Luang Pra­bang’s newly opened botanic gar­den safe­guards the lo­cal knowl­edge of na­tive plants while show­cas­ing Lao­tian fare.

The pas­sion­ate team be­hind a new botanic gar­den in Luang Pra­bang is shin­ing a spot­light on na­tive plants and au­then­tic recipes, and help­ing to pre­serve a pre­cious as­pect of Lao her­itage along the way.

DestinAsian - - DEPARTMENTS - BY CLAIRE KNOX

Draped in 40 hectares of thick trop­i­cal jun­gle and laced with lime­stone cliffs, a misty moun­tain be­side the wide Mekong River in north­ern Laos might seem an im­prob­a­ble set­ting for one of Asia’s new­est and most am­bi­tious botanic gar­dens. But for Rik Gadella, a high­fly­ing pub­lish­ing exec turned green thumb who’d once or­ga­nized il­lus­tri­ous art and photo fairs in New York and Paris, the lo­ca­tion made per­fect sense.

The Dutch­man first vis­ited Luang Pra­bang a decade ago on what he calls a “midlife cri­sis” soul-search­ing pil­grim­age across Asia. He was in­stantly be­witched by the UNESCO-listed town’s slow pace and charm­ing ar­chi­tec­ture. “This land once be­longed to the royal fam­ily—it was a hunt­ing es­tate,” Gadella tells me not long af­ter I meet him at the base of the moun­tain. The spot now her­alds the en­trance to Pha Tad Ke Botanic Gar­den, a first of its kind in Laos, which he founded in 2008 and of­fi­cially opened last Novem­ber. “The name it­self means ‘the cliff that can un­tie and re­solve prob­lems.’ I had this idea of liv­ing in a bam­boo hut on the river some­where in Luang Pra­bang, but when the landown­ers ap­proached me and the name was trans­lated, I thought it was a

very good sign. So, in­stead of buy­ing a Porsche, I bought a jun­gle.”

The botanic gar­den didn’t just re­solve Gadella’s own ex­is­ten­tial quandary, though. As it be­gan to take shape, he un­rav­eled a “much big­ger mis­sion”—to ad­dress the fu­ture of Laos bio­di­ver­sity and to pre­serve the na­tive flora that has been en­twined with the liveli­hoods of indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties for cen­turies.

Over the last eight years, 14 hectares of the grounds have been care­fully land­scaped into 10 dif­fer­ent gar­dens, from or­chid nurs­eries and eth­nob­otan­i­cal plots with over 1,500 na­tive plants, to a huge ar­bore­tum, stands of bam­boo and palm, and rice fields. Medicinal and poi­sonous plants are show­cased; so too are bam­boo shoots and pep­per­wood (com­monly used in north­ern Laos cui­sine) and the rather vi­cious, spiky rat­tan shrubs many hill tribes weave into ex­quis­ite tex­tiles and fur­ni­ture.

Vis­i­tors to Pha Tad Ke em­bark from a pier on the south­ern fringes of the Luang Pra­bang penin­sula, and the 15-minute boat ride down the Mekong takes in scenery that’s al­most as splen­did as the gar­den it­self: hand­some French colo­nial vil­las, gilded pago­das peek­ing out through palms and flow­er­ing flamboyant trees, rip­pling rice pad­dies, and lively fish­ing vil­lages are just some of the sights along the way.

Gadella’s orig­i­nal plan was to build a swish eco-re­sort on the two hectares of prime river­front that came with the prop­erty. How­ever, the idea for the botanic gar­den started to grow af­ter he re­al­ized that de­spite its lush, strik­ing land­scape, Laos was de­vel­op­ing at a rapid rate and the mod­ern­iza­tion of its var­i­ous eth­nic groups (an­thro­pol­o­gists es­ti­mate there are some 55 dif­fer­ent mi­nori­ties in Laos) was putting their deep knowl­edge of eth­nob­otany and medicinal plants at risk. “In Thai­land, you find a lot of re­gard for eth­nic botany and tra­di­tional medicine, even in ur­ban ar­eas,” he says. “But in Laos this her­itage is in dan­ger. This coun­try re­lies more on oral tra­di­tion and a lot of the old shamans are dy­ing out. That’s why it is so im­por­tant to doc­u­ment it now.”

Over the next nine years, Gadella trav­eled the world’s most revered botan­i­cal gar­dens, from Kew and Ed­in­burgh to Sin­ga­pore, and be­gan to re­cruit from Vi­en­tiane’s agri­cul­ture col­lege, send­ing his new team on ed­u­ca­tion trips to the Sin­ga­pore Botanic Gar­dens and Queen Sirikit Botanic Gar­den in Chi­ang Mai. Most of his 50 lo­cal staff grad­u­ated with col­lege de­grees in agri­cul­ture—there are no hor­ti­cul­ture pro­grams in Laos just yet—but Gadella says all showed a pas­sion for botany from the be­gin­ning. “I was most in­ter­ested in good at­ti­tudes and knew we had years to train th­ese guys as the gar­dens grew.

Now we even have two of our botanists study­ing their mas­ters on full schol­ar­ships in France.” One such pas­sion­ate stu­dent is Kham­phart Tong­shan, a 25-year-old from a neigh­bor­ing vil­lage who de­signed the en­tire site with as­sis­tance from vis­it­ing botanists. “He started work­ing with us six years ago, study­ing agri­cul­ture on week­ends, and is about to head off on a schol­ar­ship in the United States. I could tell in his eyes he would be spe­cial,” Gadella tells me. “He has such an in­cred­i­ble knowl­edge of lo­cal plants.”

While Pha Tad Ke is set up as a tourist at­trac­tion that will ideally keep the project sus­tain­able through a US$20 en­trance fee, more im­por­tant, ac­cord­ing to Gadella, is its role as “a sci­en­tific gar­den for re­search and ed­u­ca­tion. All that ex­ists in this field in Laos ed­u­ca­tion-wise is forestry and agri­cul­ture, so there’s a huge gap that needs to be filled.”

As we weave through Pha Tad Ke’s kalei­do­scopic ginger gar­dens, the air heavy with the flow­ers’ sweet and slightly spicy per­fume, I’m in­tro­duced to Somdy Ou­dom­sack, a se­nior gar­dener with a wide grin and weath­ered hands. He tells me we’re lucky to be vis­it­ing at this time, right in the mid­dle of the mon­soon sea­son, when the plants are in full, mag­nif­i­cent bloom. “When I started here all of this was cov­ered in dense weeds. It’s been a long and huge job, from clear­ing to de­sign­ing and build­ing,” he says, adding that an­other chal­lenge was col­lect­ing most of the indige­nous plant species. That in­volved long, chal­leng­ing trips into re­mote jun­gle vil­lages to source seeds and cut­tings and gather knowl­edge from Hmong hill tribe mò ya (plant spe­cial­ists). “This is our first rainy sea­son since open­ing and to see it look­ing like this right now gives me a lot of pride,” Ou­dom­sack says, prun­ing shears slung across his shoul­der.

Over­see­ing the hor­ti­cul­ture team is botanist Bry­ony Smart, a tall, ar­tic­u­late New Zealan­der who pre­vi­ously worked in Lon­don’s Kew Gar­dens. As she guides a group of us on an hour­long tour of Pha Tad Ke, she tells me that the team has re­cently dis­cov­ered a num­ber of new species—be­go­nias, gin­gers, ferns—and were in the process of pub­lish­ing their find­ings. She’s par­tic­u­larly fond of their wild or­chid col­lec­tion. Of the es­ti­mated 485 dif­fer­ent or­chid species na­tive to Laos, Pha Tad Ke har­bors 288.

While ur­ban mi­gra­tion and the Laos gov­ern­ment’s de­vel­op­ment plans—a spate of hy­dro-

elec­tric dams along the Mekong are un­der con­struc­tion, as is a mam­moth high-speed train line —are chang­ing the ways that lo­cals live off the land, Smart be­lieves Lao­tians are still more con­nected to their plants than most other cul­tures. “There’s not that much ac­cess to mod­ern medicine here and not much in­fil­tra­tion of West­ern food ideas and prod­ucts. Be­cause of that, peo­ple are still us­ing tra­di­tional plants as they would have a cen­tury ago, and there is still so much knowl­edge float­ing around. I think in the West we’ve cul­tur­ally lost an aware­ness that even all of our phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals are chem­i­cals de­rived from plant com­pounds.”

In July, Pha Tad Ke opened its new­est plot, an or­ganic gar­den burst­ing with veg­eta­bles, rice pad­dies, and herbs de­signed to sus­tain the on-site res­tau­rant’s small but de­li­cious menu of north­ern Lao dishes. As I chat to Gadella, res­i­dent chef and cook­book author Nuan­chan Rat­tana­sou­van­napon brings us a pitcher of iced bael fruit tea and a smor­gas­bord of col­or­ful, re­fined lunch dishes. There’s a del­i­cate Lao­tian ragout with sweet pump­kin and cubes of beef so ten­der they fall off the fork; steamed skew­ers of minced pork, lemon­grass, and dill that are wrapped in bam­boo shoots and grilled over coals; and a heady to­mato-and-pork jaew (chili dip) served with sticky-rice crack­ers, raw veg­eta­bles, and the pink, ed­i­ble petals of one of the gar­den’s torch gin­gers. “Tra­di­tional Lao in­gre­di­ents are sourced from the for­est,” Nuan­chan ex­plains. “You won’t find our recipes in most other Luang Pra­bang restau­rants.”

Although Gadella doesn’t dis­close how much he has in­vested in the project thus far, he tells me his goal is to raise a fur­ther US$4 mil­lion to build an ed­u­ca­tion fa­cil­ity with an ac­cred­ited re­search cen­ter and set up an herbar­ium for dry plant spec­i­mens. He is also seek­ing US$200,000 in fund­ing for a per­ma­cul­ture demon­stra­tion farm. “It’s such a fash­ion­able word, I know, but it could make such a dif­fer­ence here if we could show lo­cal farm­ers about ef­fi­ciency. We’d be able to teach and train about lay­out, re­cy­cling, wa­ter­shed man­age­ment, and so on. Some or­ga­ni­za­tions come into Laos with great in­ten­tions and build demon­stra­tion farms, but as soon as they leave the coun­try the projects can fall flat. At Pha Tad Ke, we are in be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate so we can have a deeper im­pact. We could have a cen­tral train­ing fa­cil­ity here for them to use, and gen­er­ate ex­tra in­come to fund the cour­ses for lo­cal farm­ers by run­ning two-day cour­ses for tourists. What those tourists would pay could fund five lo­cal farm­ers to get the same train­ing. What could be more worth­while than that?”

Above, from left: Pha Tad Ke café’s head chef Nuan­chan Rat­tana­sou­van­napon with one of her mod­ern spins on north­ern Laos cui­sine, a del­i­cate yet fla­vor-packed ragout with sweet pump­kin and beef; an­other dish on the menu is minced pork grilled on lemon­grass skew­ers.

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