Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nong Nooch Tropical Garden

On my five-day trip down to Pattaya earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to visit Nong Nooch Tropical Garden, as suggested by my colleague Holger. As a real admirer of gardens (e.g. Singapore Botanical Garden – oh la la!), this idea was immediately favourable and interesting to me. And so, on a crisp Friday morning I took myself off exploring.

First a little history: A certain Mr Pisit and Mrs Nongnooch Tansacha purchased a 600-acre (1,500 rai or 2.4 km2) plot of beautiful land in Chonburi province back in 1954, with the intention of developing the land as a fruit plantation. However, at the last moment they decided to create a wildlife conservation project, by way of planting and researching tropical flowers and plants, instead. Originally intended purely for botanical conservation, the garden was later turned into a tourist attraction and opened to the public in 1980. Today the gardens cover 500 magical acres and represent a concerted effort to manage plant species in cultivation. The garden, along with participating institutions, aims to preserve long-term genetic diversity in cultivated populations as well as propagate highly endangered species. So there you have it, now on with the show...

The garden is really one of the most beautiful in the world and it’s surprising to me that its fame is not more well-known. That said, I too was unfamiliar with the site before I hit Pattaya so perhaps it’s just a local Thai thing and they need a better PR department! Still, it’s probably better this way, less notoriety means fewer Chinese and Japanese tour groups clogging up the place (it’s already awash with Russians). Even though there were still about 30 tour buses in the parking lot when I arrived I was amazed that I didn’t run into more people whilst out ‘n’ about in the grounds; due I’m sure to the sheer size of the grounds. Any who, the garden showcases all kinds of styles, everything from French provincial to English rose, topiary, jungle and even an orchid house brimming over with some 23 species of bloom [that they also sell].

One of the nicest things for me about Nong Nooch was the very relaxed atmosphere whereby I didn’t feel pushed in any one direction. I was free to wander the gardens at my leisure and in any direction I desired. All of the different garden areas are well connected via a set of ground-level paths and raised walkways. In truth, it’s kinda nice to walk around both down below and then up high so as to have a bird’s eye view – which is really the only way to truly comprehend just how vast and impressive the garden is. For those not keen or able to accomplish a lot of walking, there is a free shuttle service to take you to each major spot.

At this point I would be remiss not to point out that the garden is not just a garden, there is also a cultural show, elephant park, exotic car museum, fish ponds, butterfly/bird avery and petting zoo [all included in your entry ticket]! You really have to wonder what’s going on at times. As I entered without picking up a map or brochure I was not aware of all the garden’s attributes, so was constantly surprised every time I turned a corner and found something new. It is kind of like being in the company of an ADD child, with a little bit of this, a little bit of that; but all in a fabulous and eclectic way. I can only but imagine what’s in store for the future; I’m guessing a theme park with rides and/or some of those animal-shaped peddle boats to hoon around the lake.

I did also hear tell that some “exotic” animals like tiger cubs and orangutans were about but was unable to find them. I did however meet some friendly souls in the petting zoo and bird enclosure. Particularly nice were the goats, sheep, lamas and miniature horses. If you’re lucky like moi, you might even bump into an elephant or two whilst wandering around. Otherwise you can be quite blatant about it and pay hundreds of Thai baht to ride one for about 10 minutes up and down the parking lot! However, my vote for the most bazaar thing you’ll see in the garden goes to the owner’s display of some 20 high performance cars, featuring a rare collection of both modern and classic sports, performance and touring vehicles. It is quite possibly one of the best car collections on display in Thailand that petrol-heads will salivate over. The mint condition cars range from a Mini and Volkswagen, to Smart Car (with trailer), Lotus, Cadillac (with Louis Vuitton detailing!) and Hummer. I am not really a car freak, but had the guard turned his back for 5 minutes I probably would have been tempted to take the Night Rider–esque ‘80s Lotus sports car in mellow yellow for a spin.

I did not actually see the “cultural” show – being against animal cruelty and shunning all forms of choreographed Thai song and dance – but here is what the company’s website says about it: “Witness a demonstration of an elephants intellect playing football, basketball, bowling dancing and even playing with tourists!!! We promise you will be so amazed with the show – you will not want it to end. It's an experience you'll never forget.” So, there you go, make up your own mind na ka. The show is about 40 minutes-long and is performed about four times throughout the day, which lends itself well to keeping your own pace around the grounds. In addition, for those interested, when the show is over you can take pictures with some of the performers as well as the very large, adorable and well-trained elephants.

As the gardens are big you’ll probably need a full day to really appreciate your surrounds in a leisurely manner. For those in a rush, the feat can be accomplished in a half-day but you’ll probably want to make use of the free shuttle service. Having said that, if you’re an amateur photographer you’ll no doubt need considerably more time; you’ll probably also insight the wrath of friends and family when you commence a frenzy of unstoppable snapping (e.g. I’m not known for my excessive photo-taking and even I managed to take around 500 pics!). Besides all the beautiful attractions, you’ll also find two restaurants serving western and Thai food, countless souvenir stores, an information centre and even adorable lakeside cabins for overnight stays.

The gardens are in a constant state of flux with new attractions being built all the time. Plants and flowers change with the seasons so no matter when you go you’ll be guaranteed to see new sights and new colours and can thus go back again and gain. For my money, Nong Nooch Tropical Garden really is a must see while in Thailand and makes for a wonderful trip if you happen to be in or around Pattaya.

Getting there: The gardens are located about 20km outside of Pattaya. The easiest way to get there is to rent a car; it’s an easy 25 minute drive from the city, just 5 minutes past the floating market. Otherwise try taking a songtaow from down-town Pattaya for Bht 300. Nong Nooch also offers a twice daily pick-up service, including entry and shows (Bht 600) from your hotel; leaving 8:30am and 2:30pm daily. The entire park is open from 8:00am – 6:00pm, 7 days a week, with restaurants open until 10:00pm, 365 days a year (including public holidays). For more info, go to:

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