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Chiang Mai: "Royal Flora Ratchapreuk"

Chiang Mai, Thailand

November 7, 2006

Dear Family and Friends, 

As a Native New Yorker, I freely admit I knew next to nothing about my native plants. I remember the green hedge at the entrance to my apartment building on Anderson Avenue in The Bronx. Tall leafy trees lined and shaded the next street, aptly named, Woodycrest Avenue. In my old neighborhood, a few empty, rocky, hilly lots sustained some weeds and scrawny trees that survived, I know not how.

Every Mother's Day, my sister Paula and I walked to the local florist on Ogden Avenue and bought a dozen gladiolas. Daisies, dandelions, pussy willows and buttercups were the extent of my floral knowledge. Mrs. Price, my first grade teacher, had a few begonia plants on the windowsill of our room. Of course, a rose is a rose.

I wore a "boutonniere" in the lapel of my blue jacket for Graduation Day at Public School 73. I presented a "corsage" to Ellen R., my date at the Taft High School Prom. From Cornell, I wired a "bouquet" to my Mother and Grandmother on Mother's Day. You think I knew the names of all those flowers?

As a Boy Scout I earned the Forestry Merit Badge. I was good with the American Hornbeam, but I never could remember the difference between a red maple and a sugar maple. The Holidays are coming; who among us can describe a hemlock, a spruce, a pine; a juniper?

In high school biology I did much better. I recall "stigma, style, ovary and stamen" and "petal and sepal" and the "cambium layer." I pulled a 90 on the Bio Regents Exam. I'm not bragging; Dr. Mike got a 98.

As an adult, I improved. Lily, lotus, gardenia and gerbera were added to my vocabulary. Poinsiettia.

And yet, despite my modest education, I find I am drawn to botanical gardens wherever I travel, to wander amidst the natural beauty of flowers and plants and trees. And I am cheered and delighted to discover how "we" arrange and rearrange nature's creations.

So when I read about the opening of Royal Flora Ratchapruek 2006 (Royal Project), I booked a ticket to Chiang Mai - an easy one-hour flight north from Bangkok; I didn't want to miss this exposition.

I spent four days strolling among the exhibits. I am one of the two million visitors the organizers forecast will attend over 92 days - 1 November - 31 January.

There are 2,200 species on display and a total of 2,500,000 plants. Have I have seen them all?

I have decided against checking with one of my "secret weapons," (thefreedictionary.com) to look up synonyms for "beautiful." I will let my photographs (a few now; many more later) describe my experience. I urge you to find the website www.royalfloraexpo.com.

OK. OK. Some highlights:

    • Five enormous "Bottle Trees" at the entrance.
    • The Sawasdee (Welcome) Garden: Little bridges and walkways meander through colorful, rolling yellow beds.
    • Palm World: Dozens of marvelously shaped trees from around the tropical world. Don't tell W; yo tom? varias fotografas de palmas importado de Cuba!
    • International Garden: Thirty-three countries from four continents installed cultural exhibits. Families and kids pose for photos in front of a windmill from The Netherlands, a huge floral cornucopia from Belgium, a multi-colored bridge from Bhutan and sculptures from Kenya. My other favorites are South Africa with some very strange looking trees and sculptures, Bangladesh with gardens shaped into the Star of Islam and a Turkish Garden with a powerful statue and inscriptions from two Thirteenth Century Turkish poets:

Whenever you think of war, I am far, far from it.
Whenever you think of love, I am that, only that, all that.

For those who truly love G-d and his ways,
All of the people of the world are brothers and sisters.

  • Orchid Pavilion: Thai companies competed for the most original display. This area is just spectacular.
  • Bug World: Usual butterflies flitting about; unusual butterflies camouflaged against leaves and branches.
  • Royal Pavilion: A large Buddhist temple specially constructed to honor His Royal Highness The King of Thailand. The temple sits on a hill and is surrounded by bridges and walkways and ponds. Everyone comes to give respect to the revered and beloved King and Queen. On display on the inside walls are photo-murals of the King and Queen as they visit and work in the countryside on behalf of the Thai people.

(Actually, this entire event is dedicated to the Sixtieth Anniversary of His Royal Highness's Ascension to the Throne, and his Eightieth Birthday next month. This expo is a once in a lifetime event.)

Entertainment includes marching bands, night-time electric parades, and fountain-light night-scape shows at the lakeside.

Here's the best: As one of a very few Westerners here, I am surrounded and embraced by an undulating golden meadow of Thai people. And Thai hospitality. Thai culture. Thai warmth. Thai courtesy. Thai beauty. Thai industry. Thai pride. Thai curiosity. Thai friendship. And the two million flowers and plants artistically arranged and colorfully presented educate, motivate, entertain, and bring a moment of joy to all of us as we meet and pose for each other, chat, smile, giggle and laugh.

The fact of the matter is I was simply overwhelmed. I thought I would go for a day or two. After two days I did take a break to visit nearby towns and several excellent temples and markets. But I was drawn back for a third day, and as I left that evening I decided to return for a fourth.

Why am I compelled to visit these gardens?

Indeed, why are we all so inspired? To visit. To plant. To hoe. To weed. To water. To cut and arrange. To display. And to plant again. And again. Why?

Here's a thought . . . .

Last May I visited another botanical garden, the Historic Bok Sanctuary in Lake Wales in Central Florida. www.boksanctuary.org. I found a plaque on the landscaped grounds there. The inscription reads:

The kiss of the sun for a pardon;
The song of the birds for mirth.
You are nearer G-d's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

I still don't know a "day lily" from a "tiger lily" from a "lily from the valley." So? What's in a name?

G-d Bless,

Flower Child Jan

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