayward eggs. If a seagull sees its egg outside the nest it hooks its beak over it and pulls it back to the nest. If you give the bird a fake egg, it will invoke the retrieval behaviour as long as the fake has a few egg-like markings spotted on to its shell with a felt-tip pen.
Is this bird-talk relevant?
Bear with me. The size of the egg doesn’t seem to put the seagull off. You can present it with an egg the size of a football and it will still try to hook it back into the nest, in fact the bird will lunge at an outsize egg with even more enthusiasm than a real egg, perhaps proud of its achievement in laying such a monster, though puzzled that it can’t quite recall what must have been a very painful moment.
The worshippers remind me of the gulls. It would be great to believe, wouldn’t it, that Buddha came to Siam and, without the aid of a Mitsubishi Triton pick-up, ascended the Khitchakut peak and pressed his foot into wet clay that later turned to rock? And so what if the resulting footprint was four metres long? The bigger the better.