My god, it’s full of stars…

(Apologies in advance. I’ve just finished writing this post and realised I sound like a hippy. Don’t worry, I can assure you I do wash, I don’t smoke pot and I don’t listen to Phish.)

I sit typing this on tail-end of the sleeper up to Chiang-Mai, having spent the past couple of days exploring the ruins of Ayutthya and contentedly contemplating the onset of fourteen days of well-deserved r ‘n’ r. Staring out the window at the indescribably beautiful Thai countryside flashing by I was suddenly hit by a feeling I savour and experience all too rarely, inspiring me to unpack the netbook – my traveling best buddy – and try to capture the essence of what had hit me.

Staring at the horizon I was entranced by the endless expanse of green and the sudden appearance of what the Thais would probably call a mountain range but which is barely a Munro back home. Not to belittle the geographical features of the locale though – while we tend to harvest our hillsides bare the Thais leave them to their own devices, festooned with lush, verdant forests and eyecatching limestone outcroppings. Enhancing the natural beauty, in the gloriously kitsch manner of which the Thais are avowed masters, are the occasional glistening golden Buddha looking down benevolently upon the nearest township, or even a twenty-foot tall statue of one of his followers, bedecked in traditional yellow-orange robes and perched at a seemingly impossible, inaccessible location testifying to the devotion of those who created it.

Contemplation of these sights, combined with the hypnotic sway and white-noise rumble of my carriage set my mind to ruminations about the scale and majesty of the world around us. The track stretching out behind us seemed endless, and indeed to our ill-equipped senses it was, disappearing into the horizon. But that horizon still seemed so far, the minute disc of earth surrounding me so full of life, variety, serenity, danger and beauty. How many horizons would I have to cover to reach back home? How many of these islands of existence were between me and those I hold so dear and familiar? I’m a mere quarter of the way around the world but the expanse suddenly presenting itself to my imagination seemed near infinite.

Then came the tidal wave as I turned my eyes and mind to the skies above. On a normal day I don’t give it a second though, the sky is the harbinger of heat or bringer of floods, nothing more. On these rare occasions though, when my thoughts are floating just loosely enough, yet still sufficiently stable to comprehend, I see beyond the apparent canopy above us and break through the dome of the heavens. The distance to the clouds crumbles and becomes as nothing. I’m suddenly staring into space and seeing the universe as it  is, not as some abstraction from the pages of a book nor as the simplistic spattering of white dots on a black canvas. For a split second I’m aware of the vastness, the enormity of the universe in which we find ourselves quite literally adrift.

The 150,000,000 km to the sun? It’s nothing, a drop in the ocean. We’re only the third planet out in this rather unremarkable system. The light years spanning the gulf between our home and our nearest solar neighbour? Here’s something I don’t think enough people recognise – a light year is how far light travels in a year. It takes eight minutes to reach us from the sun. The universe is billions of years old. Billions. Think about those figures and let it sink in – 150,000,000km in 8 minutes, and light has been traveling through the universe for billions of years.

It’s at these moments, during such rare and always-welcome epiphanies, when I understand how religious people might feel when they think they have been touched by whatever deity they worship. It’s a moment when I surrender myself to complete and utter awe of the world around me, to its vastness, complexity and its endless forms most beautiful (thanks Charlie D.) It inspires a sincere feeling of humility, joy and total, all-encompassing love of the world around me.

I wasn’t sure how to end this post but the answer was right in front of me, literally so. In the seat opposite me is a young-ish Thai mother with her infant daughter curled up and sleeping with her head on her lap. If I can have one wish for the world it’s that more people, like that child to give but one example, can experience these same feelings. I can’t help but imagine how the world would differ if more people would just open their eyes and look around them once in a while…

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