“You should have been there!” is truly an understatement when it comes to a recent excursion to Southeast Asia by the members of the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society (IWGS). It’s hard to know where to even begin; there was so much to see.
Arriving at night in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Thailand’s northern province of the same name, we were pretty well worn out after 25 hours or so of travel. Three-wheeled Tuk-tuk taxis and motorcycles crisscrossed through lanes of traffic as we made our way to our hotel, the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew. Getting out of the air conditioned van, the humid heat of the Asian climate was apparent immediately, sticking with us the rest of our time in this fascinating part of the world.
The first day in the city was a relaxing, on your own, sort of day, one perfect for exploring. A walk through the narrow streets and alleys that never seemed to go where you thought they should proved to be our first encounter with an endless array of water gardens. Peering through a backyard gate we were eyed by a tiny lady watering her flowers. Cautiously greeting her, we asked if we could photograph her water garden. She smiled broadly and invited us in. She was so proud of her pond and lotus and seemed thrilled to show it off to us, strangers from a foreign land. She even had cut tropical water lilies and lotus buds and food offerings as a central part of an ancestral shrine she had positioned in her garden, a very common sight throughout Thailand.
Postage stamp backyards are adorned with Buddhist treasures accented with orchids, tropical plants, lotus, water lilies and bog plants. The focal points in their gardens are the water plants in beautiful ceramic vases of all shapes and colors. It seemed that every nook and cranny was decorated with something, but the best for us were the aquatic plants that abound. Nestled into landscapes everywhere were bowls of water plants. Tropical water lilies in pots are sunk into the ground and treated as focal points or rows of them as borders. With the limited space of a bowl, the water is shallow and the leaves overflow the pot and look more like domes of leaves rather than leaves flat on the water.
Lotus, a sacred icon of the Buddhist population, is found literally everywhere. Ornate vases and bowls are on display in front of stores, restaurants, street corners and even gas stations. The importance of the lotus gave it the same prominence we give to annual flower gardens. But beyond the normal landscape uses, street vendors throughout this city sold bouquets of lotus and even single flowers alongside the fruits, vegetables, fish and trinkets. We even had lotus juice one morning at breakfast!
That is not to say the water lily was forgotten. In the tropical climate of our Thai hosts, they planted annual water lilies almost as frequently as the lotus. The Queen Sirikit Botanical gardens, a 560-acre garden paradise, north of Chiang Mai was a highlight of the northern portion of our IWGS tour. After a delicious Thai meal in the garden visitor center, the staff opened their gardens and collections for us to browse. Many new varieties of tropical and hardy water lilies unknown to us in the United States were in their peak condition under lightly cloudy skies, perfect for photography. Inside the conservatories were tropical plant displays, cacti collections, Victoria and water lily gardens as well. Outdoors we found many water lily varieties in large containers, identified and in full bloom.
Another great trip we made was to the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Horticulture Expo, also near Chiang Mai. This vast botanical garden was opened specially for us since it is otherwise closed to the public at this time. Finely manicured gardens surrounded a beautiful Buddhist temple, theme-based exhibition gardens and pavilions for educational purposes. These gardens were built for the eightieth birthday of their King and were opened for only three months for the celebration. The grounds are still immaculately maintained in anticipation of the decision to reopen to the public.
What struck me as notable overall in Thailand was the intense use of aquatic plants and of moving water everywhere, from public gardens to street corners, private gardens to vendors and storefronts. The prevalence of water in their everyday life was amazing. Perhaps the fact that they obtain much of their food from water accounts for the importance of water to their culture. They eat rice with every meal and fish in many Thai dishes.
A water feature seen in numerous places around Chiang Mai is the Vase overflowing with water, similar to the Disappearing fountains that have become recently popular in the U.S. The vases are perched in the water with gurgling water flowing over the rim and back into the pond. Occasionally, the pottery is bubbling over into a bed of ornamental stones that cover a reservoir of water similar to that which is seen in the United States.
This first part of our conference held in Chiang Mai, Thailand was only the beginning of a great cross-cultural event with representatives from thirteen countries from all around the globe. Often (but not always) held in the United States, the annual symposium is an opportunity for educational as well as cultural exposure, featuring some of the best of a cross section of water gardening enthusiasts. From nursery professional to hobbyist, academics to authors and photographers, the IWGS offers a unique look at our water gardening industry.
This is the first part of a two-part article detailing the symposium in Thailand. The next issue of will feature the second phase of the IWGS conference. The group made their way to Bangkok, Thailand for another fantastic look at the fascinating culture of the Thai people and their land.
About the IWGS
Click or call for more information about this non-profit international group, with membership spanning the entire field and the globe. www.iwgs.org or 941.756.0880