Finding the Magic in Luang Prabang
How the colonial city seduced a jet-setting publisher into dropping everything and (literally) cultivating his garden.
“I’d never seen one before in my life,” admits Rik Gadella when asked how the former head of Picaron Editions—an Amsterdam-based publishing house devoted to works of philosophy, poetry and art—came to create Laos’ first botanical garden. “But I like learning by doing.”
The Aruba-born Gadella first visited the temple-dappled city of Luang Prabang on a one-week holiday in 2007. By the second day, inspired by the calming contrast to his jet-setting art world life, he decided to stay for three months—“to catch up on my reading.” Gadella started to look for a small plot of land to build a bamboo hut as a personal retreat. “Then my local friends took me for a walk at Pha Tad Ke,” he recalls, still seemingly surprised by the course of events. The former royal hunting grounds turned disused tea plantation is located along the Mekong River just over a mile from Luang Prabang. “We entered a world full of magnificent old wild mango trees and swaying overgrown weeds.” Gadella says he felt “spirits galore,” which got him thinking about a new path.
Attracted by the idea of a radical personal change and seeking a meaningful way to help preserve Luang Prabang, Gadella set about canvassing travelers on their motivations for visiting the peaceful UNESCO World Heritage City. Although best known for its carved and gilded Buddhist temples, Luang Prabang also drew nature-seekers. Gadella decided to commit himself to safeguarding Laos’ fragile biodiversity—never mind his own lack of relevant experience. “Botanical gardens steer tourism development in a positive, high-quality direction,” Gadella explains. “I felt drawn to the idea of educating both locals and foreigners, while protecting this abundant nature that the Laotian people were in serious danger of losing.”
Opened in 2016, Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden is devoted to preserving Laos’ flora as well as the related cultural traditions (or ethnobotany). It operates self-sustainably, raising funds through donations and the $20 entrance fee, which includes a calming 15-minute boat ride down the Mekong, past gilded Buddhist stupas, crumbling vestiges of colonial Indochina and thriving rice fields. Gadella is rightly proud that all 50-plus staff members are Laotian, save for the head botanist, a New Zealander who formerly worked at London’s Kew Gardens. Gadella has sent employees to pursue degrees in France, China and the United States, and to learn from established institutions like the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Back in Laos, Gadella and his team frequently trek deep into the country’s jungle-dense interior to augment the garden’s current collection of more than 1,200 native plants, including 288 of Laos’ 485 native orchid species. They return with seeds and cuttings, of course, but also with centuries-old knowledge from the Hmong and other remote hill tribes, which have long relied on indigenous plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. Since last year, Gadella and his team have been applying those native traditions to the menu at Pha Tad Ke’s riverside café. Freshly prepared dishes not only taste delicious, explains Gadella, “they incorporate medicinal herbs and plants, and edible flowers, just like what Hmong people traditionally eat.” The organic kare kao flower salad promotes good sleep, for example, while the catfish in coconut sauce rich is omega-3. And locals swear by the combination of water chestnuts with coconut milk to prevent fatigue and help with weight loss and digestion.
Gadella suggests working off lunch with an easy, one-hour hike around Pha Tad Ke’s five-acre Limestone Habitat, created to showcase Lao cycads and tree ferns. “This garden is very local, quite wild and surprisingly ever-changing.” Along with all the obvious lessons in horticulture, landscaping and botany, Pha Tad Ke has taught Gadella much more. “Garden design is quite four-dimensional,” Gadella observes. “You also have to think in terms of time, and not only expect the unforeseen and astonishing, but welcome it too.” Apt words from a man whose life took a surprising but fulfilling turn.
Rik Gadella’s Perfect Day Off in Luang Prabang
Though I don’t do it every day, I recommend rising with the sun to head to the morning market. There’s nowhere else like it to see hill tribe women come down from the mountains, baskets overflowing with some really wild-looking seasonal vegetables, many of which appear in the dishes at Pha Tad Ke’s café.
My morning hours belong to a local institution: Le Banneton, a classic bakery straight out of France. My friends and I agree that they make the best croissants in this former colonial town, plus freshly made Mediterranean salads, homemade ice cream, Lao coffee, imported wine and the all-important real French baguette.
On days I don’t spend in the garden, I can be found cycling along the Mekong’s bucolic riverbanks, often ending up at Ock Pop Tock, a cultural center founded by two British sisters and Lao weaver Veomanee Douangdala. I love the tagines and the Pakistani food they serve at their Silk Road Café. It’s one of the few places where you can eat lunch along the Mekong, and the food is well suited to the lazy-day backdrop.
I often take out-of-town visitors to The Backstreet Academy, a local initiative promoting authentic experiences like learning to build a crossbow with an 85 year-old Hmong hunter. Heuanchanch Heritage House is set off the main road in a traditional wooden house, but it’s worth the effort to find for the exceptional quality of the handicrafts, homemade Lao cuisine and dance performances. I love that it is run by local Laotians, and that it’s not at all touristy.
I maintain strong ties to the international art world from here in Luang Prabang. I feel especially gratified by my longtime patronage of Laotian textile artist Tcheu Siong, who was accepted into the Singapore Biennale last year. Her Hmong-style tapestries take inspiration from dreams interpreted by her shaman husband.
As night falls, I still head for the nearest Buddhist temple. There is nothing like the beautiful, total meditation of listening to the monks chant. There are other charming historic towns in Asia, but listening to the monks at dusk reminds one that this place is very special.
Morning Market: Mekong Riverside Road, Ban Horxieng; +856 71-213-057
Le Banneton: 03/46 Sakhalin Road; +856 30-57-88-340
Ock Pop Tock: 125/10 Ban Saylom; +856 71-212-597
The Backstreet Academy: Ban Phan Luang, House no 199, Group 14; +856 20-581-99216
Heuanchanch Heritage House: Sisavangvong Road; +856 30-54-93-632