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New Years in a Land of Golden Buddhas

In the Annamite Mountains of central Laos, we are making our way to study a rare population of the majestic and critically endangered Chinese Swamp Cypress tree (Glyptostrobus pensilis).

A Change of Plans

We have been in Laos for several days now after celebrating New Years from 30,000 feet. Although this country is mostly Buddhist, the holiday attitude is still present and many of the offices are closed. Unable to meet with our government counterparts, we travel north to the former Capitol of Luang Prubang to develop new partners with the botanical garden there, where we hope that the seeds we collect from the cypress might be propagated. The drive from Vientiane to Luang Prabang takes 6-7 hours along steep, winding roads. We flew.

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The airport is new, modern, and fills this once sleepy town with thousands of tourists, mostly on direct flights from China and Korea. Located in a valley carved by the Mekong River, the sprawling town manages to retain much of its history. Guarded by the intertwining nine-headed Naga (a mythical serpent) the ornate palace of the last monarch stands on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.

Nine headed Naga, protective river dragon with sticky rice offering. Photo David McGuire
Nine headed Naga, protective river dragon with sticky rice offering. Photo David McGuire

On the grounds, a small temple hosts the Phra Bang, a 14th-century statue serving as a protection for the nation, like the famous Palladium statue of ancient Troy.

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The well known medieval Buddha has inspired a particularly plentiful population of statues in the area. (Photo courtesy David McGuire)

The Influence of an Icon

The venerable golden Buddha was brought here by the first unifier of the Lao people, who established the city as the capitol. The Phra Bang (or Prabang from which the village derives its name) was first brought here in 1353 to spread Buddhism into Laos.  Local lore speaks of the protective powers of the venerated icon, however history speaks against these powers following numerous Siamese and Burmese invasions, captures of the icon and the final arrest of the last king, ending the monarchy under the Pathet Lao in 1977.

Luang Prabang is considered the birthplace of the Lao people and is still inhabited primarily by indigenous Lao, unlike the melange of Hmong, Siamese, Viet, and people of mixed racial backgrounds in the other cites.

On the hill across from the palace towers the gilded stupa of That Chamsi, and the Wat Pha Phouket housing the Buddha’s footprint. There are scores of golden temples venerating Buddha around the city and saffron-robed monks are common on the streets. The many large wats or monastery temples peppering the peninsula provide a cultural grounding amid the new coffee chains and tourist stalls lining the busy streets.

 

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Young Budhhist Monks on streets of Luang Prabang, Photo David McGuire

On to the Gardens

We cross the muddy Mekong to visit the new botanical gardens in a low wooden boat called a tok-tok, named after the popping sound of the one-cylinder motor. The river level is eight meters below the rainy season level and dropping, but the current still flows rapidly at three knots.

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National Geographic grantee, Gretchen Coffman, glances back as we make our way up river by tok-tok boat. (Photo David McGuire)

At the far side of the Mekong we meet with the director of the Botanical Garden who is helping develop the research garden of orchids, bamboos, and other native plants and trees. A research team of young Lao botanists live at the garden and have created an ethnobotanical garden with native plants and their traditional use

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Part of Research Team, Robin Hunter, Dr Gretchen Coffman of University San Francisco, left and center, Lao botanists  with new team member Mr “Bee” Kittisack Phoutthavong, Right. Photo David McGuire

We meet several young Lao researchers including one who just described a new species of ginger. The garden has a nursery and we view a developing wetland that may become home to the first Chinese Cypress trees propagated by humans, grown from the seeds we will collect.

Healing powers of native plants in educational ethno-botanical garden. Photo David McGuire

We invite a young botanist, Mr. Bee, to join our expedition, to assist with data collection and learn new methods, while we benefit from his knowledge of native plants and animals. The team is building, and we are anxious to get into the field.

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