Dollars to Dong-Bahts, Plant Exploration in Northern Vietnam and Northern Thailand
by Tony Avent
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
9241 Sauls Road
Raleigh, NC 27603
Shop for Perennials at Plant Delights Nursery
Trip Participants:Tony Avent, Plant Delights Nursery, NC
Alan Galloway, Aroid expert, NC
Hayes Jackson, Extension Agent, Palm and Ginger expert, AL
Wade Roitsch, Yucca Do Nursery, TX
We chose Northern Vietnam and Northern Thailand because we felt that this region has not been adequately explored for potential winter-hardy plants for Zones 7 and south. The rich Chinese flora certainly did not stop at the Vietnam border, and the same is true for the little-known Burmese (Myanmar) flora that didn't stop at the Thailand border. While all regions that we visited in these two countries are tropical/sub-tropical, past trials indicate that there is quite a bit of latent hardiness in many of the higher elevation plants, which have existed since glaciation periods. Many of these areas are regions where temperate flora and tropical flora mix, creating exciting plant possibilities. Since we also have a large collection of the genus amorphophallus, we wanted the opportunity to see and study these in the wild. Over the last 5-10 years, countless new species have been discovered, primarily by Alan Galloway of NC and Mary Sizemore of FL. As our trip would show, there are most certainly many new species still waiting to be discovered. Our timing was not chosen to intentionally coincide with the monsoon season, but to catch the tail end of the flowering season and the beginning of the seed season.
After nearly 24 hours in the air, we arrived just before midnight in Bangkok and rendezvoused with our other trip participants at the airport, where we took a van to the nearby Asia Airport Hotel for the night. The huge hotel was obviously a popular place to stay near the airport. I was surprised to find a prostitution vending stand just inside the lobby, staffed by local pimps who wanted to make sure that your night was not lonely. Obviously, the hotel gets a kickback or a percentage of the profits. The hotel was certainly acceptable for a short night in Bangkok.
After a brief 4-hour sleep, we were in the shuttle on the way back to the airport again for our early morning flight to Hanoi. As we went through immigration at the Bangkok airport, the immigration worker noticed that Hayes' Visa ran from Sept 11-Oct. 11 instead of beginning on August 11. After explaining to us that Vietnam might not let him in, they agreed to put him on the flight and let us take our chances with the Vietnam authorities.
We arrived in Hanoi mid-morning and crossed our fingers as we waited in the immigration line. We decided to be proactive and explain the problem instead of waiting for them to spot the mistake and say no from the start. We figured since all the other members of our group had the correct Visa dates, they would understand that the date discrepancy was simply a typographical error. Whether the guard understood Hayes explanation or simply didn't speak any English, Hayes was waved through without any problem.
Relieved, we could now concentrate on plants again. We next stopped at the currency exchange counter to exchange US dollars for Vietnamese Dong at the rate of 1 to 16,000. It sure seemed like we had a lot more money when we left the counter. We made our way to the baggage claim carousel, where we were picked up by the driver that we had hired over the Internet. We had purchased a pre-packaged tour route and figured to modify it once we hit the road. The driver took us to the travel agency in downtown Hanoi to make the balance payment for our van. We made sure that we would be staying in 3-star hotels, as we had been promised. We were assured this would not be a problem. We also expected to pick up our English speaking driver here, as we were promised. Despite the assurances that our driver would speak English, the owner of the travel agency now told us that none of the drivers spoke English and our airport driver, Loum, would be with us for the next couple of weeks.
Reluctantly, we finished our paperwork and walked down the busy neighborhood street to eat lunch and check e-mail and purchase a case of bottled water. I got back into the van, examining the receipt, to see that we had just purchased 240,000 dong worth of 'joy.' I can only imagine explaining my purchase of 'joy' to both the IRS auditors as well as my wife. We were fascinated to see very few cars in Hanoi, but lots of mopeds. By our estimate, 99% of the vehicles in this town of over 3 million were mopeds. By 3pm, we were loaded in the van and headed west out of Hanoi on Highway 6.
We made our first couple of stops just a few hours outside of Hanoi at 2300' where the road was washed out because of a rockslide and found a couple of interesting ferns, including an adiantum and what appeared to be an unusual climbing fern...something related to coniogramme. This would be it for the night, since it was already getting late, and we needed to find a hotel for the evening. We indicated to our driver via hand signals that we were ready to find a hotel for the evening and within a few minutes, we were pulling into the village of Mai Chau.
This quaint village was composed of dozens of thatched treehouses, called Thai stilt houses, surrounded by agricultural fields. We were welcomed to the village and directed to our treehouse for the evening. Each treehouse was about 12' off the ground, obviously due to past issues with flooding. The treehouse floors were made from thin slabs of wood with enough cracks that you must be quite careful about what you laid on the floor. Three stars...hah, I could see hundreds of stars from our bedroom floor.
After about an hour, dinner was brought to our treehouse, where we ate and soon were ready to retire for the evening. Beds were blankets laid on the floor and once we laid down, our host family came by and strung mosquito netting above each of us. The toilets were outside, down the stairs, and about 100' across a slick multi-level concrete pad. With the howling winds and soaking rains persisting through the night, it was a real adventure to make your way to the bathrooms when nature called. Things really got fun when they shut off the electric power to the entire village at night. If ambience is what you're looking for, the Mai Chau village is for you.
We departed our treehouse villa at 7am and resumed our journey to the west. As we drove, the early morning light rain turned into a downpour. Our driver seemed incredulous when we asked him to stop at an interesting looking site, despite the downpour of rain. Our first stop for the day was a rich-looking forested rock outcrop on the south side of the highway. Donning our rainsuits, we headed out among the trees and stalagmite-looking limestone rock outcrops. It didn't take more than 5 minutes to find my first amorphophallus, the green stemmed A. coaetaneus, followed by light and dark green patterned A. tonkinensis growing nearby.
Nearby were fascinating begonias, including a lovely rhizomatous species with bright red, new leaves. Wade found our first Solomon's seal, a lovely 2.5' tall disporopsis that was growing scattered among the rocks. After a couple of hours of botanizing, we were off again. The first few minutes back in the van were spent peeling off rainsuits and land leeches. These delightful little critters resemble small black slugs and lurk on plants in the forest just waiting for a victim to pass by. They climb aboard and anesthetize you first before beginning to suck your blood. Once they finish, they do have the decency to fall off on their own. There's no pain involved, just the shock of suddenly finding your shirt, sock, or underwear soaked with your own blood and this little creature sometimes still attached to your body. We would become very familiar with leeches over the next two weeks.
After passing the town of Moc Chau, we stopped again, this time at a steep forested bank at 2700', which was adorned with dramatic limestone outcrops. The woody flora here was amazing, consisting of large leaf michelias, litseas, and much more covering the 70 degree sloped bank. The clay hillside was so slick that the only way to climb was to literally pull yourself up the bank by the nearest tree or shrub and hope it didn't give way. As I continued to climb, I found two new amorphophallus. The first resembled A. napalensis, which is not in this area and the second was a dwarf that resembled A. verticillatus. The plant from this site that really stunned me was a 2' wide giant ophiopogon clump with 1" wide leaves.
Our next stop yielded even more species of amorphophallus. One looked like Amorphophallus corrugatus, while another looked like A. yunnanensis. A third resembled A. coaetaneus, but produced leaf bulbils. We concluded that this was most likely A. yuloensis.
We decided to stop for the evening in the town of Son La, but not before botanizing several of the rock outcrops throughout the center of the town to find more of the same amorphophallus species that we had found earlier in the day, plus the ubiquitous lowland Amorphophallus paeonifolius.
We had a little time left before the sunset and we instructed our driver to head north of town. We turned down a dirt road that ended in a rocky hillside. As we parked at the end of the dirt road, Alan was the only one who chose to exit in order to botanize near the van. Once he got out of site, we decided it was best to follow and exited the van, where we were greeted by 2 young Vietnamese boys who wanted to follow these strangers and imitate everything we said. For most of the time, the conversation consisted of 'Hello' and 'My Name is.' When we reached Alan, he was botanizing under a huge clumping bamboo. The kids quickly struck up a conversation with Alan as he came down the slick hill. As he got lower, he slipped and grabbed a tree with a squirrel nest, which frightened Alan as much as it did the squirrels. He let out a loud 'Oh Shit', which was immediately echoed by the two young boys with perfect diction. We didn't know whether to spank them or laugh, but opted for the latter.
While all the commotion was happening with the kids, we noticed that the ground was covered with superb patches of Remusatia pumila (dwarf elephant ear relative) with stunning black and silver marked leaves. Even the boys wanted to help, so they began gathering handfuls of the plants. They were so excited that it was hard to convince them to stop. They followed us back to the van, where Alan rewarded them with a chocolate bar while trying to explain that they needed to share. The part of the message about sharing didn't resonate as we drove away while they fought over the chocolate.
We drove through the town of Son La to find our hotel for the evening. We constantly reminded our driver that we wanted a 3-star hotel for the evening. It became obvious that we still hadn't solved our communication problem. The rooms at the hotel he chose were functional enough except for the lack of air conditioning and beds that made sleeping on the treehouse floor the night before seem soft. The hotel served us dinner, where we discovered that fried chicken means very different things in Vietnam and the US...both the word fried and the quality of a chicken. We were awakened around 4am by the crowing roosters, which as it turned out, was actually a low-end early warning system of an impending electrical blackout that was to follow. At least the day was starting off cloudy and not rainy...we'll see how long before the rains begins.
We stopped at an interesting-looking rock outcrop just north of Son La that turned out to be quite exciting. The 2517' peak contained another disporopsis, several nice patches of rohdea, remusatia, and beautifully patterned Amorphophallus yunnanensis. All were anticipated except the rohdea, which was an exciting surprise.
As we rose in elevation, we stopped again just west of Thuan Chu to find very steep cliffs that were a struggle to climb without sliding backwards. Holding on for dear life, we did manage to find a few treasures including the rare Typhonium hirsutum, several beautiful begonias, and two unidentifiable amorphophallus. The area was covered with a stunning callicarpa that we had seen in flower along our drive earlier in the day. These 10' tall x 15' wide shrubs with large felty grey-green leaves were adorned with large purple flower clusters.
Being out in the middle of nowhere always makes for interesting meal stops. We were getting pretty hungry when our driver spotted a small roadside café. The parking lot was crowded with vehicles, which is always a good sign for a restaurant...so we thought. When we went inside, we found the café filled with some 70-80 uniformed Vietnamese soldiers. Between eating, smoking, and drinking, they seemed curious about their visitors as evidenced by their increased chatter and long stares. They were actually quite friendly, even to the point of inviting us to drink with them and then trying to feel Alan's legs as he stood near their table. Obviously, their drinks had them feeling quite frisky. Each table was only a couple of feet off the ground and each 1' tall chair was something that a 4-year old child would find comfortable. Creature comforts are obviously not a big thing in Vietnam. We finally finished our meal and waved goodbye to our new friends and drove off again to the west.
We continued to gain altitude as we approached the Pha Din Pass, where the plant communities changed and became much richer. When we reached 3500', the fern species here were huge and spectacular. One Pteris-looking fern had 8' long fronds that emerged red. Another short tree fern boasted 14' long fronds. Even shorter ferns like 2' long onychiums and a variety of tongue ferns lined the roadside banks. We also began seeing the pantropical dicranopteris appearing in the fern mix. We returned to the van to find Alan grimacing in pain, as he had wandered through a patch of stinging nettle in short pants...never a good idea. Realizing that everything has a bright side, it dawned on us that there would be more plants for the rest of us if he was unable to continue for the rest of the day.
As we approached 4,500' in elevation, hedychiums replaced the alpinias and zingibers from the lower elevations. Many of the hedychiums exceeded 8' in height and some, including one with purple leaf backs, topped 9' in height. Silvery leaf begonias and amorphophallus were also at the same site.
After we passed the Pha Din Pass, the road conditions from here to Dien Bien Phu deteriorated, becoming more windy and bumpy, reminding me of a poorly built road to Hana, Hawaii. Many of the Vietnamese villages along this road belong to the minority tribes. Women wore colorful outfits, while young children played sans clothes in the vigorously running rivers in the valleys below. The tribe's people were quite curious and whenever we stopped, they gathered around and stared, such as when we made a roadside stop in Tuan Gao to rescue a piece of a red-centered pattern elephant ear.
As we descended toward Dien Bien Phu, we stopped at 2087' to examine a stunning banana species with upright flower spikes of bright reddish pink. The same stop also yielded several more different begonias, including some with bright red petioles and thick red hair on the stems. Not far away, we found another bank of amazing clones of the aroid Colocasia fallax, many with silver and black leaf patterns. We found ourselves conjuring up cultivar names before we even disembarked from the van.
As we closed in on Dien Bien Phu, about 13 km before the hotel, what little traffic there was came to a screeching halt. A landslide had closed the road ahead, but a crane was already on the job, working to remove the piles of dirt and rocks that had slid off the mountain. While we waited, a huge backlog of moped riders and several 4-wheel drive vehicles waited patiently. The backhoe operator obviously didn't finish top in his class, since when he re-opened the road, there were still knee-deep ruts remaining in the rain-soaked red clay road. Our van could only make it about 1/3 of the way across the affected section, before we had to push it backward to try again. We continued to watch as the backhoe operator tried to push one giant boulder from the landslide off the side of the cliff below, but instead he knocked down the nearby power line and nearly sent himself off the cliff. As soon as all the mopeds made their way by, we finally got up enough speed to make it by the landslide and resumed our trek to the hotel.
We requested our driver to stop at the Muong Thanh Hotel that was listed in the Lonely Planet Guide as best in town. I guess the 'best' in town is a relative thing, since this hotel would make a Motel 6 look like a 5-star hotel. The doors to the room couldn't hold a candle to a cheap aluminum storm door, but at least the bed was reasonably soft, and the hotel restaurant was actually quite nice.
We left Den Bien Phu in the pouring early morning rain to search for an Internet café on our way north out of town. Despite repeating the words Internet back to us, our driver continued through the town and was in the country before we knew it. We had to continue to chant, 'Internet, Internet' until he finally stopped and turned around. We finally found an Internet café and three of us logged on, only to have the power in the entire town go out. We were discovering that this is not an unusual occurrence in Vietnam. After waiting for 15 minutes, we gave up and proceeded on our way to Lai Chau.
We drove by low elevation rice fields for what seemed like hours as we skirted the Da river that separates Vietnam from neighboring Laos. The rain finally stopped in time for our first stop, as Hayes jumped out of the van to find an Amorphophallus coaetaneus in full seed. Up the road, we found more of the unknown amorphophallus from days earlier that resembled a giant A. napalensis, growing nearby a giant clump of Alocasia macrorhizos. Hopefully, this giant alocasia is genetic and not due to its growing conditions.
With Laos still just across the river to our west, we passed 3000' in elevation as the forested slopes became rich with banana species. It was always a good sign when we had to look down to see the rice fields. We tried to stop wherever we saw streams running out of the mountains, since these areas usually yielded the most amazing plants. At one stop adjacent to a huge landslide, we found amazing begonias hanging off the cliffs, both silvery rosette types along with a stunning 4' tall angel wing species. Growing among the begonias was an amazing giant selaginella with black foliage, along with a giant chlorophytum. We are a bit low in elevation for good winter hardiness, but there were some cool plants at this site.
Around 4pm, the road dropped again below 1000' elevation as we approached Lai Chau. At this point, we began seeing Amorphophallus paeonifolius. Interestingly, we never saw this species at elevations above 1000' during our entire travels.
We showed our driver in our guide book that we wanted to stay at the Lan Anh Hotel and Guesthouses in Lai Chau. He nodded knowingly and proceeded to drive right past the city and hotel signs, pointing to the Lah Anh. With only small towns ahead for the next several hours, we finally demanded that he turn around and take us back to the hotel, since we were rapidly losing daylight. Begrudgingly, our driver finally got the van turned around, and we headed back to the hotel.
We finally arrived at the Lan Anh to find individual buildings that were arranged in a very quaint village atmosphere, complete with an outdoor dining area located right in front of the rooms, paper thin walls, poorly lit tiny rooms, but loads of ambience. We tried to forget about the barking frogs in the fish pond outside our door that continued barking until the early hours of the morning. Thank goodness I remembered to bring my ear plugs, but the same could not be said for the other members of our contingent. At least the air conditioner worked well.
As soon as we checked in, I returned to the lobby to use their Internet connection. After wasting nearly an hour there with a connection that reminded me of late 1980's dial-up, Hayes and I both hiked back up to the main village to find a functioning Internet café. We were both able to make good headway on email backlogs while we waited for the heavy rainstorm outside to slow. Afterwards, it was back to the hotel for dinner and a night of plant processing.
We set out early for the long 7-hour drive from Lai Chau to Sapa. Since we were starting at a low elevation, we made very few stops early in the day. Three hours into our day's journey we arrived at the 1400' elevation, river town of Paso. The amount of new construction was amazing...almost as if they were building a new town. In fact, it turned out that the town of Lai Chau that we had just left was due to be flooded with the construction of a huge new dam nearby, and the entire town is being rebuilt in Paso. We soon passed the new Lah Anh hotel, about which our driver had tried to communicate to us the day before.
As we stopped for lunch at Paso, it was amazing to see how the vegetation had changed within a small span of distance. At Paso, we began to find temperate genera intermingling with the tropical flora. Maples and magnolias were everywhere, along with amorphophallus and a stunning 4' tall, white flowering curcuma.
After lunch, we continued the climb in elevation as we made our way to our evening destination of Sapa. We were fascinated to watch the right of way crews which consisted of women from a nearby village with hand sickles, whose job it was to keep the grass on the highway right of way slopes closely cropped. We can attest to their effectiveness is cutting both the grass as well as some potentially wonderful ornamental specimens. Only near the larger towns would we later encounter men with gas-powered string trimmers. After fighting through the nearly impenetrable vegetation further up the mountains, we wish we had commandeered a member of the road crew to join us.
After we passed 3,000' in elevation, we began to see hedychiums again, especially a stunning 9' tall species that we first thought to be Hedychium coronarium, but upon closer examination, Hayes determined that it was a different species. The other very prevalent species here was Hedychium maximum, a stunning yellow flowered species, also growing to 9' tall. Wade found a dwarf 3' tall form of the same plant or possibly a different yellow-flowered species. The gingers were almost never found on flat ground, but obviously preferred steep slopes, which made obtaining samples quite challenging. By this time, the rain had become so torrential that we had trouble just keeping our footing on the slick clay soils and rocks, not to mention making it hard to closely examine the plants we were seeing.
As we rose above 4,000' elevation, the rains lightened some, and we began to see more ferns, many of which were gigantic. The ferns grew alongside the hedychiums as well as an amazing array of begonias. As we topped 5,000', we began to see even more new plants. A stunning colocasia with an C. antiquoum 'Illustris'-type leaf pattern and very thick leaves caught my eye as we sped up the mountain. Nearby, we began to find disporums and more nice ferns including pteris, woodwardia, elaphapglossom, pyrrosia, and coniogramme. We even found our first plants of the common Chinese Arisaema consanguineum. The amorphophallus that we found in this region looked like the winter-hardy A. dunnii.
The rain had given way to fog, making it hard to see the plants in front of you. I was shocked when we looked up to see that the entire top of the bank was in flower with what we thought was the heat-hating Lilium nepalense. Upon returning home, I discovered that we had stumbled onto the very rare L. poilanei...a close relative of L. nepalense. It was growing here in the most unexpected of sites...and it was growing by the thousands. The rock cliffs were also adorned with more gesneriads than I had ever seen at one site...where are all the gesneriad experts when you need one?
As we climbed past 6,000', we began to find Astilbe, probably Astilbe grandis growing with pyrrosia and adiantum ferns. One of the most shocking finds among the rocky cliffs at this elevation was the giant lace-cap hydrangeas, probably H. heteromalla, that were in full flower among the hedychiums. These stunning 10' tall x 15' wide shrubs were topped with white lace-cap flowers, often with blue stamens. Growing nearby was also Cunnighamii konishii and two species of buddleia, although we saw no signs of flower buds. As we walked back to the van, two young boys emerged from the mountains, each with a large rat-like critter attached to a rope. They were delighted to show off their catch, which was most certainly destined to be the evening's dinner.
Since it was getting late in the day and we were all thoroughly soaked from being out in the pouring rain since noon, we reluctantly packed it in for the day. We crossed over the Tram Ton Pass at 6,700' and then descended about 1000' into the mountain resort town of Sapa.
Since we had stayed at some dumpy hotels recently, we thought we would check out the well-known 4-star Victoria Sapa Hotel. We arrived to find the rooms were $130 each, when we had been accustomed to paying around $12-$20 per night. Oh well, it was off to the Son Thuy hotel that our driver had suggested. As we expected, the place was a dump, but a cheap dump, and they did have large rooms for plant processing. We were desperate to have laundry done, since the hot, humid weather had caused us to deplete our clean clothes supply quicker than anticipated. We dropped off our laundry with the promise that it would be ready by the next evening.
Dinner at the hotel was probably the worst of the trip. The menu choices were almost non-existent, and everything they served as meat couldn't have been chewed by a new Cuisanart food processor. They had no soft drinks available, only water, Heineken beer which was only slightly stronger, and wine. Alan ordered wine, which turned out to be a recycled water bottle filled with the Vietnamese version of moonshine...certainly not what anyone was expecting.
I had been in contact with Uoc Le Huu, a young Sapa travel guide, who had guided Dan Hinkley and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones on their botanical expeditions to the same region several years earlier. Uoc spoke great English compared to our driver, so we were delighted when he came to meet us at our hotel and agreed to be our guide and translator for the remainder of the Vietnam leg of our trip.
The hotel breakfast was a typical Vietnamese breakfast of bread, cheese spread and fried eggs. Instead of the nice homemade bread that we had at our two previous hotels, all the Son Thuy Hotel could manage was a loaf of white bread. After breakfast, Uoc met us at 8am with our bag lunch for our day-long hike. We headed out for the short 20-minute drive back to the west to the Hoang Lien National Park headquarters where we could access the hiking trail to Fansipan Mountain. At 10,000'+ elevation, Fansipan is the highest peak in Vietnam and home to extensive floral diversity including several endemic species.
After paying the small admission fee, we began the hike up the mountain, knowing that we didn't have the time or energy to make the 2 day trek to the summit. Our young guide, Uoc had climbed to the top of Fansipan 98 times and had even been presented with an award for such, far outdistancing his closest rival at 56 journeys to the top. It didn't take long to appreciate how impressive this feat really was.
The trail started off mushy, steep, and rocky but got progressively worse. The steep rocky path was often covered with several inches of standing water from the seemingly constant rain. It was almost possible to overlook the condition of the path because of the wonderful plants...I said almost. First, there was Exbucklandia populnea, which I am already growing from my 1996 China trip. Camellias were everywhere, from small-leaf species to large, with camellia flowers littering the ground. The most amazing camellia was a huge 70' tall specimen with a 2.5' diameter trunk that resembled a giant oak.
Lithocarpus, illicium, stewartia, and schefflera were dominant among the woody plants as we hiked. The most unusual tree along our route had to be the hot dog tree. I'd love to grow this as a conversation piece in the garden. The rain became more frequent as we continued to slog our way higher. The hills were dotted with calanthe orchids, a hardy aglaonema, disporum, disporopsis, polygonatum, smilacina, impatiens, goodyera, peliosanthes, liriope, an ophiopogon with 2' long flower spikes, and much more. The ferns were downright incredible, with the highlight being what appeared to be several species of upside-down fern (Arachniodes).
There was quite a bit of Arisaema consanguineum in the area, and I even spotted its foliar look-alike, paris, growing here as well. The begonias were also amazing, from tall angel-wing types to short rosettes of silver leaves. Did I mention the two species of perennial impatiens and the yellow-edged disporum that Alan spotted? It would be quite easy to spend several days in this wonderful area. Our time, unfortunately, was much shorter.
As lunch time came and went, we finally decided to turn back and retrace our steps. Muddy and wet, we returned to the park headquarters to rest and enjoy our box lunch. Afterwards, we continued to botanize back up and down the roadside adjacent to the park, stopping often to study the many hedychiums that lined the hilly roads. Hedychium maximum clumps were everywhere, growing beside another 9' tall white species that also superficially resembled H. coronarium. One plant that continually caught our eye was a delightful 3' tall osbeckia (related to tibouchina), which was widespread around the Sapa roadsides.
We returned to the hotel around 4pm, and most of the group headed off to the market where the group got to see firsthand how the Vietnamese prepare dog for consumption. We had learned early in the trip that the word for cooked dog is Thit Cho. It was not unusual to see the strange juxtaposition of pet dogs sitting by the Thit Cho signs or watching their brothers being prepared. We can only imagine what the numerous signs advertising Bun Thit Cho might mean....doggie burgers.? It was quite surreal to see dogs watching anxiously as their relatives were carved up for a meal. As you can imagine, we carefully avoided any eating establishment with Thit Cho on the menu. If you have a queasy stomach, do not look at these photos.
While eating another terrible dinner at the Son Thuy hotel, we got to watch the Vietnamese version of 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire,' replete with the same music and sound effects that Americans enjoyed for so many years. After dinner, we picked up our laundry to find it still quite moist and everyone's laundry was mixed together, despite our pleas to keep the laundry separate. We returned to our rooms to work, only to find out that the hotel acoustics were so good that the sound on the lobby television was magnified by 100 times in our rooms. It's sad, but until the Vietnamese hotels learn more about the hospitality industry, they will never become a major travel destination.
We were so tired of bread and cheese breakfasts, that at Uoc's suggestion, we went to Victoria Sapa for their buffet breakfast. This was my first experience with eating Rambutans. These tropical fruits look like those fake eyeballs that are so popular around Halloween. Overlooking their appearance, which can be difficult, these are actually quite tasty. At a price of $8 US each, we had no problem getting our money's worth from the wonderful buffet breakfast. Hayes stayed back at the hotel to catch-up processing his accessions, but we were able to get a doggie bag...probably a inappropriate choice of words here in Vietnam.
We returned to the Son Thuy Hotel to rendevous with Uoc, pick up Hayes and check out of the hotel. From there, we stopped around the corner to replenish our supplies of water, soft drinks, and look for packing boxes. It was here that we realized that getting a hotel receipt had been so complicated for the hotel staff that they had forgot to return Wade's passport, so we had to double back. The requirement of most Vietnamese hotels that you turn over your passport to them while you are staying at their hotel is most disconcerting.
Most of the road up to the Chinese border town of Lao Cai was pretty unexciting as we descended rapidly down to 500' elevation along a road lined with modest dwellings. We stopped along the route to admire several nice patches of the forests of Livinstonia chinensis, Amorphophallus paeonifolius, including a stunning 8' tall specimen. One of the most frustrating parts of the trip was not being able to cross the rivers when the flora on the opposite side looked quite enticing. When we finally found a bridge crossing the river, the quality of the bridge still left us wanting. I'm thinking that jet propelled backpacks may be the answer for plant exploration into remote areas.
We stopped for lunch in the small town of Pho Rang and then proceeded south again for the final 150km drive northeast to Ha Giang. As we rounded a curve, we spotted a wet draw across from a straw hut that looked enticing...except for the water buffalos who were not exactly friendly and welcoming. Although we were still below 1000' elevation, this turned out to be our first sighting of aspidistra as well as a re-discovery of Amorphophallus coaetaneus and A. tonkinensis which we hadn't seen since the road from Mai Choi to Son La. Interestingly, by drawing a line straight down on the map, we were almost exactly due north from our former discovery of these two species. Several small kids from the home across the road followed us throughout our exploration of this area, watching what plants we were examining and then finding and digging them for us. We spent the rest of the time here trying to get them to stop digging and replanting many of their excavations.
As we headed into Ha Giang, we noticed signs for a Hot Springs resort area. Realizing that cool plants often grow near hot springs, we turned around and headed down one of the few side roads in Vietnam. We arrived to find a concrete jungle and accompanying concrete pond, devoid of plants except for a few planted specimens. Asking around, Uoc found that there was another hot springs waterfall several kilometers away, so off we headed. We arrived to find the main road washed out, so it was off to the falls on foot. Along the mile-long walk to the falls, we found mostly low elevation ferns, with the highlight being a central-variegated kudzu...a shame we couldn't dig out the tuber.
Dark was approaching, so it was off to our hotel, the Xin Binb Chao. This hotel that Uoc had chosen in Ha Giang had a first for our trip...an elevator, which made our trip up to our 5th floor room much more bearable. After a difficult time finding the restaurant that Uoc wanted take us to for dinner, we finally arrived. They gave us the special dining room, which only had two large tables. When we arrived, the room was empty, but soon after, a party of 12 Vietnamese, who were obviously celebrating something, sat down at the other table. Before long, the non-ventilated room was choking with cigarette smoke, at which point we retreated out of the more spacious main dining room to enjoy the brilliant lightning show from the fierce storm outside. Everyone agreed that the cooked minnows were the most memorable highlight of the meal.
Uoc informed us that our hotel did not serve breakfast, so down the street we went in search of food. We wound up at a small soup restaurant, where we enjoyed the standard regional breakfast of beef or chicken noodle soup. We all agreed that this was much better than the bread and cheese spread that we had been served for most of the trip, albeit alarming to see that the beef was raw when it was dropped into the boiling soup, where it cooked in your serving bowl. The coffee was an experience...strong enough to walk on its own and thick enough to make good ketchup look runny.
From here, it was off to the downtown market to stock up on fruit for snacks. Downtown is fascinating, both for the items for sale, but also for the fascinating people. We left the bustling market with everything from grapes to bananas, to lychees...and of course, durian. If you haven't tried durian, it's a rather messy fruit with a smell that makes rotten gingko fruit seem appetizing. Hayes took an immediate liking to the durian. Like the rambutans, the lychees also looked like human eyeballs but were quite tasty. Come to think of it, after a week here, many things that we wouldn't dare to eat back home had actually become quite tasty.
From our hotel in Ha Giang, we wanted to head northward toward the China border. This option seemed the best to get us into some higher elevation areas. To get there, Uoc informed us that we must first get a permit from the Vietnamese Army, since this is a sensitive area because of the 1979 border conflict with the Chinese. It took a couple of hours and $40 USD, but armed with our permits, we headed north. After passing a washed out section of road leaving Ha Giang, the rest of the road was in surprisingly good shape. As we suspected, there was no need to have a permit, other than to give the military some revenue and something to do.
About 10km outside of Ha Giang, our eyes were attracted to a population of elephant ears that seemed quite unusual. After tromping through the small vegetable garden that separated us from the elephant ears growing at the base of the cliff, we were able to clearly see Alocasia macrorhizos, Colocasia gigantea, and what seemed like bi-generic intermediates between the two. This was very exciting, since the only documented occurrence of natural hybrids between the two genera is from Nepal. I truly doubt there has been much cataloging of aroids in this region.
The elevation at the colocasia stop was still below 1000', so we reboarded the van and continued higher. As we finally began to rise over 2000', agriculture still dominated, but the native vegetation changed to more woody material and fewer elephant ears. The richest stop on the way to the top of the pass was a small forested area at 2600' elevation that we noticed on the right as we rounded a steep curve. We disembarked and climbed the nearby thickly vegetated hills where we discovered a treasure trove of cool plants including a 6' tall aspidistra, a 4' tall x 6' wide tree- like liriope, a 3' tall white-fruited disporopsis, numerous begonias and ferns, along with several clumps of Amorphophallus tonkinensis.
Continuing higher, we stopped in a Cunninghamia konishii forest at 3200' feet to find a different array of interesting plants, including a nicely patterned Begonia hemsleyana and a stunning giant begonia species with red-haired stems and leaves nearly 2' long. One of my favorite finds at this stop was a 3' tall Labiatae that I think is a colquihinia. The upright stalks on this shade grower were adorned with phlomis-like flower whorls of creamy white. The robust 5' tall hedychium with 15" flower heads of white filagree-type flowers was also dazzling, but we have no idea what species this might be.
While we hunted through the forest, there was a group of local girls on the adjacent peak that kept calling 'hello' and 'what is your name'...obviously phrases that they learned in school. Soon they broke into song and serenaded us with beautiful Vietnamese music until we returned to the van, followed by the girls as they ventured down from their mountainous perch to find out more about their visitors.
After a couple of hours in the field, we hopped back in the van and headed to the top of the pass and just down the other side to the town of Quan Ba. It was getting late, so our choice of a lunch restaurant was limited. I can't say that we were particularly thrilled to find our fresh meat choices still alive and neatly wrapped and waiting by the entrance. The restaurant was empty, except for the owners who were glued to the television watching an old Vincent Price movie. When the movie ended, they graciously switched over to CNN for their visitors. We peeled off our leeches from the morning stops and then enjoyed a delicious lunch.
After lunch, we returned to the summit to check out the area around the radio tower at 3800' elevation. We were scouting the area around the top, when Wade yelled that he had found podophyllum. Indeed, he had descended into a deep valley and found several clumps of Podophyllum pleianthum. All around this area were amazing plants, including a stunning remusatia with dark purple-back leaves. The ferns here were also amazing, from silver leaf ferns to two different species of tree ferns. We spent a couple of hours here, but could have easily made a full day of this stop.
As we headed back down the mountain toward the hotel, we made a couple of curcuma stops, one for a 4' tall green leaf form with huge bulbs and a second for a 4' tall species with red striped leaves. No matter where we stopped, we were scrutinized by kids in the area who stared at us and chanted hello. Even as we sat in the van, they pressed their noses to the vans and just stared at us. We finally returned to our hotel for an evening of processing and dinner at a nearby restaurant. At dinner, we discussed tomorrow's agenda, a trip south from Ha Giang, then east to Ba Ba Lake. I was surprised to see that Uoc's map showed a nice large road for the 140 km journey. My map that I had purchased just before the trip didn't even show the road.
After a hearty soup breakfast, we left Ha Giang and headed south on the main road toward Hanoi. After two hours of driving, I noticed that we hadn't made our left turn to our destination of Ba Ba lake. When I spoke up, Uoc and our driver seemed to have forgotten our planning discussions from the night before. They had the mistaken idea that we only wanted to head south along the main road to Hanoi. After some intense travel plan negotiations between Uoc and our driver, we got turned around and retraced our steps north back to Viet Quang, where it was now time for lunch. After dining, we finally found the side road to Ba Ba and proceeded to the east.
For a short distance, the road was nice and paved, but things degraded rapidly from there. Before we knew it we were sliding through heavily rutted wet red clay roads and fording overflowing streams. We quickly realized why the road was not on my maps. After reaching several intersections in the winding and bumpy dirt road with no directional signs, we would stop and ask the locals for help. Interestingly and frustratingly, most had conflicting answers. After several hours, we reached a point where we found the bridge across the river that we needed to take had not been built yet...a serious travel problem. This is after we were told earlier by others along our route that the bridge was finished. From here, all that was possible was to backtrack and then take a smaller dirt road south, heading away from our destination. Frustrated, tired, and sore, we were finally directed to a small road back from which we could reach the main road just south of where we entered this maze earlier in the day.
Since we were only around 500' elevation, we choose to not make many stops despite the numerous huge roadside patches of Amorphophallus paeonifolius. The one plant that did finally bring us to a screeching halt was a clump of crinkled-leaf Alocasia macrorhizos that we saw growing along the road. The owner of the house nearby was generous enough to let us dig a few pieces. Amazingly, we saw this same form growing in a few other spots further along a 1km stretch of this back road.
When we finally arrived back at the main road, daylight was nearly shot, so we headed south to the town of Tuyen Quang for the night. After checking out 3 different hotels, Uoc finally settled on the Ha Thuyen Hotel, and we stopped for the night. This was certainly our nicest hotel in Vietnam. Ironically, this was our worst day of the entire trip for finding plants, but so far, the only one on which it did not rain.
On the three-hour drive back to Hanoi, we requested that our driver take us to Tam Dao Mountain about an hour north of Hanoi. From our maps, it looked like there might be a road near the base that could prove interesting. We arrived at the base of Tam Dao to find that paved road proceeded right up the mountain. The area was heavily forested until we reached 2500', when everything changed to farming, homes, and hotels. We had left the thatch huts and returned again to the interesting long rectangular homes that dominated the cities. This forest interruption lasted until 3,200' elevation, when once again, we found ourselves in forests again. We stopped at the base of the steps to the giant Radio tower and began our hike to the top. After several thousand feet of gesneriad laden steps, one by one, we began to step off into the forest. What we found was one of the horticulturally richest areas of the trip.
The finds here included several different aspidistras, a huge tuberous 3-lobed arisaema, Amorphophallus tonkinensis, aucuba sp., along with amazing ferns and begonias. The finds of the area were a giant leaf asarum that Hayes and Wade found on the highest ridge and a beautifully variegated alpinia that I christened A. 'Hanoi Lights'. Did I mention the black-leaf begonia with bright red undersides? Not only did we find different plants on Tam Dao, but we also encountered different leeches. These land leeches have a yellow stripe on their black bodies and make a painful bite before they start sucking your blood. These new leeches really made us appreciate those that anesthetized us first.
We remained in the Tam Dao forest until nearly 2pm when, drenched with perspiration, we tore ourselves away for lunch at one of the nearby cafeterias. Despite wanting to remain in the area, we had to reach Hanoi before dark. Amazingly, we had now experienced our second day in a row with no rain. We arrived at the Thien Thai Hotel by late afternoon to find a real 3-star hotel. We had been promised 3- star hotels throughout the entire trip, only to find a big difference in stars in the country opposed to stars in the city. We said goodbye to Uoc, who was going to spend the next day shopping in Hanoi for his first child, which was on the way, then take the night train back to Sapa. If you are thinking of taking a botanical tour of Vietnam, be sure to give Uoc an email at [email protected] or visit his website www.adventuresapa.com.
The hotel restaurant was crowded with Americans...the first ones that we had seen on our entire trip outside of Hanoi. As we ate dinner, we were serenaded by a small ensemble playing Vietnamese string instruments. This was also our first hotel where there was workable Internet in the lobby for a whopping $4 per hour. After a wonderful dinner, it was back to the room to re-pack for the flight to Bangkok the next morning.
Vietnam was an amazing experience with some of the happiest and friendliest people that I've ever encountered in my travels. Over 70% of the population is under 30 years of age and they all welcome Americans to their country with open arms. In addition to hotels, the countrywide construction of memorials to Ho Chi Min were hard to miss. The most difficult thing in Vietnam is dodging the mopeds while crossing the streets with few stop signals or pedestrian crossings.
The countryside is quite beautiful and we saw no signs of poor land management as we did in China and parts of South Africa. Interestingly, Vietnam is also quite clean compared to many other Southeast Asian countries. While food sanitation still has a long way to go in most of Vietnam, there were very few visible signs of pollution, from litter to the choking smog of China. Even in downtown Hanoi, gardening is important to residents as evidenced by the large number of high rise balcony gardens.
While much of the country is in agricultural production, there are still quite a few natural areas remaining, and hopefully, many of these will be preserved. If you are interested in adventurous travel, I highly recommend a trip to North Vietnam.
Our Vietnamese driver, Laom, picked us up at the hotel and returned us to the airport for what proved to be an uneventful 2-hour early morning flight from Hanoi to Bangkok.
In Thailand, we were joined at the airport by our driver, Mr. Somsak, and two of Alan's plant friends, Annop Ongsakul and Chanrit (Park) Sinhabaedya. Annop is a curcuma breeder who has a thriving cut flower business in Phuket in Southern Thailand. Annop was on his way to Northern Thailand for meetings and agreed to ride with us to Chiang Mai as translator and plant expert. Chanrit is an enthusiastic plant collector with incredible plant connections around the world. He has also collected extensively throughout Thailand and has a great knowledge of the country's flora. Alan had used Mr. Somsak's services before and felt that although he spoke no English, he had mastered the idea of his passengers screaming for him to stop and his being able to find a parking spot within a reasonable distance after the first screams. Alan's cheap box-store hiking boots had come apart in Vietnam, so he had planned to botanize the remaining trip in sandals. Mr. Somsak surprised Alan by greeting him with a pair of freshly shined boots that Alan had jettisoned 2 years earlier in Thailand as mud-caked trash in a ballast reduction move.
It didn't take long to realize that we weren't in Vietnam any more. Compared to Vietnam, Thailand reeked of capitalism. Instead of the tiny mom and pop run gas stations in Vietnam, we found new, well-lit Seven-Elevens. We exchanged our money into Thai bahts this time, only getting 41 bahts for each dollar, which was obviously much stronger than the Vietnamese Dong. I saw more cars within 5 minutes of the Bangkok airport than in our entire time in Vietnam...and they were all driving on the wrong side of the road. Billboards also littered the highways reminding me of pre-hurricane Florida. Despite all this, the citywide landscaping was amazing. Trees lined the roadways and median plantings looked great as money was obviously spent to change them out regularly.
The traffic around Bangkok was terrible, but we finally made our way to Chanrit's home for a quick look at his extensive collections. The highlight was his newest acquisition, the ruby-red leafed Musa 'Siam Ruby', which had begun to make its way into Thailand from Indonesia at the price of several thousand US Dollars each. Another plant that caught our eye was a stunning spotted ophiopogon that was discovered in Thailand. After admiring this and a host of other plants, we headed north with Annop in tow to the town of Sara Buri and the Sub Sin Rueng Hotel for the night.
In the morning, we were off to the north and our first stop near the town of Lop Buri. This site near a Buddhist temple was amorphophallus heaven. The monk in charge was delighted to allow us to climb the stairs to the top as well as to dig plants...a welcome invitation...if we could pry them out of the rock cracks. The steep, slick hillside was dotted with large limestone rock outcrops. Among the rocks and the kaempferias, we found Amorphophallus atroviridis, A. aesterostigmatus, A. brevispathus, and two other species that we couldn=t identify. The humidity was already so high that just keeping the sweat out of our eyes was becoming difficult...almost as difficult as not slipping off the side of the cliff.
Our next stop was another nearby Buddhist temple and cemetery that yielded a new range of amorphophallus species. We found what we think are several forms of A. tenuispadix, along with more A. atroviridis, A. scutatus, and a load of unidentifiable amorphophallus and their closely allied cousins, the pseudodracontiums. This bamboo overstory and lack of much else in the herbaceous layer made us think that this site probably got much drier than anything we had visited earlier on this trip. The final stop of the day was at the Bo Ya Cave Buddhist Temple site. It is from this site that the recently named Amorphophallus sizemoreae was first found by plant explorer, Mary Sizemore of Florida. We ascended 300'+ from the road via a set of very uneven steps, then out on the rock outcrops where we climbed above the last Buddha. Amorphophallus sizemoreae was everywhere among the rocks, growing alongside of a few green stem Amorphophallus tenuispadix. Also at the site was an array of unusual terrestrial orchids.
It was already close to 6pm, and we still had a 2-hour drive to our evening stop in the town of Tak, so back in the van we went, each holding our noses since our deodorants had worn out much earlier in the hot, humid day. At least we managed another sunny day without rain, although we were probably wetter than we would have been in the rain.
We departed our nice Tak hotel at 7am for a quick breakfast and then off to the north along Highway 1. At our first Buddhist temple stop outside of Tak, we found Amorphophallus aberrans for the first time along with a different pseudodracontium. I was surprised to find it growing in low, sandy soils and no amorphophallus growing among the higher rocks where we were used to finding them. This was certainly the driest area that we had visited on our entire trip. Despite the droughty soils, this area was also home to amazing patches of kaempferias and some of the most colorful selaginellas that I've ever seen.
We stopped occasionally along the road from Tak to Chiang Mai, finding Amorphophallus longituberosus and more A. macrorhizus, but it wasn't until we passed 1500' elevation that we hit the day's jackpot. As the rain began, we carefully descended a steep bank below the highway to find a woods filled with gems. We found 4 amorphophallus species here, including A. longituberosus, A. macrorhizus, A. krausei, and an unidentified species with spiny petioles. The three 'wow' plants were a patterned hapaline, probably H. colaniae (typhonium-like aroid) with a patterned leaf that looked just like an asarum, a 2' tall silver-center Colocasia fallax, and a beautiful silver-center zingiber. The slopes were also loaded with Curcuma parviflora, globba, zingiber and much too much to list. The light rain shower made our return trip up the steep bank even slicker, but eventually we all made it back to the van, and off we went for our final hour=s drive to the Diamond Hotel in Chiang Mai. If you are looking for a really cheap basic room with hot water, but no restaurant, the Diamond Hotel is for you. We dropped off our dirty clothes at the laundry across the street and said a prayer for their safe and dry return. Near our hotel was a fascinating little food court where you buy tickets and then exchange them for food at any of several dozen food vendors. As you can imagine, we had plenty to eat.
Our target for today was a visit to the highest peak in Thailand, the Doi Inthanon Mountain, about 1 hour southwest of Chiang Mai. We arrived at the base of the mountain around 9:30am, paid our $4.55 USD per person admission, and began the drive to the top, making mental notes of interesting plants we saw along the drive to the top. By 10:30am, we had reached the end of the 20km road near the top at 8060' elevation. As we had been warned, it was very cool at this elevation, despite the heat and humidity back at the base. We walked along the main trail, past the giant gordonia, to find huge patches of Arachniodes fern...probably A. standishii, Arisaema consanguineum with cobra-patterned petioles,the beautiful yellow-flowered Impatiens longiloba, and a myriad of other ferns.
From the summit, we headed back down the mountain, making stops at every 1000' elevation drop. At 6700' elevation, we saw our first begonia...a nice, red-veined species as well as a small ophiopogon. The humidity was so high here that ferns and remusatia were growing in the moss on trees. The 10' tree ferns were amazing to see as well as amazing to get to, since they were growing in a fast-running creek. As the humidity and the cool air mixed, the fog became so thick that finding one's way back out of the jungle through the use of landmarks became quite difficult.
At 5,000' elevation, we began to see our first amorphophallus species, possibly A. corrugatus and possibly a second unidentified species. At 4200', the amorphophallus became more plentiful as we began seeing A. krausei in very large populations. Growing among the amorphophallus was an upright yellow-flowering labiatae...possibly a salvia. These were growing among beautiful, arching adiantum, similar to A. davidii and a charming yellow spotted terrestrial orchid. Hayes also found a nice 8" tall disporopsis growing among the bamboo, along with an acorus that doesn't seem to match either of the two known species. The most amazing plant at this site, however, had to be the giant 30' tall species banana with red stems. Walking among wild groves of bananas is truly an amazing feeling. This was also the elevation where temperate woody plant species began appearing alongside the tropicals. This site was filled with magnolias, osmanthus, daphniphyllum, exbucklandia, and an array of familiar plants.
As we descended further to 3500' elevation, we began seeing Amorphophallus macrorhizus and Amorphophallus puttii, growing with A. krausei. Nearby was a new arisaema with the same whorled leaf arrangement as A. consanguineum, but with white leaf backs, upright seed stalks, and finger-like projections from the tubers.
We could have easily spent an entire extra day on this wonderful mountain, especially between 3000' and 5500', where the species diversity is the richest. Amazingly, we had a dry, sunny day on a mountain that is renowned for constant showers. It was 4pm before we finally stopped for lunch at the Doi Inthanon Research station at 4,000' on the side of the mountain. This facility is composed of thousands of greenhouses dotting the mountain and a nice little mountaintop open-air restaurant. You'll never guess what we saw there... a prototypical deep south US tire planter! The only question is whether Felder Rushing got his idea from Thailand or did this technique originate in the US and make it's way there? Inquiring minds want to know. Oh well, another day in the books, so back to the hotel we go.
We passed by our laundry as we turned into our hotel and noticed a note pinned to the door. Panic set in as we had left virtually all of our clothes to be cleaned. When we walked from the hotel back to the laundry, we were relieved to find that the note only directed us to walk to the adjacent massage parlor to pick up our clean clothes. This was certainly the best job of doing laundry that we had seen during the entire trip. We were just a few blocks away from the amazing Chiang Mai night market (across the street from McDonalds), where vendors sell all kinds of crafts along the streets until well after midnight. Even a late night stroll found this area packed with foreigners. Our favorite sight was the German restaurant nearby the market with the Thai girls dressed in stereotypical German outfits.
After a buffet breakfast at the nearby Downtown Hotel in Chiang Mai, we were off to the Chiang Mai plant market on the north side of town. This amazing plant market is home to hundreds of plant vendors, many of whom live at the facility. The entire open air complex covers approximately 10 acres. The open-air market was filled with vendors, mostly retailing plants from wholesale growers, with a few mom-and-pop nurseries thrown in. It was amazing to see that the new Colocasia esculenta 'Coffee Cups' is already being carried by quite a few market vendors. My favorite find at the market was an Alocasia macrorhizos with dark purple stems. Let's hope it's winter hardy. Even several landscape design firms had booths showing off their design styles.
After quickly perusing the market and making a few purchases, we were off to the north and the town of Chiang Dao and another plant market. We arrived just before noon and spent a little time perusing their offerings. The Chiang Dao plant market is tiny in comparison to Chiang Mai, with only 15-20 vendors. They are all mom-and-pop vendors, with many selling wild collected plants, mostly gingers and aroids from the Doi Chiang Dao mountains nearby. Most of the booths even had signs with the name in Thai and the medicinal use of each written in broken English. With as many curative plants as could be found at this market, it's a wonder anyone ever becomes sick or dies. Annop rejoined us at the market after finishing his meetings in Chiang Rai, so off to the mountains we went. The nearby cave at Doi Chiang Dao turned out to be a dud, so we ate lunch, then it was time to head up the mountain behind the temple.
Just as we began our ascent from the 1600' base along the steep, narrow trail, the heavens opened up. Before long, the path had become an even more slippery watercourse. Throughout the downpour, we were still able to find amorphophallus everywhere. Within 30 minutes, we were able to find Amorphophallus thaiensis, A. longituberosus, A. krausei, A. macrorhizus, and one species that we weren't able to identify. The cliffs were filled with terrestrial orchids, smilacina, disporum, as well as gingers galore. Because of the rain, descending was more problematic than ascending. With the abundance of animal paths through the vegetation, I managed to descend the wrong way, winding up at the edge of the near vertical rock face that served as a backdrop for the giant Buddha. There's no fun in retracing your steps back up a steep rainy mountain and then trying to find the correct path. This is an amazing summit that would be well-worth further botanical exploration. Reportedly, there is trachycarpus palm near the summit of the mountain.
We then traveled further northwest toward the Burma border. One of the most amazing sites was a 'forest' of Amorphophallus paeonifolius. The plants numbered in the thousands with every shape and size imaginable, including one with a leaf-spread of 10'. After a few more ginger stops, it was time to turn around and head to the Chiang Dao Hotel for the evening.
I noticed that a pair of monks stopped by the restaurant while we were eating breakfast to pick up food. Annop, a former monk himself, explained that the monks are fed at no charge by the local villages and businesses, and that the monks and the construction of their amazing monasteries and statues are also underwritten by the national government. He also explained that the young monks that we often see tagging along with the older monks are actually children, sent there by their families who cannot afford to raise them. It sounds like the American equivalent of a very strict boarding school.
We departed Chiang Dao after an early breakfast and headed up Highway 107 to the north and eventually the town of Mae Sai. We made several stops along the road, before we passed the town of Fang. One of our favorite stops was a monastary, whose base was littered with gallon jugs. Annop explained that everyone climbing the stairs was obligated to carry a jug filled with sand to the top of the stairs.
At each stop, we found anywhere from 4-6 amorphophallus species. These included A. paeonifolius, cf. corrugatus, longituberosus, A. thaiensis, A. macrorhizus, and 4 other species whose identity we could not determine. One of these was especially ornamental, with a beautiful snakeskin petiole pattern, usually only seen in arisaemas such as A. speciosum. Alan even found another three-leaf arisaema that is probably A. maxwellii or a related species.
We had still not seen a single hedychium in the wild since we arrived in Thailand, so when we saw a clump of what might be H. chrysoleucum growing in a roadside ditch on Hwy 107, we came to a screeching halt, and Hayes jumped from the van and attacked the clump. After the hedychium stop, we continued to climb higher as we angled off on Hwy 1089. At the town of Mae Ai, we took the fog-shrouded loop road Hwy 1089, which divides Thailand from Burma. Evidently, there is a bit of dispute since Burma (Myanmar) thinks the road divides the country and Thailand thinks the dividing line is the river below. We stopped and spoke to an armed Thailand border patrol on motorbike, who was nice enough to stop and reluctantly pose for photos.
After we passed Mae Ai, the road split for the next 50 km. We opted for the northernmost route, the winding Highway 1234, that went through the 3600' elevation town of Maesalong. This fascinating tourist town is primarily Chinese, being inhabited by escapees from Communist China. Large billboards adorned the roadside, advertising their Chinese Martyrs Museum. This region is known as the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet. Although it has been best-known for its huge opium production, the government has spent quite a bit of energy converting the area into tea plantations and ornamental flower production. Greenhouses dotted the mountainside, and there is even a tea-tasting headquarters there now.
It was interesting to note during our restroom break here that the public restrooms have American Standard urinals and Chinese-style toilets...often referred to as 'squat and drop'. Did I mention that none of the public toilets in Thailand provide toilet paper? It would be nice if they advertised that tourists need to BYO. Horticulturally, it was also interesting to note that one plant we saw planted from Bangkok to Maesalong was Hymenocallis 'Tropical Giant'. Seeing how well it grows in a variety of climates and conditions explains why it's such a wonderful and tough plant in US gardens.
Because of the higher elevation and slightly cooler climate, the Maesalong region is heavily agricultural. Consequently we had not seen any natural area worth stopping at for several hours. We finally spotted a tiny patch of woods, actually a bamboo forest on a very steep bank, and stopped to take a look. We didn't find anything interesting, but Hayes didn't give up and continued to climb higher. Upon returning to the van, he showed off his prize, a 4.5' tall disporopsis with 1' long leaves. More than likely, this is little-grown Disporopsis longifolia. The 2' wide clump was nearly inaccessible, which is probably while it still remained.
Our stops for the reminder of the day were scarce, because of the extensive agricultural production. There was no doubt that because of the unique plants that we did find, we were most certainly picking up some of the little-known Burmese flora.
We spent the evening on the Thailand/Burmese border town of Mae Sai. Mae Sai shows up as a tiny dot on the map, and I was expecting it to be difficult to even find a hotel. I was shocked to find a bustling town, complete with quite nice hotels. Our hotel was only a few hundred feet from the border crossing into Burma (Myanmar), so we found a small restaurant under the crossing bridge and enjoyed dinner as close as we could get to the border without crossing over.
After a 7:30am breakfast, we started the trek back toward the southeast and the tiny town of Nan. We drove down the main highway until after lunch, when we began making a few stops. The first, near the town of Chun, yielded more Amorphophallus macrorhizus, but with some very different petiole patterns. As we continued to head toward Nan (120km from Laos), the floristic diversity seemed to lessen. It was pretty much only Amorphophallus macrorhizus and A. longituberosus for the rest of the day. We arrived in the town of Nan to find a surprisingly bustling little town. Expecting the dumpiest hotel on the trip, we were shocked when we walked into the elegant lobby of the Dhevaraj Hotel. This amazing hotel was run like a fancy western-style hotel with a superb restaurant and high-speed Internet in the lobby, all for the low price of $20 US per night. If you find yourself in Nan, although I can't imagine why, the Dhevaraj Hotel is a great place to stay.
We continued our trek southward back to Bangkok, stopping on the rare occasions when we passed an area that wasn't cultivated. Our previous day's stops had yielded little diversity compared with other areas that we had visited on the Thailand portion of our trek. Just after the town of Wiang Sa, we followed the road signs to a waterfall, which took us to the Huai Rong Arboretum (1533' elevation). Alan knew that we had found a special place as soon as we exited the van to find the ground leading to the falls covered with 10' wide patches of the aroid Typhonium cordifolium. Not only was the waterfall quite nice, but the plants around the falls were amazing. The top of the falls were covered in a beautiful 2.5' tall, large-leaf disporopsis, laden with white fruit. A beautiful dark-leaf form of remustia intermingled between the disporopsis as did an alocasia...probably A. odora. Also at the top of the waterfall were a few large 2' tall x 3' wide clumps of what appeared to be a rohdea. This one was really strange, since there aren't supposed to be any rohdeas in Thailand.
Below the waterfall, it was Amorphophallus heaven. We found A. paeonifolius, A. krausii, A. longituberosus, and what appears to be A. laoticus. The A. cf. laoticus, which grew in seasonally flooded creeks, was stunning with young leaves edged in red, and older specimens exhibiting a dramatic silver-centered leaf pattern. Alan found another heavily speckled amorphophallus petiole lying on the ground where the weedtrimming crew had recently finished. Not only was the petiole pattern unique, but it was forming leaf axil bulbils. We believe this is possibly another new undescribed species.
Our next stop was the Tham Pha Nang Khoi Caves at a mere 993' elevation. As we walked up the steps to the grotto, there were amorphophallus everywhere. One was identified by Alan as Amorphophallus symonianus, which is another axillary leaf bulb-forming species. Two others did not appear to be forming bulbils, and they had good petiole patterns, which is not a characteristic of A. symonianus. There is good reason to think that one or both of these could also be new species. We were quite rushed by now, both because it was 2:30pm and we still hadn.t stopped for lunch, and we also hoped to make the long drive to Phitsanulok for the evening.
Our only other stop for the day was when we spotted some high limestone cliffs that were covered in cliff bananas and Amorphophallus paeonifolius. The cliff bananas were actually a still undescribed species of Ensete, closely related to E. superbum. These dramatic bananas grow only 6' tall, but can reach 15' in spread. After tromping through the steep slopes of corn, then wading through the obscenely thorny leguminous weed that carpeted the upper slopes, we reached the bananas, which were growing in cracks in the giant boulders. Alan was even able to find huge fruit clusters on a couple of the plants....albeit at the insignificant price of being attacked by a colony of large biting ants. As we returned to the van and loaded up, we glanced ahead to see our first elephant crossing the street in front of the van. We had been warned to be cautious in the woods, especially when we came across wide paths through the vegetation, since there are still elephants in the wild.
We finally arrived at our hotel in Phitsanulok around 6:30pm, and to our surprise, found that we had English speaking Fox News on our televisions and a prostitute on the front steps. As we processed and recorded, we watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, which was bearing down on New Orleans. Interestingly, Vietnam was also being hit by a typhoon, and Chiang Mai, where we had been just a few days earlier, had been hit with devastating flooding. We stopped for dinner at a nearby restaurant to find that the wait staff outnumbered their customers...us. With the extensive seating area, I can only assume that tourist season must bring much larger crowds.
After a breakfast of fried rice, we were on our way south to Bangkok. We made a couple of stops, but didn't find the drive back to Bangkok to be floristically exciting...unless you are collecting rice. We arrived back in Bangkok, just before the horrific rush hour that required an hour to go a matter of miles. We checked into our plush hotel, the Rembrandt Towers Apartments, in downtown Bangkok. These apartments are spacious 2-bedroom suites that provide plenty of space to process and organize for the return trip home. Again, we were able to watch Hurricane Katrina come ashore on the U.S. Gulf coast. We were quite surprised at the amount of coverage that the hurricane received in Thailand.
We spent the morning continuing to process plants and fill out paperwork, then after a quick lunch, Mr. Somsak and Chanrit picked us up for some local nursery hopping. We headed to the northern end of Bangkok to visit the nursery of the renowned variegated plant collector, Mr. Jiew of Unyamanee Garden. His real name is Pramote Rojruangsang, but most of the Thai people use Americanized nicknames. Mr. Rojruangsang began collecting variegated plants, while doing commercial landscaping for over 20 years before starting his nursery around 1995. He has also written a 2-volume picture book of variegated plants of Thailand. He is one of the main stops for plant collectors from around the world.
While Mr. Jiew carried an array of variegated plants, from trees to shrubs, his specialty is variegated agaves and yuccas, many of which originated at his nursery. I certainly didn't leave without my share. We saw more variegated agaves and yuccas than I know existed.
We did have to be careful not to get caught up looking at plants since the nursery walkways don't exactly meet OSHA standards.
From there, we traveled a short distance to Bankampu Tropical Gallery of Surath Vanno (www.bankampu.com). Mr. Vanno has run his nursery and landscaping business for over 40 years. The well laid-out, extravagant display area and gardens of primarily Thailand natives made for an enticing shopping experience, with many different seating vignettes scattered throughout the sales area. Production areas are off to the side as well as on the gallery roof. Many of the plants here are selections that Mr.Vanno has made throughout the years in the wilds of Thailand. We all left with the feeling that we had just met the Roberto Burle Marx of Thailand. We made a few purchases and then headed back south to drop off Chanrit, who had been our guide for the day. The traffic in Bangkok was so bad that, after we dropped off Chanrit, the short 5-mile drive to the hotel took 2.5 hrs.
We opted for a very early breakfast in order to get to Bangkok's famed Chatuchak plant market before it got crowded. After eating, we were off on the subway to the northern end of the city to experience the market first-hand. While the drive to the market could easily take more than an hour with no traffic, the ride on the clean, modern subway took only 15 minutes. I highly recommend the subway for getting around, especially since the signs all had English translations.
Although slightly smaller than the Chiang Mai market, this bustling market also had something for every lover of plants. The plant market is only open on Wednesday, so there is a real atmosphere of excitement to see what plants might show up. Because they allow vehicles to pick up at the booths, walking among the tightly packed people and cars was treacherous.
Each booth seems to have a specialty, from cannas to gingers, and from amorphophallus to adeniums. I was surprised to even see our US native dichromena being sold. There were even a few stands with wild collected plants from the nearby mountains...always an exciting proposition to see what these plants turn out to be.
The market, especially the Pitcha Nursery booth of Mrs. Supranee Kongpitchayanond, serves as a rendezvous point for well-known horticulturists from around the world. It was here that we met Chanin Thorut with the Thailand National Parks, whom Alan had corresponded with via email about amorphophallus. Chanin had discovered what are possibly several new species of Amorphophallus in the Thailand National Parks. For more information on the Thailand National Parks, go to www.dnp.go.th. The booklet that Chanin showed us, The Best of National Parks of Thailand, is an invaluable guide if you are heading to Thailand and want to experience the best preserved natural areas.
While we were waiting for the group to reassemble, I stood listening to several New Zealand nurserymen. They recognized the Plant Delights t-shirt, and we struck up a conversation. As it turned out, the gentleman was Eddie Welsh, a New Zealand Eucomis breeder, whose plants we had on trial and didn't even know who had bred them. Nurserymen from around the world could be found throughout the market. If I was looking for new tender perennials or house plants...or lived in a warmer climate, I would make the market an annual pilgrimage. There is no question that gardening throughout Thailand is a way of life, paralleled in my travels only by the amount of gardening and nurseries that are found in the UK.
After finding some treasures that we couldn't live without, we were back on the subway to finish packing for our trip home. Accessions from the trip included over 72 new ferns and just over 100 amorphophallus representing 35 different species.
Our final stop was to get our government paperwork in the form of phytosanitary certificates...a ridiculous requirement of the US Department of Homeland Security to bring plants into the US. The inspection in nearly all foreign countries is nothing like what we expect from inspections that are done in the US. Thanks to translating help from Alan's friend, and aroid society member, Supranee, we navigated the bureaucracy required to complete our paperwork for shipping. After 4 hours at the Department of Agriculture, an hour at the bank, and two hours at the post office, our plants were finally on the way home, with us right behind. Thailand is also an amazing country, and if you like plants, it's hard to imagine a better place to visit...even if you never make it out in the country past Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Our trip was very successful, and we isolated many areas that deserve much more careful study on a possible return trip in the future.