Rayong's wonderful wetlands

The huge freshwater ecosystem in Klaeng district is a pristine example of successful environmental conservation

A drone’s-eye view of the floating mats and the rest of the freshwater wetland at Rayong Botanical Garden. Take a good look and you’ll also spot the sea on the far side. Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Glowing in the champagne-coloured rays of the late afternoon Sun and gently swaying in the breeze from the nearby sea, the fluffy inflorescences crowning the tall green grass that fill these vast yet secret "fields" of Rayong province added magic to the already mesmerising scenery. Even more amazing is the fact that this grassland, which covers a combined area of almost 487,000m², literally floats on water.

Created by Mother Nature from accumulated vegetative matter, these floating islands are home to not just the dominant blady grass (Imperata cylindrica, or ya kha in Thai) but also a host of other plant life, including four species of ground orchids which normally grow in different types of habitat. These raft-like grass tracts are part of a freshwater wetland ecosystem under the care of Rayong Botanical Garden in Klaeng district.

Wearing rubber boots, my friends and I carefully climbed out of the small boat that had taken us on a 20-minute ride from the botanical garden's office to one of the floating grassy islands. We were told by the garden's staff member who accompanied us to tread lightly through the waist-high grass and keep some distance between each other. The mat under foot, soggy in many parts, was strong enough to support the weight of each individual but it can break apart if too many people stay together at the same spot.

In single file, we followed his lead. After a while, he signalled for everybody to stop.

"Look around thoroughly. They're among the grass," he said with a smile. And soon words of excitement suddenly filled the air.

"I found one!" shouted a friend in front.

"One here, too!" exclaimed the one next to him. 

"Wow! How come I didn't notice this one when I walked in?" another said.

"My foot is sinking!" That was my thought, as I plodded on towards the target.

The cause of our overwhelming delight were the ground orchids. With slim stems that blend in with the surrounding grass, each of these orchids bears a cluster of lovely tiny flowers. We found two of the four orchid species in the area we explored, and one more at the edge of the floating mat as our boat left for the main island.

As we got closer to the heart of the conservation area the surroundings changed drastically. From the open water and fields of grass where one could see everything on the horizon, we now entered a swampy realm where age-old paper bark trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia, or samet khao in Thai) emerge from still water that seemed dark and mysterious because much of the weakening sunlight could not penetrate the foliage.

Although considered an invasive species in some parts of the world, these naturally hardy trees are not doing well in Thailand where many wetland areas, its preferred habitat, have been extensively encroached on. The paper bark tree grove at Rayong Botanical Garden reminded me of the one at Thale Noi in the southern province of Phatthalung. Both are in near pristine condition and well protected. However, here in Rayong you get the chance to see what it's like deep in the swamp instead of just watching from the outside.

The Sun was already near the western horizon by the time we got through the swamp and reached the main island where firm ground revealed a patch of dry evergreen forest made up of a richer mix of vegetation. Too bad we did not have time to check out the nature study trail there. After watching the sunset from a long wooden bridge that connects the main island to a smaller one next to it, it was already too dark in the woods so we had to get back on the boat to return to the pier where we had begun our boat trip a couple of hours before.

By its name alone, Rayong Botanical Garden may not sound like an interesting place. But now you know better.

More info

- Rayong Botanical Garden is one of the branches of the Botanical Garden Organisation. (The others are in Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Phitsanulok, Sukhothai and Phangnga.) It is located on Map Lao Cha-on road near the east end of Sai Kaew Beach, Klaeng district.

- Camping at the site is possible but there are lots of hotels and resorts in nearby beach areas.

- The botanical garden offers boat tours into the wetland. Each boat can accommodate up to 10 people and costs 400 baht per hour.

- For boat reservations and inquiries, call 038-638-981. For those who need GPS coordinates, here you go: 12°38’34.00”N 101°33’18.64”E.

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