On a visit to South East Asia recently I went to see a new botanical garden in Laos. Coming from Edinburgh where the Botanics are such a popular attraction it seemed like an interesting place to go. The garden, Pha Tad Ke, is the first ethnobotanical garden in the country, shining a spotlight on the local and traditional knowledge of the plants found there. It is setting an example of environmentally responsible tourism by preserving the local culture and environment, giving jobs to locals and providing them with a learning platform.
Healthcare in Laos was in part historically based on medicine produced from plants, and the idea behind the garden is to preserve that knowledge and teach locals and visitors about them. Nature and these plants are important to the people of Laos, but the rapid development of the country threatens old knowledge, often handed down without record. The idea is that those working in the garden will document and research the biodiversity of Laos to preserve it for future generations. There are 42 Lao staff who now work at Pha Tad Ke.
The garden is located in South East Asia’s most biodiverse region near Luang Prabang in 14 hectares with a cliff which gives the garden its name soaring upwards just behind. From the top you can see across the Mekong and spy the odd boat plying up or down the river. You can buy tickets for the garden at the Reception Centre in Ban Wat That.
It is very remote, so remote that I felt very far from home – and certainly did not expect to find any local connection. There is strong international cooperation in the botanical field though, and I was delighted to discover that one of the strongest relationships is with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
On my return I went to the Botanics to meet with Dr Mark Newman who examines the taxonomy of the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and who has a strong connection to Pha Tad Ke. He was part of a team who years ago drew up a checklist of plants in Laos. He explained his involvement : “I was involved at the beginning, as Ric Gadella the Director of the garden contacted me. I had already been working in Laos for some years by then, and he was busy trying to establish this garden. As well as me, some of my colleagues from our horticulture team went out to run a training course for local Lao people – a pretty basic course learning how to do things like mix basic potting soil and things like that.”
Dr Newman searched in the tropical hothouse and found me a plant that he himself had brought back from Laos. The plant is related to turmeric that we cook with, although Dr Newman explained it is not an edible variety. He told me the story behind it. “A Thai student and myself went to a market on the Thai/Laos border years ago We bought these risomes and the lady selling them said she thought they were from Laos. When they flowered it was obvious to us that it was a new species – we had never seen anything like it before. I described it with a lady who was my supervisor when I lived in Thailand. Later on we did find these plants growing wild in Laos, and it was great to find out where they really grow, as it is vital that we have contact with others in the tropics.
“Around ten years ago RGBE ran a training programme in Laos teaching them how to identify plants using a scientific key and using all the scientific names. We think there are probably 8-10,000 species in Laos compared to Britain where there are about 2,000. It is a land of mountains and rivers compared to its neighbours, and although this helps make it more prosperous, it also has a deleterious effect on the environment. There are plans to build hydro-electric dams in Laos although most of the electricity is consumed in Thailand and Vietnam. In Laos itself they don’t have much electricity – it all goes abroad.”
This discussion with Dr Newman resonated with other conversations I had during the trip in Vietnam and Cambodia too where livelihoods and industries are threatened by the plans for over 70 dams in the region.
The garden in Laos is dedicated to species preservation and ethnobotany, the cultural traditions related to plants. There is a biodiversity research and education centre with a living collection of plants, and they already publish books and write scientific articles. Some 36,000 books have been distributed to Lao schools and libraries, and school children are welcomed to the gardens and 12 school gardens have been installed with 36 teachers trained.
Education is a strong theme and I met three farmers attending a course there to learn about sustainable agriculture with a focus on organic farming. There is a long dry season in Laos and farmers need to know how to deal with that in ways other than simply using chemical fertiliser and irrigation.
The business model at Pha Tad Ke is one of profit for purpose so all of the revenues are reinvested back into the garden, and so it depends on financial support from other non-profit organisations and from private donors.
Dr Newman was about to go off to Laos when I met him and he was due to visit Pha Tad Ke to see for himself how it is progressing. With a PhD student he was going to collect wild gingers in the centre and north of Laos as part of a project funded by the French government to its former colonies.
Dr Newman studied botany at St Andrews and then went to Aberdeen University to study for his doctorate studying gingers. He then worked with Kew Gardens in the seed bank there, travelling extensively to Brazil and Mexico. He then returned to work on Asian plants and gingers in particular which is now his speciality.
I walked through the tropical houses at the Botanics with Dr Newman recalling the searing heat in Laos during my trip there when the temperature hovered in the mid to high 30s most of the time. Dr Newman showed me some of the plants he has collected over the years, discovering new species on his journey. He even has had a species of ginger named after him Zingiber Newmanii.
Dr Newman recounted that he has been to the garden in Laos several times. He said : “Pha Tad Ke opened to the public in the last couple of years and when I last saw it they were still digging beds and making paths and deciding what groups of plants they were going to show. But Ric’s fundamental idea is to have a botanical garden very near Luang Prabang with a lovely boat ride across the Mekong River in a quiet space.
“We have done a lot of international collaboration, currently with China and also a project to revise the flora of Nepal. Several of my colleagues help them to redevelop their botanic gardens.
“I went a few times but only before it was opened to the public. So I saw it when it was really quite newly taken over from rice fields that belonged to the nearby village. Since then I have had quite a lot of contact with Ric Gadella who has become a personal friend and am looking forward to my visit there.
“It is a lot of work to set up this garden because there are a lot of complicated bureaucratic problems to be answered. In this case Ric’s is the first botanic garden in Laos. It is not government owned like ours here in Edinburgh. There is little support from the government in Laos so he has to persuade them that it is a good idea. yes it is a real adventure and challenge that he has taken on.”
And confirming even more of an Edinburgh connection Dr Newman said : “The last botanist who worked at Pha Tad Ke was a New Zealander. She was a graduate of our Master’s course in Biodiversity and Taxonomy of plants and fungi.”
What I saw at the garden is the result of a decade of work by Ric Gadella who went to Luang Prabang initially for a week’s holiday and has simply stayed. At the beginning he said the area which is now the garden was full of weeds and magnificent old wild mango trees. Gadella, who was born in Aruba in the Caribbean, worked in art for over 25 years, often travelling from Paris to New York. A new world beckoned to him and now almost unbelievably the gardens are open to the public. It is a case of ‘build it and they will come’.
I was taken on a special guided tour to see this special place with its wide variety of vegetation and sweeping views of the Mekong River. One of the parts of the garden that my travelling companions and I agreed would be a spectacular centrepiece is actually hidden away from most visitors. The butterfly garden created in collaboration with the Beay Srey Butterfly Centre has some beautiful specimens and although for now they are kept in a netted enclosure and you look at them from the outside, I do hope that the garden will develop this as another part of the attraction. It is one way of using an alternative livelihood as it uses an environmental resource in a sustainable way.
My visit finished with a fabulous farm-to-table dinner in the garden in the evening as the sun was going down, and a fifteen minute boat ride back to the other side of the Mekong and our the welcome relief of our air-conditioned minibuses. The café is quite spectacular and was recently listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the top ten best Farm to Table Dining Experiences. Many of the ingredients are grown in the garden although chicken and fish is also served, and the meal was expertly prepared by Chef Chan.
We had a menu, but there was no choosing to be made – we simply ate everything. To start we were offered a Betel leaf wrap with rice, pork and lemongrass. And to follow there was laap tofu, pomelo salad with fish and a beef curry with sweet pumpkin and pork. For dessert we ate nan vanh sticky rice with coconut milk and taro. It was hard to see but all very delicious and beautifully presented.
It was a special trip and it would be very interesting to return some time to see what the founder Ric Gadella develops there in the future. He has many dreams and plans. He talks of building guest accommodation and a spa in the garden. To begin with, across the lily pond there will be an art installation – there really will be, as the workmen were just beginning to clear the area when I was there. Project Space • Pha Tad Ke is a continuation of one of Gadella’s art projects which was exhibited in Luang Prabang showing arts and crafts from contemporary artists. This new exhibit is being created in collaboration with curator and textile expert Linda McIntosh. Three beautifully restored wooden houses will host exhibitions, workshops and cultural events in the heart of the garden,
Ric hopes that using an artist in residence programme they will raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity and ecological conservation. In these days when the term Climate Emergency has just taken root, places like Pha Tad Ke are quietly educating local people and visitors about how to avert the crisis. The garden recently launched a new fundraising drive but the best thing you can do is go and visit!
Oh and go to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh when you can too – there is a lot to see!.