World-famous Nong Nooch
A botanical garden in disguise
At first glance it is hard to grasp what it is exactly. The sign says ‘Nong Nooch Botanical Garden’, but for a Westerner the grounds rather indicate an entertainment park. Hop-on sightseeing buses meander through gardens packed with funny sculptures of tigers, snails, panda bears, ants, owls and camels. Signs in five languages lure visitors to elephant shows and performances of Thai dancing or boxing. Suntanned families, day trippers from the nearby seaside resort Pattaya, rush past spectacular cactus displays to catch a pedaled swan boat.
But Nong Nooch is a botanical garden indeed. It is even the largest in Southeast Asia, boosting splendid collections of cycads, palms, orchids and heliconia’s. However, the botanically most interesting sections are not open to the public. That is where species of tropical plants, bought in from collectors all over the world, are nursed, labeled, studied and conserved. It is the ‘playground’ for hundreds of horticultural students who come here for training courses.
The botanical garden Nong Nooch is privately owned and self-supporting. That explains why the area of about 500 acres (2 km2) is exploited as a tourist attraction with restaurants, a zoo, shows of Thai culture, elephant rides and even a hotel and resort. Income is also generated by providing landscaping services, including the supply of full-grown palm trees from its own nursery.
It is clearly a successful business model. The enterprise Nong Nooch provides about 2,000 full-time jobs to gardeners, landscapers, animal carers and performers. About a million visitors a year, mostly Asians, come to admire the meticulously maintained theme-based garden arrangements.
The owner, Kampon Tansacha, is a descendant of a wealthy Thai family. His parents, Pisit Tansacha and his wife Nongnooch, purchased the area in 1954. After 25 years of landscaping, collecting and planting, the garden was ready to open for the public. By then, their son Kampon Tansacha had taken over the management. Although no expert in plants, he was a passionate collector of exotic species. Under his direction the dual purpose of the garden, promoting both Thai culture and tropical plants, has reached world-fame. For five consecutive years (2010-2015) Nong Nooch won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, earning Kampon Tansacha the great honor insignia of the Thai Ministry of Tourism.
The cycad collection at the botanical garden is one of the world’s most important conservation sites. Some species of this tropical plant with a long fossil history are endangered. Nong Nooch has grown into a major scientific center with its own cycad gene bank, and collaborates with universities and organizations like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to preserve cycads.
The garden is also an eldorado for palm lovers. Palms of over a thousand species, collected in every corner of the tropics, dominate the landscaping at Nong Nooch.
But the day trippers’ eye is especially caught by the clipped bougainvillea in the formal ‘French garden’ surrounded by Thai stupa’s, by the cactus garden, a replica of Stonehenge, the butterfly hill, the bonsai garden, the cycad valley or the sansevieiria garden. If visitors feel saturated by the colorful displays of flowers and plants, they can head for animal shows and cultural performances. And those who are fed up with nature or culture can admire the impressive collection of modern and classic cars of director Kampon Tansacha in the Automobile Museum on the grounds.
August 2016, text and image Karolien Bais
Horticulture deals as much with vegetation as with culture. As a foreigner in Thailand, I am often more struck by the cultural aspects of growing flowers, trees and crops than by the actual appearance of certain species.
Likewise it is fascinating to discover how plants, flowers and landscaping are applied for cultural events.