Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pattaya June July Trip, Nong Nooch I, the adventure begins

At the entrance of "the bromeliad garden"

Last April, on our first trip to Pattaya, “the Don, “our venerable trip leader and guide,  mentioned several times that if we ever found the time that we should schedule a visit out to a botanical garden that he had passed by several times over the years on his many bike trips out into the Thai countryside. Not being much of a “plant guy,” (as he says) he never bothered to venture past the gates; however, to me he offered this phrase a time or two, “But I know how much you love nature and plants and flowers and all, so maybe you’d like to make the trip and check it out?”

The only thing about going out there that gave me any pause at all is when he mentioned that it was more than a few kilometers out (like 15 or 20); and, he continued, based on my scooter driving rate of travel (as compared to his Speedy Gonzales style) he estimated that it would take us more than 30 minutes to get out there.

Every thing there has the "wow factor!"

We never did make it out to “the gardens” in April. The logistics of having along from the Philippines one of my girls complicated scooter travel to say the least. It wouldn’t have been a problem if three on a bike was legal (although the Thais do it like crazy), but as a foreigner getting caught with the extra passenger is a sure fire fine; not a very hefty one, but who needs the hassle? Anyway, we knew we were going to return in June so we put off the botanical visit until then.

For me, chasing after “Don the bike master” on a scooter always means a heavy dose of strain on top of a full measure of anxiety. I know this to be true based on what happened last April, when after following him around Pattaya for a couple hours on our quest for Thai drivers’ licenses; we stopped in at a doctor’s office for a quickie physical. Normally, my BP is around 110/70, but not that time. I was aghast to see it up at 180/90! Being in a constant state of dread will do that to you.
I could have sat right here all day
To make it worse was speeding along after him with a passenger tucked up behind me, because now a mistake meant killing or maiming not only me, but the mother of our children as well—oh boy! And to add even more to the "oh no" pot, on one of our trips to a nearby electronics mall, we passed by the recent aftermath of a really nasty scooter crash. It was not pretty. The mangled bike lay twisted on the road in a debris field of shattered plastic pieces and splotches of blackening blood. The driver had obviously been badly hurt, if not killed, and had had already been scooped up in one of the ubiquitous baht buses and taken to the hospital. Gulp. I read somewhere that scooter accident deaths are the modern Asian plague. I believe it.
I had no idea that bromeliad species got THIS big
Anyway, knowing that such negative thoughts can result in the fulfillment of them I always attempt to buck up, man up, and get my bravado on. Acting brave is the next best thing to being brave; that has been my way for decades. Weird thing is—it works—who’s going to know the difference?
I actually have several of these at home, but they don't look THIS good.
I can see the route now in my mind’s eye—out the hotel driveway right on the one-way 4 laner that is Second Road and soon right again on Pattaya Klang. You'll follow that busy four lane with its extra long traffic lights all the way to where it T’s into a fast moving 6 lane (8 or even 10 lanes, if you count the inner and outer shoulders) boulevard called Sukhumvit Road. We sped along that thoroughfare for a long time, long enough for me to eventually relax somewhat even—not an easy thing for me trying to keep up with Speedy Don. As we approached traffic lights I’d hope that each would turn red and force us to stop long enough for me to take my hand off the throttle to shake out the tension in a bad right wrist. If I have to go for longer than ten minutes cranking on the throttle, inevitably that forearm goes into spasms. When that happens all I can do is pull over and massage it until it passes.
Luckily we hit plenty of red lights and so my arm got plenty of rest and mostly behaved. But we did have another unscheduled stop that didn’t involve traffic at a place that Don had warned us of beforehand. For the most part the Thai police don't bother with stopping tourists tooling around on scooters within Pattaya proper, but they obviously have a policy to stop ALL foreigners on bikes outside of the city. Three or four miles down Sukhumvit we could see a traffic light in the near distance; it looked like we would easily make it through on green, but then a frantically gesturing policeman stepped out, pointing at us as if shooting lightning bolts from his index finger before raising both arms high in the international signal to STOP.

There were three policemen manning the checkpoint. One was already questioning and checking the documents of a hapless Thai biker. Don and I pulled off the shoulder to a spot right in front of the police station and let the girls off. We joked and laughed that what Don had predicted had actually happened; he wasn't exactly omniscient though; he’s been stopped at that spot countless times over the years. The cop assigned to us kept a stern demeanor, probably expecting us to not have drivers licenses. He almost seemed shocked (or disappointed perhaps) when we pulled ours out and merrily handed them over for his inspection. Once he saw we were good to go his attitude suddenly switched over to smiling friendliness. Don pulled out his tourist map and showed him where we were headed. The now affable policeman began to try to speak Thai to our ladies and he seemed surprised yet again learning that they were from the Philippines. So we got him twice in the same stop--hah! He nodded a thank you and pointed us back out to the road, dismissing us to continue our journey. We thanked all of them with Don giving them a chuckling “See you again, probably SOON!” They didn’t understand us, but we laughed at the joke just the same. We gave them a wave and a hardy hi-ho and sped away on down the road.
I have these but have never seen the flowers. Look carefully in the center.
Then again, is that tiny flower from the bromeliad, or is the bromeliad actually a host plant for the tinier plant?
I'm getting ahead of myself. During this recent stay in Pattaya (Jun-Jul '12) we ended up making more than one trip out to a special place that we were about to learn is called The Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Gardens. Now that’s a rather long, even grandiose name, but in this case, it’s definitely a place that lives up to the grandiosity of its title. Our stop at the police check point marked just past halfway to the intersection where you turn left for the final two mile drive to Nong Nooch’s entrance gate. Don hadn’t warned me how long that approach road would be; in fact, its a four lane divided boulevard that winds and S-curves into the country side interminably with almost nothing to mar the pastoral view by way of buildings or structures along the way. It feels like you are heading out into the middle of no where.
Photography is a dream in that place. No matter where you aim there is a sublime shot.
I tell you what though, the Thais do NOT do things in half steps—saying that, coming to that conclusion, is even easier after having lived “here” for ten years where most public works and large endeavors are done cut-rate and left mostly looking unfinished. I have to chuckle reading what I just wrote because it reminds me how much repeating that theme at almost every turn, comparing the Philippines to Thailand (there is no comparison) eventually just irritated the heck out of my wife. “Well, if you love it here so much, why don’t you just move here!” Always easy to de-fuse, I would just shrug and in deadpan tell her, “Coz YOU’RE not here asawa; otherwise..”

Finally, we got to the end of that endless approach avenue, came to another intersection and following the sign turned right for another couple hundred meters to the actual park gate. From there, looking into the park, the place seems very understated; at that point I really wasn’t expecting much. Boy did I soon have another thing coming.
Look how they arrange the individual bromeliads to form a larger mural of plants.
Don and I have learned to have the girls—who look like Thais by the way—hang well back while the two of us pay for our tickets at the various attractions. Note: Thais always pay about a third less than foreigners at all the attractions. So, we don’t say anything, they don’t ask, and we pay the price they ask for. Usually they don’t ask since Thais don’t speak English well. We hand over some money, they hand us back our change and the tickets and the four of us go merrily on our way. But there WAS one time where a more punctilious attendant actually asked the question, which I of course honestly answered, and only then, well, you know…

We drove up the lane and into the park and soon came upon a small manmade lake on the right where we saw a dozen bikes like ours parked. We pulled in to park in line with them and thus started our adventure in Nong Nooch.
You'd never get away with this back in the states these days. Cute.
Directly across the street from the lake we spotted a charmingly quirky entrance into a garden area and in we sauntered. I was immediately impressed. No matter where you look there is something to see, no detail too small not to attend to. My camera began a workout that by the end of the day resulted in hundreds of photos loaded onto the memory card. Within moments I noticed the theme of that particular garden and announced it to my fellow site-seers, “Hey, almost all the plants in here are bromeliads, did you notice that?” Don grinned, answering half mockingly, “Okay Phil, if YOU say so.”
These look African. They look aged, as if imported. Interesting to see in Thailand.
Okay, so I’m a plant geek. But even I didn’t know a bromeliad from a commelinid until the wife happened to bring home a few potted species of them from some people who were moving to a place with a much smaller yard.  Bromeliads really are a fascinating family of plants, many of them originating from tropical jungles and rainforests of the world. The first time I saw them was on TV a few years ago where a program showed how tiny tree frogs would lay their eggs in water trapped handily in the base of certain bromeliad leaves. Awesome! Of course, I hadn't bothered to memorize the name of the plants until I happened to own a few myself. Finding out the name on the internet of this family of plants was fairly easy; I just typed tree frog plant into the search engine and there it was.

Not realizing the full extent of Nong Nooch, we browsed and enjoyed for almost an hour the relatively tiny  bromeliad garden. I say relatively tiny even although at the time I didn't think so until I saw how massive the rest of the park is--it's gigantic.
This plant is about five feet across and  three feet high. Gorgeous
I was fascinated with the way the gardeners took these hardy plants potted in tiny black plastic bags and arranged them in holders on the garden walls to form some of the most amazing mural patterns using the varying foliage colors of the various bromeliad species. I’ve never seen anything like it. Many hours later, almost a half hour after the park "officially" closed, we drove back toward the gate and I glanced over to see a sign on the frontage wall. "Bromeliad Garden," was on the sign. "See! I told you so!" I called over my shoulder to my wife, pointing at the sign as we sped past it almost out the gate.
Its in the details. Wow!
Not wanting to bore Ed Abbey, who, dollars to doughnuts, won’t even get this far, I’ll finish this post off and continue to write more about all the other remarkable exhibits at Nong Nooch in upcoming entries. Oh, and enjoy the photos. I’ll put a handful here in the post, but if you’d like to see more go to my Flickr site where I’ve placed hundreds of outstanding pics from this most outstanding Botanical theme park. Go here for the day 1 photos of Nong Nooch. 
Statuary everywhere, not just in the bromeliad garden


Ed said...

I got that far!

PhilippinesPhil said...

ok, I take it back...