Under the dappled shade of a towering Bodhi tree, Somdy Oudomsack pauses for a minute to contemplate its significance and splendour.
“In Laos, we call this a ton pho,” he says. “It’s one of the oldest flowering plants in the world. It’s not only important spiritually, but it’s also used in traditional medicine to treat things like stomach problems and infections.”
Oudomsack is a senior gardener, one of 50-plus staff working at Pha Tad Ke, South-East Asia’s newest botanical garden. Opened in November 2016, this impressive conservation site on the banks of the Mekong River sprawls over almost 40 hectares. Around 15 of these are devoted to an orchid nursery, an arboretum, organic gardens and a thatched-roof restaurant, while the rest is carpeted in thick jungle laced around limestone cliffs.
A major area of focus at Pha Tad Ke is ethnobotany, and one of the first things that visitors see upon arrival are 10 orb-like plots that showcase how various plants are used in different fields, such as Laotian medicine (from maternal health to digestive ailments), cooking, spiritual ceremonies and handicrafts like weaving.
“Research shows that ethnobotany and traditional medicine are at risk of dying out,” explains Dutchman Rik Gadella. A former high-flying art and publishing executive Gadella first dreamed up the project after falling in love with the slower pace of life in Luang Prabang in 2007. “In Laos, knowledge is often passed down orally, so a lot of traditional techniques are lost. Many old shamans are also gone, and there simply isn’t enough research being undertaken yet.”
Moreover, various environmental factors such as climate change, deforestation and the development of dams along the Mekong have further taken their toll on these traditional practices.
Over nine years, Gadella travelled to some of the world’s most revered botanical gardens and sent his army of recruits from Vientiane’s agriculture college on educational trips to Singapore’s Botanic Gardens and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Chiang Mai. Both have helped in setting up Pha Tad Ke, but the ambitious plans don’t stop there. Gadella is currently looking to raise a further US$3 million to build a state-of-the-art education complex with a herbarium, a dormitory, an accredited research centre and permaculture demonstration farm.
“There’s an incredible amount of botanical knowledge among Laos’ 50-plus ethnic groups, and it’s critical that we preserve it,” says Gadella, outlining his future plan for this patch of paradise.
How to get there
Pha Tad Ke is located 15 minutes downstream from Luang Prabang. Catch the boat from the garden’s downtown reception in Ban Wat That; tickets cost US$25 for adults and US$10 for children. The garden opens from 8am to 6pm daily.
Also known as the fried-egg orchid, this plant is used to treat strains, sprains, fractures and bruises. It is also highly prized for its beautiful flowers.
Part of the ginger family, this rhizome is an essential ingredient in many Laotian dishes. It also has a wide array of medicinal uses, especially for women recovering from childbirth.
Black Bat Flower
Named after its distinctive flower, this plant is used by Laotians to treat fatigue, body aches, stomach pain and malaria. It is also said to stimulate the production of new blood cells.
This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine.