Sunday, 8 February 2015

Samit and Me.

Fresh back from two weeks in Thailand, and what an amazing time I had there. As a gardener, I always try to take my holiday in either January or February: it makes complete sense really. In my approach to winter working, I always structure my mentality in the same way. Basically, as autumn approaches I prepare for the cooler, colder days, put my head down and step up a gear, always aiming to work right through until Xmas. It’s a good plan really, as the worst of the winter weather (extreme cold, snow & ice) doesn’t really hit us until after Xmas.
With nothing but a pair of shears and some bamboo supports,
Thai gardeners go about shaping these trees.
You would think that with the days getting longer (since Dec 21st) and the sun getting slowly stronger… Well, you wonder why it seems to get so much colder in Jan & Feb? Of course, the reason for this is obvious really. Basically, the land and the seas around us have been getting slowly cooler since autumn, with them reaching their lowest temperatures around now! Naturally, the land & sea takes just as long time to properly warm up. Hence why August is often the hottest month of the year. Simples!
Anyway, back to Thailand. Yes please! I’d go pack a bag now given half the chance!
Now that's what I call an Asplenium (Harts Tongue Fern). 10 times the size of ours!
As per usual, no matter where I am in the world, I always seem to get attracted to a garden or two, and Thailand was no different. Of course, what is so very different in the garden landscapes of a country so foreign is that I simply don’t know many (any?) of the plants there. Quite unlike wandering around Europe, where you always see recognisable plants -  albeit somewhat brighter, healthier and larger – at least you feel somewhat at home in seeing plants that may be growing in your own back garden.  Spanish streets lined with Bougainvillea; Cedars all over Cyprus; Tamarisk ‘trees’ throughout Greece; Cytisus (brooms), Pelargoniums, Lavenders, Arbutus (Strawberry Tree), Box and the Holm Oak. All growing in abundance throughout the Mediterranean.
Osteospermums in Cyprus
This time last year I had a week in Cyprus and whilst wandering across some mountainous terrain I came across such plants as Osteospermums, Cyclamen, Cammassias and many large-flowering Aeoniums! All growing and self-seeding naturally across this barren landscape.

So, my first stop in Bangkok was to visit the house and garden of Jim Thompson, a US army officer who arrived in Bangkok in 1945 – just 2 days after the Japanese surrender - and went on to establish the Thai silk industry, supporting small businesses throughout the country. Jim Thompson is a bit of a Thai legend, so just Google him (or follow the link below) if you want to find out more about him, including his mysterious disappearance in Malaysia, just eight years after arriving in Thailand.

Jim Thompson's House - Bangkok

So, as I say, to walk into a tropical garden – for this particular English gardener – is a little bit like walking round a museum and looking at hundreds of foreign artifacts, not quite knowing what on earth I’m looking at: giant evergreen houseplants that we have squatting in tiny pots on kitchen windowsills.

The garden is still fascinating, but with a much higher leaf-to-flower ratio (I’m guessing to aid both transpiration and respiration in this hot climate?)… making them leathery and lush, bold and tropical. I did recognise a few of the plants: giant natives when compared to our tiny examples.

Diffenbachia as a huge native! Quite unlike our small potted specimens.
Many Arums around the garden.

Moving on from Bangkok, we soon arrived at our resort in Si Kao, along the famous Andamam coast: – think miles and miles of white sandy beaches..... Think Leonardo de Caprio in The Beach... Very nice!!

Of course, signs such as these reminded me of the 2004 tsunami. One can only but imagine what that disaster must've been like. At low tide that vast flat sea out in front of me, retreated back to expose over 4km of sand! What must it have been like to see it receding fast in the middle of the day?

Brioni showed us around. Lovely lady!
Anyway, the resort was fantastic: everything about it was fantastic! One member of staff (they were all great) went well out of her way to show me around the resort’s garden. It was something of a work-in-progress with many of the plants being used to garnish the restaurant there. It was a lovely little calming oasis with such plants as (huge!) Strelitzia’s (Birds of Paradise); Magnolias; the Kaffir Lime Lily (a SE Asian citrus tree commonly used in Thai cooking) and plenty of Papaya trees… and of course, lots of coconuts!
 In fact it was a very kindly gesture from both Brioni and a Thai gardener there (Samit) that brought about a very spontaneous and warm connection. Brioni kindly arranged for Samit to demonstrate his technique for getting coconuts down from the trees, and in doing so, he deftly cut away at the coconuts, giving me & Mrs O a lovely drink.  
Upon first meeting Samit, I made the common cultural mistake of shaking his hand. Of course, this was absolutely fine, but unbeknown to me Thai people don’t really ‘do’ touching as such, preferring to greet in the traditional palms-together way: hands as if in prayer.
So, in shaking his hand, I sensed a slight degree of discomfort on his part. Later, once coconuts had been dispatched, cut and drunk (very nice they were too!) Brioni translated to Samit that I too was a gardener back in England. He looked more than a little puzzled by this. I don’t quite know why. Maybe he couldn’t quite believe that a fellow gardener (a relatively poor profession throughout the world I assume) could travel 6000 miles to his country and stay at this 5 star resort. Anyway, using humorous body language, I demonstrated to him the common aches and pains of our shared occupation, mimicking a bad back and sore knees: he nodded in agreement. Then suddenly, with a definite look of both understanding and respect, he put his hand out for me to shake! Okay, it was hardly the signing of a global peace treaty, but you could definitely tell that - on his part - it was a rather brave, kind, and humble show of respect for a fellow gardener. Great stuff!   
I think I could've stayed there forever!
   So, like all good holidays, there always seems to be a natural draw to all things horticultural. Although Thailand - some 6000 miles away - is just so very foreign, its plants and gardens still offer people what they want (need?) from there green spaces: a reconnection with nature; a place to relax and to contemplate... plus the unique opportunity to simultaneously be both alone by oneself, yet in the company of others. People often say to me just how therapeutic they find being in a garden. It is of course for those very reasons... plus many more no doubt!
Until next time......
    Words: Marc. Le Jardiner.
    Photos: Frances 'Nifty-Nikon' Owen 

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