Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Self-taught orchid expert tapped for research job in the capital



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

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Two luxury hotels latest quarantine options for inbound travellers

    The Inter-Ministerial Committee to Combat Covid-19 has designated two luxury hotels as alternative quarantine options for travellers who wish to enter Cambodia through Phnom Penh International Airport – Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel & Residence and the Courtyard by Marriott Phnom Penh. In a notice detailing guidelines issued

  • Visa A holders get to quarantine at Himawari Hotel

    The Ministry of Health has permitted foreign diplomats, UN and International NGO officials to undergo quarantine at Himawari Hotel in the capital in case they do not have a separate place suitable for this purpose, but the government would not be responsible for the expenses.

  • Baby saved as mother is lost to Covid

    Newborn baby Neth David has had a rough start in the world. His mother, Vong Daneth, was seven months pregnant when she contracted a severe case of Covid-19. When it became clear to her doctors that she would not survive, they performed a cesarean section

  • Jabs for kids bring hope for school reopenings

    Cambodia is tentatively planning to reopen schools – at least at the secondary level – when the vaccination of children aged 12-17 is completed, even though daily transmissions and deaths in other age groups remain high. Schools across the country have been suspended since March 20, one month

  • Hun Sen: Get 12-17 age group ready for Covid jabs

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has told parents of children aged 12-17 in Phnom Penh and the provinces of Kandal and Preah Sihanouk to get them ready for vaccinations soon. “There is a need to vaccinate children and youths aged 12 to 17. According to the statistics provided

  • Covid rattles Phnom Penh’s retail landscape through H1

    The Covid-19 pandemic has rocked the retail landscape in Phnom Penh, with anxiety around infection risk keeping the masses away from shopping malls and driving retail consumption down by nearly five per cent in the first half of this year, compared to July-December 2020, according to