Thursday, 3 January 2013


Before leaving Pakse we’d stopped in one more time at the Bolaven Café to transfer the photos I’d taken to Dave the General Manager.  While we were doing this we struck up conversation with Dave’s neighbour, Mark, an American English teacher, who happened to be in the café at the time. On learning we were headed across the border the next morning to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand, Mark strongly advised us to check out Peppers, which was on the way.

The next morning as we crossed over from Laos into Thailand I was acutely aware of the differences between the two countries.  Peering out the bus window the scenery is pretty similar either side of the border, jungle interspersed with the odd village.  Study a bit harder however and you notice that the road quality significantly improves, there are more concrete than wood dwellings and the choice of shops and eateries in the towns has significantly multiplied.

Ride to the airport
The recommended Peppers is a good example of this, run by an Australian just over a kilometre outside of Ubon Ratchathani Airport, it serves a range of Australian café favourites, including meat pies, something I hadn’t eaten for a long time, and with ever sought after free wifi, a great place to while a few hours waiting for a flight.

We left Peppers in late afternoon light, intending to walk into the airport.  As I was just commenting it’d be the first airport I’d ever walked into a group of middle-aged Dutch guys pulled over in a 4WD with a tray back and asked us if we needed a lift.  Throwing our bags and us into the tray Susi and I soon found ourselves braced against the wind and passing through the airport entrance.

For our final destination we’d originally planned to head to the Philippines on the basis that it’s a country I’d never been to.  After a weary day of searching the Net and triangulating flights from Laos and then back to Australia via Singapore it became all too hard and we went back to first principles, considering what we actually wanted out of our final destination.

After all we’d seen we were effectively seeking a holiday from our travels, a time to spend simply near the beach enjoying the tropical weather.  Fortunately the answer was in front of our faces, or all around us in the form of Thailand, and more specifically Koh Lanta.  This choice proved to be more fortuitous when we learnt of typhoon Bhopa that hit the Philippines around the time we would have been arriving.

I hadn’t previously considered Thailand as a destination, in my mind it’s a destination synonymous with pissed up lager louts and kiddie fiddlers, but in Koh Lanta we discovered another side to the country, one strangely enough with a distinctively Swedish flavour, to the extent that I feel the Swedish map of Thailand solely consists of the island of Koh Lanta.

Klong Dao Beach
We’d pencilled in 11 days for our stay on Koh Lanta and split our time between accommodation on Klong Dao (the Swedish family beach) and the next beach south, Phrae Ae (Long Beach).  The west coast of Koh Lanta consists a series of stunning beaches, split by peninsulas of shoreline jungle vegetation.  Each beach differs and the further south you tuk tuk the more isolated and bohemian the accommodation, bars and dining options become and the greater the feeling of an isolated tropical paradise.

Our accommodation, Golden Bay Cottages on Klong Dao, was a peach, an air-conditioned little bungalow with a decent sized pool right outside the front door and the beach another 25m or so further on, allowing me to roll out of bed, head for an early morning jog along the beach before cooling in the ocean and then washing the salt off with the pool shower before heading to breakfast.

Beach fire twirling
Given the time we had on Koh Lanta Susi decided she was keen to obtain her open water dive licence as I had done several months earlier in Honduras.  I hadn’t used my licence since obtaining it, but given Susi would be out each day doing her course, thought it was a good opportunity to complete my advanced diving licence.  Making our way round to a diving school to enquire about the availability of courses we promptly found ourselves back reclining in our accommodation pouring over our course material in preparation for the next day of diving.

While the focus of the open water course is on how to handle emergency situations, the advanced is significantly more interesting, consisting a series of modules, such as refining your buoyancy, searching for objects, diving deeper to 30m and having more of a clue as to what that rainbow coloured fish actually is.

We chose a boutique’esque diving school, the aptly named Dive and Relax, which uses a speedboat to access the offshore dive sites at the base of rocky outcrops in the midst of the ocean. As the only one doing the advanced course at the time I had the luxury of my own instructor and with the speedboat we wasted no time each morning bombing across the top of the sea to the variety of dive sites. The dive sites were stunning; with a greater variety and clarity than those I’d seen in Honduras and with a water temperature of 31 degrees, even at depth, it was boardshort diving conditions.  The highlight of the diving being the 20 or so Black Tipped Reef Sharks my instructor and I spotted off Phi Phi Ley island.

Phi Phi Ley
Back from diving, Long Beach
After three highly enjoyable and exhausting days we were accredited with our respective qualifications and could resume our daily focus of relaxing in our resort and watching the Swedes (the most chilled group of people I’ve come across after Canadians) wander back and forth.

For the final few days we shifted south to the Papillon Bungalows, a series of bungalows run by a Swedish couple encased within a jungle setting.  After a day of adjustment we came to love the jungle setting, and even more the quality of food available, including the traditional Thai dish of Swedish meatballs.

Klong Khong Beach
We filled our time with a day of fun diving, this time together, both undertaking our first cave dive, emerging in a pocket of air underneath an oceanic island and heading down to the next beach along, the beautiful, Klong Kong, sitting under an umbrella admiring the severity of burns on our fellow tourists amongst dips in the water.

Reluctantly we packed our bags at the end of our memorable time on Koh Lanta for our final two days in Singapore and Christmas shopping before heading to Perth and Australia, the end point of eight months of global travels.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Having a Bolaven?

When I’m not spending my days traveling I’ll often be found at work, and when I’m at work it’s more likely than not I’ll be mainlining coffee from one of the multitude of cafes within the Melbourne CBD.

Since I’ve been traveling my relationship with coffee has changed. Partly this is because if I feel tired, I rest, I close my eyes, lie down or nap, and partly this stems from the quality of the coffee, as I’ve discovered a large proportion of the world is drinking the devil’s brew in the form of Nescafe 3 (powdered coffee, sugar and milk) in 1. As such I no longer crave coffee, but when I do encounter a good cuppa it’s an unexpected pleasure. Like bumping into a close friend I quickly appreciate the qualities that formed our initial relationship.

So it was that prior to venturing down the Mekong I was reunited with my close compadre as we stopped in for lunch and a coffee in the Bolaven Café in Pakse. While enjoying a delicious coffee we had time to read the history of the café through a reproduction of an article concerning its owner, Sam Say.

From the article we learned that the café was but one small part of the Bolaven Farms operation.  Sam was formerly a Laos refuge from the secret war waged by the Americans during the Vietnam War, who, via Canada, the US and Hong Kong became a successful steel trader.  Having retired as a trader, but still based in Hong Kong, he seeks ways in which he can use his wealth to assist Laos’s impoverished communities, as this excellent ‘Earth Report’ documentary highlights.  He established Bolaven Farms in 2007 as a vehicle to realize this aim.

General Manager, Dave Hanna
After reading the article we noticed a little note stating that if you are interested in volunteering on the farm to contact the General Manager, Dave Hanna.  Given the volume of coffee I consume in a year I thought I owed it to myself to increase my knowledge of the coffee production process and the issues surrounding it. I also felt from what I’d read that the farm operations would form an excellent piece. Following an exchange of emails and a chat with Dave it was arranged for Susi and I to spend a couple of days assisting on the farm on our return from the lower Mekong.

It’s fair to say we were both apprehensive about volunteering, as I for one have zero to no experience in a farm environment, and despite my own personal view of myself as a cross between the Solo Man and Chuck Norris, I unfortunately find that reality often indicates otherwise.

Gathering early one morning at the Bolaven Café in Pakse we were whisked away in the company 4WD, an unprecedented luxury given our usual modes of transport.  Out past Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau the road became a bumpy mélange of dust, detours and potholes.  Turning off we entered the farm and met the Operations Manager, Roy and his wife, Anita, who looks after Community Development. 

After introductions we were shown to our living quarters, a rammed earthen building, inside of which was set up a three man tent with mattresses and blankets.  It was a cute arrangement that we were grateful for come nightfall as our tent fortress was ringed by an array of insects great and small.

We then expected to set to work, out in the fields tilling the soil, or some such coffee farming related task. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), this wasn’t to be and Anita indicated we were free to roam as we pleased. Following a brief wander we decided to stroll up the road to a village we had driven by on the way in.

Walking up the road we passed homes of all descriptions interspersed between the coffee plantations and bamboo mats laden with drying coffee beans.  Each Lao person we encountered shouting hello to us and waving enthusiastically as we walked by. Returning to the farm Roy and Anita took time out to provide us with a tour of operations as we stood on the back of the farm’s small truck.

Through the tour we learnt that it takes three years after planting for a coffee tree to start producing beans.  As the farm was only established in 2007 it’s only been generating a revenue stream since 2010. More importantly the farm is certified organic and, as much as possible, independent of external suppliers. The organic certification enables the farm to generate a much greater return on the harvested coffee and the independence ensures the farm is not beholden to price fluctuations of suppliers, with much of the focus in maintaining its independence on ensuring on site production of the coffee plant fertilizer.

As we gazed at 77 snorting pigs that form the backbone of the fertilizer production process Roy told us an amusing anecdote of their previous attempts to generate fertilizer. Pointing to a disused shed he indicated this is where the goats were once housed, however they had to be sold as they would escape their barn and eat the newly planted coffee trees they were meant to fertilise.  They then turned to cows as manure generators, but soon had problems with cows trampling the coffee trees, before employing the current approach based on pigs.

Anita, Tonguon and I
The next morning I’d arranged to interview Anita and the Farm Manager, Tonguon who hails from the Luang Prabang region way to the north of the Bolaven Plateau.  A fundamental part of the farm’s operation is a three year coffee farmer training program offered to unemployed ethnic minority Laos from the north of the country.  As Anita and Tonguon explained, through the training program farmers are not only provided with employment, but taught the necessary skills to save their income to enable them at the end of the three years to establish their own farm based on the organic farming principles instilled through their training. To date approximately 30 farmers have graduated from the farm and established their own organic coffee farms in the surrounding area that Bolaven Farms guarantee to purchase as part of a collective approach.

Following the interview it was time for Susi and I to actually do some work, as by this stage we were keen to get our hands dirty. Tonguon led us to a part of the farm where the sought after red coffee beans had already been removed from the trees, but the residual beans used for instant coffee remained. Demonstrating how to strip the beans and place them in a hessian bag we then set to work. Tonguon must have chosen the most ant infested tree to commence with as it took a degree of dexterity to pluck each bean before a large marauding red ant would charge towards your fingers. 

After 45 minutes of moving from tree to tree Tonguon asked us to stop.  We never understood why and that was the extent of our work for the rest of our time on the farm.  I suspect we were too good and showing the rest of the farmers up, or maybe not.

It’s obvious that there are numerous social and environmental positives associated with the Bolaven Farms approach to coffee, and in particular their teaching of farmers has the potential to create a legacy for generations. Stepping back from the farm operations I find it interesting that this approach has been enabled however through the funds (an estimated $4 million to date) generated by Sam Say in a different guise as a steel trader. It seems in a country like Laos these funds provide a degree of independence from reliance on others that is crucial to enabling such a project to succeed.

The next morning we left the farm and the Bolaven Plateau for Pakse.  Our final evening in Laos before heading to Thailand was spent gazing on the setting sun over the Mekong on the rooftop of the Pakse Hotel, the bright lights, humidity and fading heat enough to entice young Tony out of hiding sporting his finest attire.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Islands in the stream

In 1982 Kenny and Dolly sang a song written by the Bee Gees about islands in a stream, a metaphor for the strength of a relationship between two people. Apparently the lyrics are drawn from an Ernest Hemingway novel, but I have my doubts. 

A more likely scenario is that the Gibb brothers were inspired by a little reported week-long jaunt they took in the early 80’s down the meandering Mekong in southern Laos, visiting the idyllic islands along the way. Sure there is minimal to potentially no reference to Laos or the Mekong in the song, but this is part of their insights as songwriters, realising the need to bring in the relationship angle to channel their Mekong driven inspiration.  Their groundbreaking approach providing the template for such luminaries as Toto and Bernie Higgins to follow.
So it was as we set off from Pakse down the Mekong in a long tail boat towards Champasak that Susi and I were actually following in the tracks of the Gibb brothers from some 30 odd years prior. Champasak used to be the provincial capital of the region, but these days it’s a sleepy community on the banks of the Mekong. So sleepy is the town that at the height of the midday sun you could surely play a decent game of road cricket and probably have to halt play for slow moving buffalo more often than any vehicle traffic. We ‘d journeyed to Champasak as it provides a base for visiting Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple and the Laos version of Angkor Wat, although on a decidedly smaller and less grand scale, in a way symbolic of Laos in general. 

Prior to visiting however we had an afternoon to spare and hiring two bikes and a small wooden twin hulled raft (plus boatman) ventured across to Don Daeng, an island about 4km in length resting quietly mid stream in the Mekong.

Reaching Don Daeng the boatman pulled up alongside the tiniest of wooden jetties and tying up his boat walked to his motorbike and then disappeared along the wooden planks that lead up in an ant line from the jetty, up the beach and into the jungle. Left to our own devices we duly followed, popping out into the first of many villages dotted around the island.  We spent the next few hours pedaling around the leafy island that was, with the exception of two people we met on arrival, completely devoid of other tourists. The island felt like it hadn’t changed in decades, with the soundtrack to our ride a mix of farmyard animal noises, the rhythmic drumming of monks in the afternoon sun and ‘Sabaidee!’ from children and adults alike as we rode along. Returning to our landing just before sunset our boatman magically appeared on the beach with his motorbike, parking it on the sand and then puttering us back to Champasak.
Having learnt from our trip to the Bolaven Plateau, the following morning we hired a motorbike each and steadily made our way to Wat Phu. While Wat Phu is interesting I actually enjoyed even more the freedom of having our own transport for a day and the ability to ride around, visiting sites, venturing along dirt tracks and stopping at our leisure.

Leaving Champasak behind we bussed it for a few hours south before changing to a small boat for the short journey across to Don Khon, an island in the Mekong that’s part of the area known as the Four Thousand Islands.

Don Khon and the adjoining island of Don Det are the main hubs for travelers to enjoy the Four Thousand Islands, with both islands containing numerous riverside bungalows overhung by palm trees. Our intention was to stay on Don Khon, the more upmarket of the two and then move over to Don Det after a few days. Clambering up the muddy slope where our boat dropped us off we by chance happened on a huge and vacant guesthouse with all the essentials, hot water, mosquito net and wifi, at a very reasonable rate. Each day we’d discuss moving, but were on such a good wicket that we couldn’t see the point.

Don Khon
Compounding this it was also apparent after a day or so that all the ‘sites’ were located on Don Khon.  It’s not a problem travelling between the two islands via the historical French built bridge, however the Laos government has placed a daily levy on tourists visiting Don Khon and somewhat like the troll in Three Billy Goats Gruff a bored Laos chap sits patiently in a little hut nabbing tourists who cycle or wander past to pay the levy.

We also found out he’ll try and levy it on those staying on Don Khon who try to walk past him. In a concerted effort to avoid paying this and with time on our hands, each day we devised a route that wound overland between ant ridden bushes and through dried out rice paddies that allowed us to circumnavigate our toll man.

Life on the islands is slow and it’s the reason they attract so many travelers.  Our days were generally spent rising late and then slowing riding our bikes to another waterfall or beach on the banks of the Mekong before heading home for a late afternoon beer with the setting sun.

While many a traveler continue the short distance across the border into Cambodia, we, like the Bee Gees before us, had been inspired by our time on the islands and headed back to our southern Laos base of Pakse.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Back in the LPDR

Three years ago we travelled to Laos for the first time, bobbing around the north for two weeks, by the end of which we’d fallen in love with the country. When thinking about a destination in SE Asia for a few weeks it immediately sprung to mind as a potential destination, but I’m always wary about the curse of the second visit never living up to the initial impression and spoiling both memories. 

As our bus slowly rolled over the border from Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand on route to Pakse in southern Laos, that trepidation rapidly dissipated as time visibly slowed to Laos time. Maybe it’s the baking heat, maybe the air has a greater density, but the whole of Laos, with the exception of the odd crazed minivan driver, operates as if time is very much a secondary concern, an attractive prospect.

Pakse is a moderately sized town on the banks of the Mekong that, while not having many sites, has its own certain charm and as all roads lead to Pakse, acted as an unofficial base for our forays to the surrounding countryside.  After a few days in Pakse I’d already developed a two shower a day strategy as by days end my skin had accumulated, to varying degrees of thickness, layers of suncream, sweat, general dirt and grit and finally insect repellent, an attractive combination.  Relief was at hand however as we were headed to the cooler mountainous climes of the Bolaven Plateau, famed for its coffee plantations and waterfalls.

Heading to Pakse’s southern bus station we found a public bus leaving in a few hours that would drop us off near the small town of Tad Lo. Having caught public buses before in Laos I know to expect that the bus can and will generally be filled with as much livestock and people as possible and that this overriding desire to fill the bus far outweighs any consideration of time.  Within this context we had a relatively easy time of it as we only had to clamber over large sacks of rice loaded into the aisle and into our seats.  Then the bus slowly wound its way up onto the lower levels of the Bolaven Plateau and a few hours later we were dropped about 2km from Tad Lo.

Tad Lo
Walking through the midday sun we reached the edge of Tad Lo feeling like two scrunched up balls of sweat, but I couldn’t help but smile at the simplicity of village life as we passed a veritable menagerie of farm yard animals, from enormous lumbering water buffalo and snorting pigs, to befuddled ducks and chickens, goats and dogs. The gringo part of town consists of one very sleepy street on the banks of a lake at the base of the impressive Tad Lo waterfall.  The picture created by the still waters of the lake, flanked by green grass and farmyard animals, was strangely reminiscent of an English village in spring.  For lodgings we’d splashed out and secured a cabin in a prime location overlooking the waterfall.

Tad Lo Waterfall
At this stage we’d booked no departure date from Laos so were free to spend as many nights in Tad Lo as felt right.  We ended up spending three nights and indulged in amongst other activities, a highly enjoyable ride around the nearby villages and through the river feeding the waterfall aboard a friendly, but hungry elephant with a penchant for bamboo.

During our time in Tad Lo we also had a long conversation and coffee with an Austrian, Manfred, whose current residence was a tent under a wooden shelter at the entrance to the town. I’d say Manfred was in his mid 40’s but had a physique that made Iggy Pop look portly and like Iggy I wasn’t convinced our Austrian Freund was the full quid.

He had however a comprehensive knowledge of Laos, built up through 11 years of visits and living here permanently for the past 4, working as an adviser on the quality of the coffee beans from the surrounding farms. He who advised I never entirely worked out, but I’m sure someone was interested.

Through our conversation Manfred highlighted the rapid changes taking place in Laos at the moment as the Government is currently involved in a fire sale of the country’s wilderness resources and minerals and has embarked on a wide spread campaign of constructing dams along the length of the Mekong, something which has attracted the attention of WWF.  Being surrounded by the economies of China, Vietnam and Thailand, the Laos Government can see the opportunity through the hydro schemes of being the low carbon power cell of this part of the world. There’s a certain logic to this, but there are also significant concerns about the potential impact on the livelihoods of those villagers who depend on the Mekong and species, such as the rare and endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin.  It’s also highly questionable where the average Lao will see the benefits flow to them from the revenue generated by these schemes. The debate to a degree eerily mirrors that encountered during the first week of my travels on the other side of the world in San Francisco.

While in Tad Lo we found it odd that despite being the only foreigners on the bus there were quite a few in the town itself. It became apparent that most people had hired motorbikes from Pakse and driven themselves up to the town, the benefit of which was highlighted on our journey to Paksong, the central town on the Bolaven and a good base for visiting the Tad Fan waterfall.

Our ride to Ban Tateng
To travel to Paksong required us to make our way to Ban Beng, catch a bus to Ban Tateng and then catch another bus to Paksong. Managing to negotiate a ride on the back of a pick up to Ban Beng, we arrived in time to meet the scheduled 8am bus service. 

Sitting under a shady tree we noticed another backpack resting on its side with no site of its owner.  A little while later, Min from Beijing ambled into view.  For the next three hours or so we sat there chatting and taking walks up to the junction keeping a lookout for the missing bus. Into the fourth hour Min took matters into her own hand and spying a liquid chemical truck slowly rounding the corner leapt in front causing the driver to break.  After wildly waving her hands she convinced the driver to give her a lift.  Opening the door she then waved us in and up we clambered into the trucker’s cabin where his startled little boy had started to wail having been rudely awoken by our presence.

I’m no truck driver, but I’m not sure our man was either. I’m also sure the Mandarin on the side of his truck read something along the lines of ‘can’t find it grind it’ as we were either crawling on the brink of stalling, or bunny hopping with the engine at the top of its rev range, either way averaging about 10km/hr.  Still we were very grateful for both Min’s forwardness and the generosity of our driver. We bade farewell to Min at Ban Tateng and stood again by the side of the road, but this time for not very long before a sawngthaew (a flat bed truck with a roof on the back and bench seats) picked us up on its way to Paksong.

Tad Fan
View from the sawngthaew
That afternoon we made our way to the magnificent Tad Fan waterfall before checking into a $6 a night guesthouse in Paksong.  While it was very affordable it was possibly the most disgusting rooms I’ve stayed in and I was very grateful for my sleeping sheet as I wasn’t too keen to touch anything in the room, least of all the mosquito splattered walls. 

Our journey to the Bolaven Plateau over and feeling like we were truly back in the backpacker mode we jumped on another bus the next morning to catch the ride back to Pakse and plan our journey south along the Mekong to the Cambodian border.

Friday, 7 December 2012


As I understand modern football coaching philosophy players are taught that in any one game of football there are effectively three possible phases; you control the ball, they control the ball or, no one really controls the ball and the game is in a state of transition with players madly running around trying to regain control. So it was as we departed Turkey we were entering a period of transition as we scrambled our way through five locations in just over a week; from Turkey to Dubai, onto Singapore then Thailand and eventually southern Laos.

Our time in Turkey will always be fondly remembered for the host of amazing experiences we had and friendliness of the people we encountered.  Checking in at Istanbul gave one last opportunity for the counter staff to marvel at my surname before giggling when I checked in the now globe trotting market trolley. Ingeniously I’d purchased a small roll of office sticky tape while rolling to the airport in the hope of securing the trolley for its maiden flight.

After a brief stopover in Dubai we landed in Singapore and with the exception of a previous 15 hour or so layover several years ago, it was a place I’d never been to before except in transit.  Luckily for us a colleague of mine, Rob Hobson, is now living in Singapore and we were able to avail ourselves of his lovely old colonial townhouse in central Singapore for our time there.

As Rob explained and I was vaguely aware, Singapore if often referred to as ‘Asia 101’, meaning it’s in Asia but it’s clean and efficient and doesn’t provide the gritty no holds bar experience that its surrounding neighbours can offer.  As such it’s often perceived as being a tad dull.  I’m sure the Singapore Government has realised this as over the past few years the city has gradually transformed itself with world class developments such as the impressive Marina Bay Sands. It also feels very much like a city in transition having benefited, like Australia, from proximity and relations with China.

As a backpacker on a reasonably tight budget such developments don’t hold a huge amount of interest, and with beer starting at $12 a pint I have the impression that future development is not seeking to court such a crowd.  These developments have however seen the proliferation of rooftop bars across the city and on a typical balmy Friday evening Rob kindly took us on a tour of them, enabling us to nurse a very expensive beverage at each location.

While the majority of our time in Singapore was spent enjoying the simple joys access to a home provides, like the ability to wash our own clothes and a bowl of cereal, we did manage a visit to the latest Singapore development, and World Architect Festival, World Building of the Year, Gardens by the Bay.

The concept behind Gardens by the Bay is the inverse of a greenhouse.  Given Singapore already has a climate roughly equivalent to that found within a greenhouse, Gardens by the Bay seeks, through two artificial domed structures to create cool and humid (Cloud Forest) and cool and dry climates (Flower Dome).

Ski Dubai
On the surface the first question that struck me is why? I can understand that it’s obviously been developed as a tourist attraction, but to artificially cool the climate in such a large volume of air and significantly reduce the humidity at the same time undoubtedly requires a significant amount of energy.  Following this line of thinking, prior to visiting I’d pitched the development in the same ballpark as the artificial skifield within a Dubai shopping mall.

My opinion changed however after our visit to Gardens by the Bay with Rob and Susi on a typically humid Saturday afternoon, interspersed with the occasional tropical downpour.

Approaching the sprawling complex through a rambling tropical garden I could see numerous flanged cylinders protruding into the sky. I was to learn in the later part of our visit that as well as a providing an interesting sculptural park and future vertical garden, these structures, referred to as ‘Supertrees’, are at the heart of a site wide and leading edge approach to energy, water and waste management.  The structures not only act as funnels to collect water at the site, but are lined with solar panels for the generation of electricity, and finally enable the venting of fumes from the biomass co-generator buried beneath the site.

Cloud Forest
Dashing to the complex through the tail end of another downpour we entered the first of the domes, Cloud Forest.  To be honest I was a little underwhelmed by the actual experience itself which consists of an artificial hill with various levels that can be accessed and provide information on the type of vegetation typically found at each level. It’s interesting, but I think once the vegetation has grown a bit more might be more impressive. There is a sombre part of me that wonders if we’ve lost so many areas of natural biodiversity that we’re now having to create our own biospheres as examples for future generations, much the same as zoos have done with endangered species.

For some reason I preferred the Flower Dome, sure not very manly of me, but maybe because its cool and dry climate included a collection of plants I instantly recognised in the Australian-a section, including the ubiquitous Grass Tree.  

I think however what I really enjoyed, and what turned my thoughts on the development were the educational displays on the lower levels. As well as a funky 3D model illustrating, through different combinations of lights, the integrated approach to energy, water and waste management across the site, the area also included an excellent video on the projected changes to the Earth under different global warming scenarios, up to a +5oC change.  Looking around it was evident that the video captured the attention of the gathered throng, and given it’s on constant repeat is surely an effective communication strategy.

I walked out of Gardens by the Bay having reversed my former judgement and was impressed by not only the holistic approach to providing optimal energy, water and waste solutions, but also the significant educational component.

Leaving Singapore behind we hurriedly made our way to the airport seeking to regain control and looking forward to Laos.