Saturday, July 4, 2015

Singapore and Siem Reap's Temple-eating Trees

SINGAPORE The Singapore Herbarium  (SING)
Aerial Roots 

Our Singapore trip was a one-day whirlwind tour -- but even though it was brief it was a very rewarding & interesting visit. Our first stop was the Singapore Herbarium (SING), located within the Singapore Botanical Garden. The garden is diverse, beautiful & innovative & a welcome patch of green for the over three million or so people living in the dense city-nation called Singapore. While strolling through the garden (to the herbarium) we were delighted to discover this unusual pergola  --  a covered walkway of  of Princess Vine (Cissus verticillatus),-- a cascading, living fringe of chartreuse & light pink-tinted aerial roots. Also called Curtain Vine, it actually (surprise!) is a native of the tropical Western Hemisphere, including Florida!

With Serena Lee in front of
a large section of types

The Singapore Herbarium ( SING) is a beautiful and fantastic institution with ca. 750,000 herbarium specimens, including 8,000 (!) type specimens.  Serena Lee, the energetic Senior Manager at SING, was kind enough to give us a tour.

Inside wonderful SING

The collection focuses on southeast Asia, with the most extensive collections from Singapore & Peninsular Malaysia dating from the 1880s. 

Mounter Sagunthera Davi displays her excellent work for us. From the specimen preparation room you can see (through the glass partition) the Library & Resource Center, a tremendous asset open to the public visiting the Singapore Botanical Garden.

There's a lot to do and see in Singapore, even if you aren't all about plants! Like almost all of southeast Asia, Singapore is a mix of different cultures and religions, & we had a great time exploring some of the different dimensions of the nation. 

The Chulia Masjid: note the prayertimes marked on the electronic sign

We met a long-time friend there & got a great guided look at some of the oldest mosques & sacred shrines in the town. The Chulia Masjid, from 1826 or so, was built right in old Chinatown & is especially attractive!

In between prayers at the Chulia Masjid
The Hajji Muhammad Salleh Masjid, a peaceful spot in a sea of traffic!
We also visited the Hajji Muhammad Salleh Masjid in Singapore, in a neighborhood that is now dominated by the East Coast Parkway in town. The Masjid (& grave of the holy man nearby) are almost completely surrounded by the freeway and the modern city. 

The shrine of Habib Noh.

Behind the masjid is the grave of a Muslim holy man named Habib Noh (d. 1866) where people from all walks of life come to pray, ask for help, or just to to meditate. 

Mark and Dave at the tomb of
Habib Noh, Singapore

Dave & Mark Woodward (a long-time friend & colleague from our Arizona State days) got to catch up & talk Religious Studies Islamic mysticism shop-talk!



After a fabulous but all too brief time in Singapore we headed to our next religio-botanical hot-spot-- the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia!

The famous heads guarding the entrance to the Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom
Siem Reap, Cambodia is less than 2 hours by plane from Kuala Lumpur.  You may not recognize the name of the city, but most people have heard of (or have seen in movies) what makes it famous: the Angkor Wat temple complexes. 

Angkor Wat with the tourists removed!

When people say Angkor Wat they usually really mean the dozens & dozens of temples & temple complexes just a few miles from modern Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is a huge area, & home to famous temples like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm. They were built over centuries, side by side, over hundreds of years. These mysterious-looking shrines (parts of which are still used in religious rituals) often take center stage in travel journals like National Geographic or in films like Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. Filled with tourists and the occasional pilgrims, these shrines are exhilarating to see in person!

Tuk-tuk  and driver, Mr. Proseur
 The best way (& for us, the ONLY way) to journey from temple to temple is by tuk-tuk -- a small coach attached to a motorcycle.  Many hotels include a tuk-tuk & driver with the room cost. Our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Proseur, must be one of the best. He grew up in Siem Rep & knew every temple around -- even those that aren't frequented by many tourists but are still beautiful! He took care of us and every suggestion that he made showed insight & worked beautifully! We saw so much more than we would have on our own. A tuk-tuk is a MUCH better deal than a taxi, and, besides, you get to ride in a tuk-tuk!

Elephants mean happiness and good luck. These royal three are also pulling up lotuses!

The jungle re-cycling a shrine at Angkor Wat.

Set in the jungle, some of the temples are becoming the jungle. The image of a lost temple in the jungle crowned by imposing stone heads, wrapped in the embrace of overgrown strangler fig trees comes from this complex. The history of these temples spans from the 9th to the 14th centuries, & each temple is varied in their size and ornamentation. A field trip like this is especially fun for us, because it combines cultural religious history (Dave's specialty) with botany (my calling).

The tree called Spung (Tetrameles nudiflora),famous for its appetite for temples!
The ravenous Spung!
It is awesome & humbling to see the ruins of these extraordinary temples slowly consumed by their surroundings!

It is an eerie & irresistible photo-op for every visitor. Spung is a fast-growing, deciduous tree with tiny fruits that can germinate & thrive in the crevices of stone temple walls.  It has soft wood (& sometimes hollow branches) & is not used for much; one of the uses was to make dugout canoes. Glamorizing temples (& enticing visitors), the mighty Spung seems to have its own agenda for survival!

Spung draped in honeycombs of wild bees, high in the air

Another breath-taking temple-eater is a Strangler Fig (Ficus gibbosa), that seems to weave a net of roots around temple walls. This tree is actually a hemi-epiphyte. Its small seeds germinate on upper branches of canopy trees (closer to the sun) & exist in the detritus caught in the branch crotches (or in the case of a temple, in the cracks of the stone walls).  The fig's tiny roots grow downward, sometimes dangling as aerial roots -- it's only when they reach the ground does a voracious growth spurt occur. The roots dig into the ground for nutrients, sending out a network of roots that encircle the host & fuse together, cutting off nutrients (& life!) to the host -- giving the fig a "leg up" on accessing even more nutrients. Though it may seem like a villain to other trees, a strangler fig produces abundant fruit that feeds a plethora of animals.  

(Above & Below)  Strangler Fig (Ficus gibbosa) & its network of roots  
While we were out exploring the beautiful temples, we heard the wafting of music equally as enchanting & timeless as the temple  surroundings.  Khmer traditional music -- what an uplifting vibration! It has a natural flow like a river & delights the senses with strings & percussion in ways that seem to simultaneously carry both energy & serenity.

We first listened to & were caught up in the music before we realized that each of the talented band members was a victim and survivor of an unthinkable, recent legacy -- a landmine explosion.

Cambodia has seen a lot of tragedy in our lifetime.  In the 1970s the Khmer Rouge under dictator Pol Pot, perpetrated one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century. Under the Khmer Rouge nearly 2,000,000 Cambodians died in the Killing Fields or from disease, starvation or slavery.

Millions of landmines were scattered throughout Cambodia, killing and maiming thousands of Cambodians right up to today. Landmines are a big problem -- all around the temples you'll see warning you not to step off the path into the jungle, where landmines still may exist!

These musicians in these bands are a testimony to the spirit of people who have suffered from these senseless acts, & have joined together to make both something beautiful as well as a livelihood.

The National Tree (....okay, not really a tree but an Arborescent Monocot...)

Borassus flabellifer

Thnoat (Borassus flabellifer) female

The national tree of Cambodia is the "Thnoat,"  or the Cambodian Sugar Palm (Borassus flabellifer). It is sometimes called the "Bodyguard of the Cambodian Rice Field" because it is often planted on the berms of the rice paddies.

Almost every part of Thnoat can be used. The fruit is edible, the leaves are used for thatching and basketry and the sugary sap, collected by tapping the inflorescence, is evaporated to make a rich sugar called jaggery.

Thanks to Mr. Proseur we stopped at a roadside stand and purchased some freshly-made jaggery. It came wrapped in these ingenious palm leaf packages (more Thnoat) stacked full of the praline-like jaggery. 

Is it good? Oh yeah!!!

Close-up of teeth-aching goodness!

Borassus flabellifer  has been cultivated in Cambodia since ancient times. Here you see the fruit being carried by monkeys in Hanuman's army in a 12th century carving at Angkor Wat depicting scenes from the Hindu epic the Ramayana.

Here's the fruit again, this time in the paws of a more modern Great Ape!

That was the end of our trip to Cambodia, but there's still one more blog coming -- our farewell to Sarawak, Kuching, and the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre!


  1. I've enjoyed reading this, Dixie! -- Karen

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