Return to Laos (part 1)

Recently, I flew into Luang Prabang to spend a few days at the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden. .  This is my second trip to Laos and the garden. The first was to do research and to interview staff for my forthcoming book.

The director of the garden, Rik Gadella, and I have become friends and, since my first visit in December of 2016, have discussed ways in which I can help the garden.

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Rik Gadella ( left)  and Chris Woods.

So, I needed and wanted to return.

It is the end of the rainy season. The Mekong River is high, fast-flowing and muddy. Luang Prabang has not had a particularly strong wet season but it is lush and, as always, humid.

I have written about Pha Tad Ke in a previous post – . On this most recent trip, I had time to explore the city and the garden in more detail.

Luang Prabang  is in the northern and central part of Laos. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and is known for its many Buddhist temples, French colonial architecture, and now, the botanical garden.

There are many temples in the city. One, in particular, is particularly beautiful.  Wat Xieng Thong, is at the northernmost end, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam rivers. It is a compound of temples and shrines, and an active monastery.

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The streets in this part of the city are narrow  and full of plants.IMG_3543



Citrus peelings are laid out to dry. They are  used in houses as mosquito repellent.

As for the garden,the website has a lot of information.

The entrance to a garden, the entrance to any space, establishes the tone of the experience that is meant to follow. It is the first note of the overture that lies beyond.

A wooden longboat is moored to a jetty in the Mekong River. On the prow of the boat is a small tree in a pot. It is there to keep evil sprits away. It seems to work, since the short journey from city to garden is one of serene beauty.

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Visitors disembark and climb steps to the garden, its entrance situated high above the flood waters of the “Mother of Rivers”.



In October, many of the gingers (Zingiberaceae) are in bloom.


Torch ginger – Etlingera elatior



Cheilocostus speciosus –  Crȇpe ginger.
Hedychium species


An unknown cultivar of Canna.

The garden has a collection of about 200 gingers, three-fourths of which are identified. Possibly 300 species are native to Laos. Part of a new five-year plan for education and research concentrates on Zingiberaceae.

More of that in part 2.






I have been remiss

in writing a post for this blog for quite a while. My excuse is that I have been completing my book. Thanks to a great editor, the process has gone quite smoothly. Even writing several hundred captions went .. well, it went.

The book is now in the hands of a copyeditor who thinks the manuscript is “lovely”. She’s not English so she may well mean it.

Next, will come design and layout, and at some point, proofing, proofing, proofing.

It will then disappear, to return like a prodigal child, sometime in August 2018.

Post-partum authorship is something to attend to. My book has required me to travel the world a number of times, and I am conscious of missing that global drive. So, in order to assuage the possible emptiness, I have decided to keep on traveling. As many authors have stated in varying ways – ‘what the fuck, why not ?’

In a few days I fly to Bangkok, then Laos, where I will spend time at the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden in Luang Prabang. I hope to post something from there.





Spring is like a perhaps hand

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window, into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.



The Elevated Garden of Sants


On a recent trip to Spain and Portugal I met some fine gardeners, saw wonderful gardens, and drank a little wine.

“Give me wine to wash me clean of the weather-stains of cares” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Barcelona, I came upon the Spanish version of New York’s High Line – The Elevated Gardens of Sants. Designed by architects Sergi Godia and Ana Molino. “The elevated gardens of Sants are part of an urban project that seeks to eliminate the urban barrier of the passage of the train tracks through the city of Barcelona. Instead of burying the infrastructure, the architects opted for its covering with a building-container, in whose cover the gardens are developed. This long and elevated space allows a 800-meter-long walk with fantastic views of the city.”






The structure that holds up the building/container is comprised of prefab concrete parts in a sequence on a diagonal which adopts the shape of a great Warren beam evoking the old railway bridges, leaving large empty triangles that lend themselves to glazing them over to allow a view of the train passing through the city, reducing its acoustic impact to a minimum. Not fully glazing the building allowed three great green inclines to be built which rise from the lowest levels right up to roof level. These embankments “anchor” the building into its setting allow the roof vegetation to spill down to the lateral streets and support pedestrian ramps that provide a “natural” access to the roof.”

A most amazing place.

The Rock Garden, Chandigarh, India.

Chandigargh, a utopian dream city designed by Le Courbusier, is a spectacular failure except for one thing, Nek Chand’s Rock Garden.

In 1958, Nek Chand began collecting rocks and discarded and recyclable items from the demolition of the villages that once stood where the new city was being built. Chand built a world depicting village life, and a fantasy kingdom of palaces and pavilions. He did most of this at night after his work day was done.

Later, the Chandigargh Landscape Advisory Committee, who had planned to demolish the work, (ah committees), relented and allowed Nek Chand to open the Rock Garden to the public.

The Rock Garden was inaugurated in 1976 and is one of the most visited places in India.

A traveling companion and I traveled  to Chandigargh  specifically to see this masterpiece. We went twice in 24 hours, the first time in the afternoon. After a few hours at the site, we couldn’t speak. We went back to our hotel and to our respective rooms. Without dinner or conversation we retired. There were no words.

We went back the next morning. There are no words except words of gratitude. Thank you Mr.Chand, and thank you Marcia and Pradeep.




In Chile: Discovering four of the seven (or eleven or thirteen)secrets of life.

On a recent trip to Chile I discovered four important things that I believe are essential to well-being.

The first is oxygen. There seemed to be a short supply of the stuff as the country is experiencing its worst wildfire season in its history. Nearly 900,000 acres of forest are burning, turning the sky brown and, with excessive summer heat, making most of the country smell and feel  like a bad barbecue. 5,000 people have been evacuated and 11 killed. It’s a terrible situation. The heat and the drought have been linked to climate change but I am an American and, under the new administration, apparently that particular scientific fact is no longer true.

Ignoring the bad news and being a self-indulgent tourist, I discovered the second, the breakfast of champions – Pisco Sour. This appears to be a drink made out of eggs and urine. Fortunately, it’s made out of brandy – Pisco – a grape brandy.

Here’s a recipe.

  1. Pour pisco, lemon juice, sugar and egg white in a shaker with ice.
  2. Shake and strain in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice.
  3. Pour dashes of angostura bitters on the creamy drink.

One Pisco sour starts the day with a zing. Two adds a hallucinatory quality to the day and you start to see Inca deities at the end of the bar. Three ends the day rather quickly.

Pisco Sour on the left


The third is ceviche. I don’t know the history of ceviche and after a couple of Pisco Sours, I couldn’t care less.

This frothy mixture of raw fish marinated in lime juice with the addition of onion and corn is as close to culinary perfection as possible.
When being photographed with food, it wise to cover any hint of a burgeoning belly


The fourth is flora, of course. The flora of Chile is rich in endemism. The Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis, is almost gone from the wild but it is grown in gardens.jubaea-chilensis

Chilean wine palms at Parque Explorador Quilapilún

In the Andes, the magnificent  Puya chilensis, a terrestrial bromeliad, grows on rocky slopes. Its flowering is finished in late summer but it has a powerful presence in the scree and boulders 300-1000 m above sea level.img_1263

Here is a photograph, from a friend, of Puya chilensis in flower.dsc07698

Good food and drink can be found anywhere but a plant in the wild is beyond ordinary  pleasures.


Being in the wild is an act of worship

I have been too busy traveling and writing to write.

My research and writing for a future book has taken up much of my time. Blogs get neglected when there are other things to do.


I would be remiss, at least in my own mind, if I didn’t post a few snaps.

I popped over to Laos and Cambodia recently.  I went to Laos to see the brand new botanic garden Pha Tad Ke, near Luang Prabang. I intend to write more about this, the first botanic garden in the Laos PDR.

a new sign will be forthcoming

It is a 25 minute boat ride on the Mekong River from Luang Prabang to PTK.



Laos is a Buddhist, Animist, Socialist Republic.


Bulbophyllum sp.


Just 30% of the plants of Laos have been studied. Given that the country has one of the most diverse and profuse floras in the world, and slash and burn agriculture is devastating  the countryside, there is much to do.

About 485 species of orchids are native to Laos. There well may be many more. The garden has collected 250 species mostly Bulbophyllum and Dendrobium and they are on display in two shade houses.



Looking across the Palm Collection to the range of mountains and limestone karsts.



Skeletonized leaves embroidered with gold thread.


Rik Gadella, the garden’s creator, founder and general manager is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary vision. He and his staff are creating one of the most important and beautiful gardens in the world. Go there.

Link to the garden’s website – Pha Tad Ke

I then followed the Mekong to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Angkor Wat, Prasat Pram, and the great wetland of Tonle Sap.

Angkor Wat


Thousands of tourists get up before dawn to see the sun rise over the temples. Once the sun is risen they seem to spend about half an hour wandering around and then head back to their hotels for breakfast.

I, being better than that, spent a couple of hours there. Self-righteous eco-voyeurism is such fun.


I preferred  Prasat Pram,a complex of five temples built in the 10th century, three of which are extant. There were few people there.

One of the temples is built of brick.


The glory of these temples is the tree roots that wrap themselves around the buildings.



On, then, to the great wetland of Tonle Sap where we tourists are taken in longboats to peer at people in the floating villages.



Beyond the village is the wild wetland. Full of rare birds. Spot-billed Pelican, Oriental Darter, Greater Adjutant and Painted Stork. And plants – Barrintonia acutangula, Croton caudatus, Dalbergia pinnata ,to name three.


What an honor to be there. To see all of it. Even ever so briefly.