Botanical Garden - Pyin Oo Lwin

The botanical gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin – high up in the eastern mountains of Shan State, not too far from the Thai border – began as the project of a Lady botanist from London’s Kew Gardens. She gave it sweeping lawns and lakes, with a pagoda watchtower and Latin-Burmese placards for the trees. For a long time, the gardens were monopolized by the military posted in the nearby town, and I’m not sure how the botany fared. Today’s gardens, at least, remain grand and beautiful, and are a hotspot for groups of rebellious college kids who want a place to be seen wearing jeans, playing guitars, and singing K pop in all its pan-Asian glory. Monks and kids play soccer in the trees, and there’s a handy ice cream shack where we discovered that maize is a tasty flavor. It’s a world apart from the Myanmar outside its walls. The orchid garden & lepidoptery collection are walled off from the surrounding gaiety, a double oasis. Before the teak industry savaged Myanmar’s forests, the country had some of the richest orchid diversity in the world. Although enough have survived in Shan State that they’re still part of the herbal medicinal traditions, this garden is home to now tremendously rare specimens, and takes care to keep its native species segregated from the imported ones. It’s a peaceful and well-tended sanctuary. Hopefully it won’t be too many years before its cultivars can help repopulate new lowland forests.

Anyone whose ever seen my tiny Bronx apartment knows that I’m a bit of an orchid fancier. Not that I’m particularly good at it (my green thumb seems to work for Maxillaria but not, sadly, dancing dolls), but they’re little marvels of evolution. While I may be in biomedicine now, it all started with plant genomics. Then, for one beautiful year, I lived in the sunroom of an old 1950s midwestern townhouse where both my plants and I got all the light we could drink…and I think something of their photosynthetic outlook rubbed off. Someday I’ll build them a glass bucky dome and we’ll all live happily ever after.