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Sok Vichea is a self-taught botanist and orchid expert. Nicky Sullivan

Self-taught orchid expert tapped for research job in the capital

A passion for flowers has paid off for Banteay Srei’s Sok Vichea, who left this week for Phnom Penh in anticipation of a role alongside experts from the UK’s prestigious Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

A young, self-taught botanist from Siem Reap’s Banteay Srei district left for Phnom Penh this week hoping to join a research project in partnership with one of the most esteemed botanical institutions in the world.

Sok Vichea, originally from the Kampong Khleang floating village, expects to be working with the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which is in talks with Cambodia’s Royal University of Agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Education about a project to expand the level of research into and propogation of Cambodia’s orchids.

“I think we know about 500 of them now, but to my mind there may be 2,000 different species out there, most of them in the Cardamom Mountains and Koh Kong,” he said.

Vichea has himself found 30 of those species, of which five were previously unrecorded, meaning he also got to name them.

The 25-year-old has been exploring the hills of Phnom Khulen and Kbal Spean and their surrounds for the past seven years on a quest to find and document as many of Cambodia’s orchids as he can.

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The Cambodian government has passed a law banning trade in wild orchids. Nicky Sullivan

In the process, he has become one of the country’s most knowledgeable botanists, developing expertise in orchids, as well as other plants such as ferns, fungi and ginger.

He has had to deal with a lack of support from his parents, who couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing something more sensible with his life, and friends who thought him strange to spend his life on something so unimportant, and expensive. But he carried on undaunted, winning over converts on the way.

Zooming along trails at Phnom Khulen flanked by thick, monotoned vegetation on the back of a motorcycle, Vichea is able not only to spot but also identify the dark green orchids on trees 50 metres away.

At seemingly random moments, he would call a halt so he could pick up a rare species that he’s been seeking for a while, or another whose tiny flower his eagle eyes picked out.

“At first, I didn’t know anything. I would go out and walk the forests for nine hours every day, looking for orchids, and then go home and post photos of them on a Facebook page so that other people could identify them for me,” he says. “But I studied and studied using the internet. Now I can identify them without even seeing the flower.”

There are more than 25,000 species of orchids worldwide – more than of any other plant.

Each species is uniquely adapted to be pollinated by one single insect, and once the tiny seeds find their nook – some on trees, some on the ground and some on rocks – they quietly bide their time before blooming years later into glorious, fragrant flowers.

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There are more than 25,000 species of orchids. Nicky Sullivan

“When I look at them, they make all my stress go away,” says Vichea. “And when I saw how many of them there are, that was when I really started to be interested.”

Contrary to appearances, apart from one species, orchids are not parasites that feed off their hosts – they decorate them. And this is one of the sources of their vulnerability.

As Cambodia continues to lose its forests, so too do wild orchids lose their homes.

They’re also vulnerable to an illegal trade.

“People take them from the wild to sell to Vietnam and Thailand. And there is one species that people cut for selling through Laos to China because they use it in medicine. It can cost as much as $1,000 for 1 kilogram,” said Vichea.

A law banning trade in wild orchids was passed two months ago, however, it may take some time before it starts being enforced.

Looking at the commercial side of orchids, Vichea hopes that with further research and investment, Cambodia can start to create its own export business in the flowers.

“Thailand exports millions of dollars worth of cultivated orchids every year. There is no reason why we couldn’t do the same too,” he said. “It would be very good for Cambodia.”

A previous version of this article stated that the project with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was confirmed. However, the project has not yet been officially finalized.
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