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A first for Laos – Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens in Luang Prabang

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Justine Tyerman has trouble believing the flowers at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens in Luang Prabang, Laos are real.

Our guide Vieng asked me why I had to touch every flower I saw at Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens in Luang Prabang.

I’m just making sure they are real,

I replied as I stretched to touch a particularly bright red flower and nearly fell into a pond.

A colourful Etlingera elatior or torch ginger flower at Pha Tad Ke gardens in Luang Prabang, Laos

A colourful Etlingera elatior or torch ginger flower

The flowers at Pha Tad Ke, the first botanical gardens to be established in Laos, were so lush and exuberant, they looked artificial… but they were all 100 percent genuine, I can assure you.

Lady slipper orchid or Paphiopedilum concolor in Pha Tad Ka botanical garden in Laos

The delicate lady slipper orchid or Paphiopedilum concolor

The gardens were founded by Dutchman Rik Gadella who fell in love with the UNESCO-listed town of Luang Prabang a decade ago while on a “soul-searching pilgrimage” across Asia, and decided to stay and create the first living collection of the flora of Laos.

Heliconia rostrata or hanging lobster claw in Pha Tad Ka botanical garden in Laos

Heliconia rostrata or hanging lobster claw

Work began on the site in 2008 on land that was once a retreat and hunting lodge for the Lao royal family, and Pha Tad Ke opened in November 2016.

You could easily spend a day wandering around the shady pathways to the ginger, palm, bamboo, organic and educational gardens, the arboretum, mist house, caves and orchid nursery.

Aerial view of the ethno-botanic garden Pha Tad Ka in Laos

An aerial view of the ethno-botanic garden
Photo © Pha Tad Ke

The ethno-botanic garden is especially absorbing, full of medicinal plants and natural remedies. And the tropical flowers are a riot of colour, shape and size.

The ethno-botanic garden was full of medicinal plants and natural remedies

The ethno-botanic garden was full of medicinal plants and natural remedies

Pha Tad Ke is cared for by over 50 Lao staff and a team of dedicated scientists including botantist Bryony Smart, a New Zealander who has been working at the gardens since it opened.

What a surprise to find a Kiwi there!

New Zealand botanist Bryony Smart in Pha Tad Ke

Bryony Smart from New Zealand is working as a botantist at Pha Tad Ke

Bryony, who was previously a botanist at Kew Gardens in London, says working at Pha Tad Ke is a totally different experience to an established botanic garden.

My role here is very diverse, and I really enjoy the opportunity to have a hand in all the scientific work, from field work to publications to education and public engagement,

says Bryony.

“I also enjoy being a big part of shaping the botanical programmes for the future, and building the foundations for the work at Pha Tad Ke in years to come.”

Recent work has included doing field trips with partner organisations to collect and assess the plants in several different locations in Laos.

“We also run education courses in horticulture, botany, ecology and ecotourism, and have published ‘Pha Tad Ke: The Mountain to Untie and Resolve’, our most recent book.

“Our organic garden was also started a few months ago and provides students and visitors with information on organic horticulture methods,” she says.

“As the first ever botanic garden in Laos, we want to develop a regional research centre with an excellent living collection of the flora of Laos, and provide opportunities for botanical research, collaborations and education.

“We are focused on contributing to the sustainable development of the region and supporting conservation in Laos.”

Vegetation at Pha Tad Ka botanical garden in Laos

The lush vegetation at Pha Tad Ki gardens

The gardens are a real credit to the vision of their founder, Rik Gadella, and the passion of the team who have transformed a swathe of tropical jungle into 10 lovingly-landscaped, uniquely different gardens. A cool, tranquil oasis on a hot day in Luang Prabang.

Lunch at the breezy open air Pha Tad Ke café was also a superb experience — we were treated to a feast of delectable Lao dishes.

Lunch at open air Pha Tad Ke café

Lunch at the breezy open air Pha Tad Ke café was also a superb experience
Photo © Pha Tad Ke

Lunch at the Pha Tad Ke café

Lunch at the Pha Tad Ke café was a feast of delectable Lao dishes

Getting to the gardens is an adventure in its own right.

We boarded a long boat in Luang Prabang and journeyed 15-20 minutes down the wide and swirling ochre-red Mekong River passing graceful villas from the French colonial era, the golden spires of Buddhist pagodas and villages where children were splashing in the shallows and fishermen were working on their nets.

Riverbank resort on the Mekong

A riverbank resort on the Mekong

Boats by the side of the Mekong

Boats by the side of the Mekong

Children swimming in the river

Children swimming in the river

The Mekong is born in Tibet and flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam on its way to the South China Sea. The longest stretch of the 4350 km river is in Laos so a cruise on the mighty river is a must.

Skipper mooring the long-boat

Our skipper mooring the long-boat

Innovative Travel team about to board the long-boat on the Mekong River

Our Innovative Travel team about to board the long-boat on the Mekong River

Factbox

Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years’ experience offering travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service.

Travel Companions’ Club creating new horizons for social travellers: www.travelcompanions.club

Getting there:

Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily. Singapore Airlines has a code-share agreement with Swiss International Airlines (SWISS).
SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly.
Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Xieng Khuang.

Accommodation:
Parasol Blanc, Luang Prabang.
Pha Tad Ke.

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About Author

Justine Tyerman is an award-winning New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor with 18 years' experience in newspaper and freelance work. She has worked as a news reporter, feature writer, designer of an award-winning Newspapers in Education programme and sub-editor on local, national, business, education and international desks.

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