(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 3, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Until my first trip to Nong Nooch Gardens, I could boast of only a few forays over the Mexican and Canadian borders and a trip to Hawaii. Then, suddenly I was on a 22-hour flight to Bangkok to see palm trees in Thailand. It was such a great trip, I repeated it five years later for a cycad meeting.
One of the buses that drove us around Thailand
Scenes from Bangkok: (left) A large temple along one of the rivers that go through the city. (right) Topiary and sculptures in front of palatial building in Bangkok.
Nong Nooch is just inland from Pattaya, a resort town along the coast of southern Thailand, a 4 to 5 hour bus ride south from Bangkok. This is a huge place (over 500 acres) that started as a fruit tree orchard. It was slowly converted to a tropical botanical garden, as the owners fell in love with the other tropical gardens they had seen around the world. It is now the largest plant collection in all of Asia and is run by Kampon Tansacha, the son of the woman for who the garden was named. It is not only a massive plant collection but boasts some of the rarest plants found throughout the world.
(left) Views out a hotel window in Pattaya (right) Entrance sculptures at Nong Nooch Gardens
When you arrive at the gardens (we came via a troop of huge buses), you notice the endless scenes of various palms and tropical plants, giant greenhouses and shade structures, impeccably sculpted shrubs and trees, brilliant colors in every direction and an amazing tidiness that is astounding for such a huge acreage. It turns out much of the working staff lives on the premises and it is their full time jobs to take care of the place. They trim the plants, clean up the fallen leaves, mow the endless acres of lawns, create pots (all the potted plants are in clay pots made and fired on the garden grounds,) cook, clean, and prepare the entertainment (animal shows, dances, traditional Thai plays and activities) and basically make the place look like a tropical Disneyland sans the rides.
Roads into gardens- WOW!!
Kampon Tansacha was a great host, being very kind and approachable despite being an extremely important and busy man in Thailand. We had excellent accommodations and transportation, as well as plenty of guides and assistants to help us and answer questions. Dozens of helpers ran about with umbrellas on hot days, and if you were parched, there was always a drink to be had or an ice cream cone. We saw elephant shows, dancing, palms and cycads in the wild, enjoyed great and very interesting foods; the entire visit was incredibly well planned and pleasant. I seriously doubt most people get that sort of royal treatment, but it sure made a good impression on us plant lovers.
Kampon Tansacha next to Euphorbia kamponii, a species named after him
Some of the Nong Nooch elephants
Other animals you could 'pet'
Kampon has nearly single-handedly created one of the finest palm gardens in the entire world, and also one of the most amazing cycad collections as well. There are so many large, mature examples of rare palms that one could easily run out of digital room on ones laptop taking photos of everything. The gardens have over 500 palm species and for all I know it could be nearly double that. Thailand has a large native palm population and they were well-represented in the gardens. The garden had a huge number of Asian palms and an impressive population of Madagascan, New Caledonian and American palms. There were a few amazing palms that are nearly extinct in the wild. I had always heard how amazing the Singapore Botanical Gardens was (and it WAS impressive as we visited that one after leaving Thailand), but it really pales next to Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens in sheer number and variety of palms, though Nong Nooch is a much younger garden so many of its palms are not as impressively old and massive (yet.)
Just some of the great palms: (left) Goldlen Adonidia merrillii; (middle) Arenga undulatifolia; (right) Areca macrocalyx
(left) Bentinkia nicobarica; (middle) Copernicia macroglossa; (right) Corypha utan
Several unique palms: (left) Dypsis leptocheilos x cabadae; (middle) Dypsis lutescens 'Shuttlecock'; (right) Hyophorbe lagenicaulis x verschaffeltii
(left) Hyphaene petersiana; (middle) Joey Palms; (right) Kerriodoxa (a native species)
Just a few of the many dozens of amazing Licualas in their collection: (left) L. grandis variegated; (middle) L. obiculari;s (right) L.radula
Some rare ones: (left) Pelagodoxa; (middle) A very unusual blue-leaved Phoenix species; (right) A super-rare Pritchardiopsis (maybe only one outside New Caledonia?)
Just three rare species of hundreds of cycads in the collection: (left) Zamia poeppigiana; (middle) Zamia pseudomonticola; (right) Zamia skinneri
The first time I went, I was digitally challenged and took 40 rolls of regular film. The second time I took a digital camera, but digital cameras were expensive and not all that great then. I did not get the number of photos I should have. NEXT time--if there is one--I will be sure to fill my laptop with photos. My goal would to be get multiple photos of every palm and cycad on the premises, but I'm not sure that would be possible.
I started to just shoot every cycad and palm I could, but it was not possible
Signs were everywhere; oops! Translations are not always perfect! On my second visit to Nong Nooch Kampon had erected an extensive aerial walkway so now one could actually view all the palms from 20 feet in the air!
The gardens are not limited to these two plant groups, though at the time those were really all I cared about (I wish I could go back a third time and catch up on all the other plants they 'specialize' in there.) Huge structures are devoted to bromeliads, some to Euphorbia milli varieties, hundreds of square yards of Sansevierias, a fern house, an orchid greenhouse, acres of bonsai, a house devoted solely to variegated Rhapis palm varieties. There is a large formal garden, full of topiaries and incredibly carved/sculpted plants of an endless variety of geometric shapes. Wrightii tomentosa all pruned into upside-down half spheres adorn multiple areas of the gardens. There is a silver garden full of palms, cycads and a fantastic variety of silver, blue and variegated succulents. Some of the roads are lined with endless rows of massive, rare and perfectly grown palms. It is a botanical dream come true for someone like me. It's too bad I can't just live there.
Just a few of the hundreds of Euphorbia millii varieties; there was literally an acre of these!
There must have been over 1000 Bougainvillea plants in ornamental pots, all which were made on the premises
(left) A large cactus garden covered with glass to keep the rain off. (right) Huge sculpture in the middle of the palm garden.
Sansevierias like this covered hundreds of yards of acreage, all in their own concrete pots
The bromeliad area (could have spent an entire day just looking at this family of plants)
(left) Fern house; (middle and right) A few of the large and incredibly rare collection of variegated Rhapis palms
Wonderful 'lollipop' gardens of Wrightii tomentosa were all over; many dome-shaped plants decorated the landscape
Great colors, patterns and three-dimensional shapes, all made of plant material
Views of Kampon's version of Stonehenge
There were several large lakes; some were sites of future water gardens
One of my favorite sections was this large, rocky, Silver Garden full of silver colored palms, cycads and succulents of dizzying varieties
Not all pots (created on the premises) were used to plant things in
The climate is rainy part of the year and relatively dry the rest of the year, but it is never cold, being only a short distance north of the equator. It looked to me that the soil was clay, which just goes to show what one can grow in that sort of soil, in a climate in which it never gets cold. It does get pretty hot, though no worse than it does in Miami and it's always fairly humid. I was concerned we might be exposed to malaria while we were there, yet I saw fewer mosquitoes than I do most nights here in southern California (almost none.)
I can't vouch for the quality, safety and cleanliness of the nearby resort town of Pattaya, but Nong Nooch gardens is a wonderfully clean and comfortable sanctuary. We actually were surprised how nice most of Thailand was. I certainly would recommend visiting the country, but you HAVE to visit Nong Nooch Gardens while you are there or you will miss an incredible tropical botanical garden that may just be one of the finest gardens in all the world.