This is Thailand.
Youíve probably noticed that life here is pretty
damn good overall. There can be one of several
reasons youíre reading this, come to think of
it: 1) You live in Phuket; 2) Youíre on holiday
in Phuket; 3) Youíve visited Phuket and rather
like the place; or 4) You want to live in
Phuket. Have I missed anyone out?
The point is that itís not a bad place to be.
But there is a problem. Branston Pickle. You
canít get it here, as far as Iím aware. Any
non-Brits will have absolutely no idea what Iím
talking about, but trust me when I say that this
is the stuff that cheese was invented for. Itís
the food of the gods that makes a cheese and
pickle sandwich a cheese and pickle sandwich.
Iím sure Iím not the only person on the island
who hands a shopping list to anyone going back
to the UK for a visit; Branston Pickle is always
on it. As are several bags of Liquorice Allsorts
and a couple of jars of pickled onions. Anyone
visiting the other side of the Atlantic is given
a request for Reeseís Peanut Butter Cups. You
just canít get any of those things here, which
really is a bit of a problem.
The few less-mainstream Western consumer goods
that you can buy over the counter here are
ludicrously priced. Kettle chips at 50 baht a
pack. Theyíre good, but 50 baht? A few
micrograms of imported cheese for several
hundred baht? An Italian office chair I saw
recently in Index for 40,000 baht? What are they
At least I know that itís not the shop owners
themselves who are lifting my leg Ė thatís
ďripping me offĒ for any confused Americans
reading; Iíll draw you a picture later. No, the
fault lies solely and squarely in the hands of
Thai Customs. Duty is whacked on at such a high
rate that all imported stuff costs a fortune.
Have you tried to buy a jar of real English
marmalade in Thailand? Or Vegemite (only
Australians truly appreciate that bizarre
stuff), or a decent bottle of wine? How about a
Land Rover Discovery, or a La-Z-Boy reclining
chair? All of these will cost you two to three
times the price of an equivalent that originates
in Thailand Ė all these products are imported.
Monstrous duties on imported products certainly
makes things fairly clear; when it comes to
parting with your cash youíre in little doubt
about which products werenít made locally.
This country has done at least one sensible
thing; they make their own version here. No
confusion; itís simply a product originally from
overseas thatís now made in Thailand. And itís
dirt cheap, as it should be.
Plants are no different in some ways; many of
the plants here arenít native to Thailand. The
clever thing is that it doesnít take
international conglomerates consorting with
diplomatic missions, or multi-million-dollar
factories and government incentives to get them
going. Once here, they just quietly get on with
the business of growing, looking good and
It would seem that it was the Europeans who
started importing plants. The first
international botanist, by all accounts, was a
bloke called Christopher Columbus. The attempted
avoidance of import duty is nothing new Ė that
was the original reason he went off in search of
plants to bring home, to try and lower the
prices of existing imported spices from India.
What he first ďdiscoveredĒ were pineapples and
chilies, neither of which were unknown to the
locals of South and Central America, who already
had been enjoying them for thousands of years.
They were certainly new to Europe, whose later
explorers introduced them to Southeast Asia soon
afterwards, where they flourished for years to
The ti plant, or cordyline (maak phuu maak mia
in Thai), with its green leaves, originally came
from Polynesia, where the locals made skirts
from the leaves. At some stage, somebody
obviously thought it would be a good idea to
start introducing the ti plant to other tropical
parts of the world. Today, the original long
green leaves have become a multitude of shapes
and colors, to the extent that itís now barely
recognizable as a single species.
In 1768, a French sailor called Admiral Louis de
Bougainville began his long journey to the
Pacific Ocean and discovered the vine that now
bears his name Ė bougainvillea. Thais know it as
fueng faa. He brought it home and it quickly
spread to just about every warm corner of the
Through the following years, this distinctive
Brazilian beauty has assumed its place as one of
the most popular tropical plants in the region.
Itís everywhere. Nobody seems to know how it
spread so far so quickly, but itís not a bad
looker, which is probably a big part of the
The same mystery surrounds the king of the
scented trees, the frangipani, or Plumeria
(lanthom or leelawadee). Perhaps a Portuguese or
Spanish ship brought over the first cutting from
Central America, but over the centuries it has
become a common sight in Buddhist and Hindu
gardens and temples all over Asia. It was named
after French botanist called Charles Plumier.
The two best-known members of the euphorbia
family are immigrants to Thailand. The
poinsettia, or kissemass in Thai, which we
looked at recently, is originally from Mexico Ė
even less of a reason for it ultimately to
become the Christmas plant. Its far uglier
cousin, the euphorbia millii, or crown of thorns
plant, started out life in Madagascar. Same
family, different homes.
Even the water
lily didnít originate here. It was originally
found in South America. Again, nobody knows how
it made its way over here.
Gardens in Thailand really donít care where
their inhabitants originally came from. Weíre
just as likely to find heliconia from South
America, plumbago from South Africa or peacock
flowers from Madagascar as we are to find
something that is native to this region, such as
To be honest, nobody really cares. Does it
really matter where a plant originated? Weíre
probably best keeping fairly quiet about this.
Who knows, if we ask too many questions, we are
likely to find that we owe import duty on our
gardens. Letís keep all this between you and me,