East and South East Asia have gardening traditions that date back many thousands of years. China and Japan are the natural source of many popular garden plants grown in temperate zones and have provided garden design inspiration around the world. The best gardens to see and visit in China, Japan and South Korea show their signature use of rock, framed vistas, carefully pruned specimen plants, stroll paths, tea houses, raked gravels and garden pavilions.
Tropical South East Asia is the home of plants such as palms and arums and, of course, orchids, all used in tropical and subtropical gardens for a lush, jungle look, for vivid colourful foliage or for exquisite perfumed flowers. The best gardens to see in South East Asia include many outstanding botanical gardens in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand and also those at large resort hotels which are as well known for their beautiful gardens as for their pristine beaches.
Country Garden Guides within this region:
"East and South East Asia have centuries-old gardening and landscape traditions, particularly using natural materials, that have influenced garden design around the world. Plants from the region are found in all our gardens, from the orchids of Singapore to the peonies of China and Japan's beautiful maples."
Garden Travel Guide to East and South East Asia
East and South East Asia Topography & Population
The distinctive geographical characteristics of China (continental), Japan and maritime South East Asia (insular), Korea (peninsular), and mainland South East Asia (peninsular/continental) affected the historical development of each country and the nature of agriculture but a common feature is the dependence on rice. Rice is the primary cereal crop grown in the whole region and is particularly suited to the warm, wet growing season. (Rice is best grown in flooded fields, or paddies.) Since rice produces a much higher yield per acre than wheat, it can support a much greater population per acre. Climate, agriculture, and population size are closely related in East and South east Asia where large population densities have existed throughout history.
The population of this region is about 2.2billion, or about 30% of the world population. Over half are in China (1,340mil) but there are a number of significant populations such as Indonesia (252mil), Japan (126mil) and the Philippines(101mil).
Climate of East Asia
Most of East Asia has a temperate climate but inland becomes more extreme. For example, Beijing has a daily range in summer of 22C to 32C but a daily range in winter of only -9C to 2C while coastal Tokyo has a similar summer range of about 22C to 30C but a much milder winter range of 1C to 10C. The effect is more severe as you move further west and central Asia experiences some of the largest diurnal temperature ranges on Earth.
The East Asian Monsoon affects large parts of Indochina, Philippines, China, Korea and Japan. The seasonal rain is known as Meiyu in China, Changma in Korea, and Bai-u in Japan. From May through to August, the summer monsoon shifts through a series of dry and rainy phases as the rain belt moves northward. It begins over Indochina and the South China Sea (May), to the Yangtze River Basin and Japan (June) and finally to North China and Korea (July). When the monsoon ends in August, the rain belt moves back to South China.
Tropical cyclones form in any month of the year across the northwest Pacific Ocean, and concentrate around June and November in the northern Indian Ocean. The area just northeast of the Philippines is the most active place on Earth for tropical cyclones which usually happen from June to October.
Culture of East Asia
The dominant influence historically in East Asia has been China, whose area of cultural influence is known as the Sinosphere. Evidence of this can be seen in the cuisine and architecture and major characteristics of this region include shared Chinese-derived language characteristics, as well as similar social and moral philosophies derived from Confucianism.
The script of the Han Chinese has long been a unifying feature in East Asia as the vehicle for Chinese culture. It was passed on first to Korea, Vietnam in the 1st century, then to Japan, where it forms a major component of the Japanese writing system.
Apart from the unifying influence of Confucianism, Buddhism, Chinese characters, Chinese architecture, and other Chinese cultural influences, there is still diversity between the countries of the East Asian region.
Best gardens to visit in East Asia
China and Japan have been recognised as destinations for garden tourists for hundreds of years, however South Korea (see below) also has much to offer the garden lover. Many of the major gardens to visit in East Asian countries are those associated with temples and palaces. For countries with such a high population density, there are also a surprising number of areas of great natural beauty where you can see plants of world-wide ornamental importance growing wild such as cherry blossom, magnolia, gentians and maples.
China has also been developing many botanical gardens and public parks over the past few decades, often featuring large collections of plants such as roses, peonies and conifers. Garden hotspots include Beijing, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang and public gardens like the Nan Lian Garden in the former British colony of Hong Kong. In Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces you can see extensive spring alpine wildflower meadows.
Garden tours to East Asia
Most garden tours to East Asia cover Japan, especially at cherry blossom time or to see the autumn/fall maple colours, or China, to visit the historic gardens of Suzhou or the wildflowers of Yunnan. A few days in South Korea is often added on to a Japan tour.
Garden cruises are becoming more popular, often starting in Tokyo and then Kyoto and then using a fast train connection to the north of Honshu island to board a cruise ship which sails down the northern coast through Kanazawa, Matsue and Okayama. Some will include Pusan in South Korea.
Companies which take garden tours to East Asian destinations include ASA Cultural Tours, Opulent Journeys, Renaissance Tours, Botanica and Ross Tours from Australia.
See more in these country guides:
Gardens to visit in China: see Garden Guide to China
Gardens to visit in Japan: see Garden Guide to Japan
Best gardens to visit in South Korea
South Korea is less well-known as an Asian garden destination but has many significant historical gardens, beautiful botanical gardens and newer landscaped parks to visit, many of them easily accessed in or around Seoul.
Although Korean garden style has some elements in common with Japanese and Chinese traditional gardens, like stroll-garden designs of miniaturised landscapes featuring large reflective lakes and beautiful pavilions, Korean gardens tend to be more naturalistic, with fewer contrived features such as unusual rocks or decorative bridges. Walking through a Korean garden feels much more like you are in a natural woodland, although every plant has been carefully located for special effect.
Many species of highly prized garden plants come from Korea, such as clematis, acer, rhododendron, aristolochia and angelica.
Best gardens to see and visit in Seoul and environs
• Changdeokgung Palace garden – guided tour only. Historic stroll garden dating from the 1400s, with natural-style landscapes, lotus ponds and pavilions, 400 year-old mulberry tree. Spectacular from spring to late autumn.
• Hantaek Botanical Garden near Seoul. Korea’s largest botanical garden covers a massive 66 hectares and features a water garden, rock garden, bulb garden, iris garden, woodland gardens, a ‘Silver Grass’ garden, and an eco-garden filled with indigenous Korean plants, many of them rare and endangered in their native habitats. Many special plant collections including conifers, maples, viburnum and oaks.
• Cheonggyecheon Steam landscape in Seoul, designed by SeoAhn Total Landscape
• Suncheon Bay National Garden (site of the 2013 Garden Expo) is now a major garden attraction with a wetland area, arboretum and world garden zone, including a wonderful Korean rock garden and a landform garden by Christopher Jencks.
Best gardens to see in Gapyeoung Province (60km northeast of Seoul)
• The 30 hectare ‘Garden of Morning Calm’ in Gapyeong is open all year and has spectacular seasonal displays of iris in June, roses in mid-summer, chrysanthemums and colourful foliage in autumn/fall and a lighting festival during winter. Twenty themed gardens display colourful annual flowers, local indigenous plants, large lakes and pavilions.
Best gardens to see in Gyeonggi-do (the province surrounding Seoul)
• Ansan Botanical Garden (30km SW of Seoul) – tropical plants, marshland garden, rose garden and wild plants garden
• Haeyeorim Botanical Gardens (40km SE of Seoul) – naturalistic garden with large wetland area with lotus and iris, medicial garden, and lots of activities for children
• Pyunggang Botanical Garden (near Pocheon 42km NNE of Seoul) – established in 2006, this private botanical garden is in northern Korea has a huge alpine rock garden growing over 1000 species of alpine plants, many of them rare and endangered, as well as cold-climate marshland plants in the Alpine Bog Garden.
• Herb Island – a herbal Disneyland-style garden of 180 different herbs, herb museum, aromatherapy centre
Best gardens to see in Oedo
Oedo-Botanica is a Capri-style garden on Oedo Island reached by ferry from Seoul.
Best gardens to see in Jeju-do (Jeju Island is 85km off South Korea’s southern coast)
• Spirited Garden – one of the world’s biggest bonsai collections.
• Yeomiji Botanical Garden – huge indoor garden of tropical rainforest and dry subtropical plants and a water garden, plus outdoor Italian, French, Japanese and Korean gardens.
Best gardens to see in Daegu (a 1 hour flight south-east of Seoul)
• Daegu Arboretum – built over landfill, this 24 hectare arboretum has woodland walks as well as a fernery, flower gardens and indoor cactus and succulent. Beautiful autumn colours from deciduous trees.
Sakura in South Korea
Cherry blossom viewing in early April is as popular and extensive in South Korea as it is in Japan as is the autumn foliage displays of maples, especially in Naejangsan National Park and Jirisan National Park at the end of October.
Cherry blossoms are the star attraction around Yeouido’s Yunjung-ro Street, Bomunho Lake, Gyeongju and Gyeonghwa Station in Changwon in early April
An active tree, shrub and perennial ‘green-ways‘ planting program in many Korean cities has also created beautiful streetscapes, with streets lined with rapidly maturing ginkgo and Japanese/Korean elm (Zelkova) trees as well as asters and chrysanthemum. Korean gardens tend to have a more naturalistic, woodland style than China and Japan.
Garden festivals and shows in East Asia
Garden festivals and shows in China: see Garden Guide to China
Garden festivals and shows in Japan: see Garden Guide to Japan
Garden festivals and shows in South Korea
• International Horticulture Goyang Korea. Lake Park Goyang-Si from late April to mid May.
• The Garden of Morning Calm in Gapyeong holds a different festival each month celebrating displays of what’s flowering in that season including bulbs in spring, iris in June, peonies in summer, autumn foliage in October and spectacular winter lights.
• Jeju Island Mustard (canola) Festival in April-May.
• Plum Festival (the Gwangyang International Maehwa Festival) in late March. • Chenjusan Azalea Festival in April
• Changwon Chrysanthemum Festival in early November.
• Bamboo Festival in Damyang early May.
• Sancheong Medicinal Herb Festival early May.
South East Asia
Climate of South East Asia
Most of South East Asia is tropical which means it is mainly hot with relatively little variation throughout the year. Singapore for instance has a minimum overnight temperature of about 23C to 25C and a daily maximum range of 31C to 33C, all year round.
The only areas which are subtropical and have a seasonal temperature variation are in the north of Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam. Hanoi has a minimum overnight temperature in January of 13C to 20 C but in July that increase to a daily range of about 26C to 33C. Of course altitude makes more difference with the foothills of the norther mountains and even local mountain slopes near the equator considerably cooler.
In climate terminology most of the peninsular areas are savannah while the islands archipelago is equatorial rainforest. This rainforest area is the second largest on earth after the amazon. In both types of vegetation the rainfall is high but seasonal with a dry season from October through to April and the wet season from May through to early October, when the south-west monsoon starts and brings very heavy rain to most south western coastlines.
Culture of South East Asia
Mainland Southeast Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam) and maritime Southeast Asia (Brunei, East Timor, Indonesia, East Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore) have developed under different influences.
Southeast Asia is more influenced by India rather than China with the exception of Vietnam, which is considered part of the Sinosphere. Southeast Asia has also had a lot of Western influence due to the lasting legacy of colonialism. One example is the Philippines, which has been heavily influenced by Spain and the USA over the course of almost four centuries of colonisation. This region has also been greatly influenced by the cultures and religions of Islam from further west and Indonesia has the world’s largest Islamic population.
Best gardens to visit in South East Asia
South East Asia is known more as a beach and relaxation holiday place than a garden tourism destination but you can find many fabulous tropical gardens to visit (and stay among) in these holiday areas especially in Thailand, Bali and Vietnam.
Best gardens to visit in Thailand
Visit the famous Jim Thompson garden in Bangkok, the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden and the Bhubing Palace Gardens in Chiang Mai and the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden in Pattaya and the resort hotel gardens and flower-filled butterfly gardens on Koh Samui.
Best gardens to visit in Vietnam
Gardens to see in Huế City and central Vietnam
Nguyen Royal Tombs – a short boat ride from Huế City. Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors (1802-1945). Lake, surrounding forest, stone stairs, gates and walls, terraced gardens, mature trees, potted specimens. The Tu Duc Tomb was designed by the king himself and is surrounded by lakes with several beautiful floating pavilions – the boating pavilion and the xung khiem pavilion where the king enjoyed writing poetry. Bonsai trees, potted cycads, frangipani (temple tree) and euphorbia, decorative ceramics of smashed tiles.
Phu Mong Garden House – in the village of Kim Long on the Perfume River, about 4km from Huế. Late 19th century houses built for government officials of he Nguyen dynasty. Many were originally surrounded by gardens and some of these have been restored and are open for visiting. Ponds, intricately carved stone gates and walls, fruit trees and mature trees.
Gardens to see in Ho Chi Minh City and southern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon) Botanical Gardens and its associated zoo (one entry fee covers both) has a large bonsai collection, elegant orchid and rare plant house, lakes and fountains, fun animal topiary, mature trees, floral clock, plant conservation centre and attractively landscaped grounds. The zoo is not set out or maintained as many westerners might prefer so you might choose to just look at the plants.
Dalat (Đà Lạt) – Dalat is the ‘city of 1000 pine trees’ and is famous for its tree marigolds in bloom during the winter. The elevated climate in Dalat is considered one of the most benign in the world, giving it another nickname of the ‘city of eternal spring’ as average daytime temperatures stay lower than 25 degrees all year round. Dalat Flower Park is a 7,000sqm park that’s the site of the annual flower festival each December-January. Filled with hydrangea, bulbs, orchids, lilies, cactus and roses, the flower park has something in bloom all year round. You can also visit the nearby Anh Quynh Orchid Farm and Langbiang Flower Farm.
Trúc Lâm Zen Monastery – located 5km outside Dalat on Phoenix Summit, there are many beautiful temples and pavilions surrounded a lake, long paths lined with tall conifers, and with colourful gardens featuring many plants from temperate and subtropical climates.
Phuong Phu Flower Village – halfway between Dalat and Nha Trang. Nha Trang is usually visited for its sandy beaches but for gardeners there is also the huge cut-flower market gardens and greenhouses.
Best gardens in Hanoi and northern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi- while this is a large and very imposing building built to house Ho Chi Minh in his glass coffin, it does also have some nicely laid-out gardens with lawns, patterned bedding plants and bonsai specimens.
Nguyen Nhan Dao’s Peach and Flower Garden, Nhat Tan Flower Village – 1 hectare devoted to peach trees, many of them very old plus fields of colourful cosmos and other flowers. At its peak just before the Lunar New Year.
Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám), Hanoi – Confucian temple dating from 1070 which has undergone multiple restorations. Five courtyards with filled with topiary (some representing zodiac animals), clipped hedges, ceremonial gates, ponds and mature trees.
Best gardens to visit in Laos
The Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden (Luang Prabang, Lao), which will feature Laotian flora, open in November 2016. Visit by a short boat ride along the Mekong River from Luang Prabang and see tropical plants in a jungle setting, bamboo grove, lotus-filled ponds, medicinal garden, forested hill walk.
Best gardens to see in Cambodia
• Although Cambodia is not known for its gardens, the ruins of Ta Prohm temple, which dates from the Khmer Empire of the 14th-15th centuries is the famous landscape of the ‘Tomb Raider’ movie. The temple has been left in its ‘natural state’ – how it was when it was discovered by westerners in the 19th century, with huge strangler figs (Ficus gibbosa), silk cotton trees (Ceiba petandra) and thitpok (Tetrameles nudiflora) engulfing the stone structures. Eerie, romantic and exotic!
Best gardens to see in Phnom Penh
Gastrobar Botanico Wine and Beer Garden – Street 29, 9b, Phnom Penh 12000. A pleasant American-style pub amid lush gardens and shaded by large trees.
Best gardens to visit in Malaysia
• Perdana Botanical Garden (aka Lake Gardens), Jalan Perdana Kuala Lumpur – 91.6 hectares, originally a colonial ark now being transformed to a botanical garden. Large lake, ornamental parterre, orchid garden, hibiscus garden, herb garden, butterfly garden, boat house and bird park. Segway tours available.
• Central Park, Kuala Lumpur (Taman KLCC) – near the Petronas Twin Towers. Designed by Roberto Burle Marx with large lake in a signature, swirling Burle-Marx shape and extensive tropical planting.
• National Craft Center garden (Kompleks Budaya Kraf), Conlay Street Kuala Lumpur – a well-designed small tropical garden with ponds, pathways and lush planting that threads through the artisanal commune.
• KL Forest Eco Park (aka Bukit Nanas) – tree canopy walkway through 9.37 hectares of lowland dipterocarp forest.
• Asean Sculpture Garden
• Rimbun Dahan – indigenous 14 acre garden just outside Kuala Lumpur
• Penang’s Botanical Garden and Tropical Spice Garden.
Malaysia’s most famous landscape designer Inch Lim, has won Gold medals in many international shows.
Sabah and Sarawak are Malaysian states on the island of Borneo, and home to spectacular and tropical flowers such as colourful orchids (especially Paphiopedilum), the giant Rafflesia and many species of pitcher plants (Nepenthes). Native plant and wildlife tours of this area typically cover Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and also Sabah, visiting Kota Kinabalu, Mount Kinabalu and Sandakan.
Top places to see native Borneo flowers include Kinabalu Park (also called Mt Kinabalu Botanical Garden) at Mt Kinabalu, pitcher plants at Mesilau Nepenthes Garden (2.5 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu), and Rafflesia at the various family-owned Rafflesia Gardens – Hamilin, Adenna, Vivian, Heavennie, Esther and Napalus Rafflesia Gardens near Poring in Sabah. There are also newer botanical gardens at Tawau Hills Park in eastern Borneo with collections of lowland species and dipterocarp forest species.
Sabah Agricultural Park at Tenom (3 hours from Kota Kinabalu) has beautiful landscaped grounds, a crops museum, ornamental garden, plant evolution garden, a bee centre and crops museum.
Best gardens to visit in Brunei
The tiny kingdom of Brunei is situated on the very northern tip of the island of Borneo. The newly opened Agro-Technology Park (Taman Agro Teknologi) in Kampong Tungku, Mukim Gadong. Includes displays of food and medicinal plant growing, landscaped grounds with interesting topiary, architectural pavilions, colourful bedding plants and greenhouses with potted plants suited to growing in the tropics, as well as many orchids.
Best gardens to visit in Indonesia (including Bali)
The Bogor Botanic Gardens (Kebun Raya Bogor) an hour south of Jakarta are worth a visit and, on the island of Bali, visit the Bedugal Botanical Gardens (Kebun Raya EkaKarya). Around Bali there are many high quality resort and residential gardens of “leafy fecundity” designed or managed by Australian ex-pat Made Wijaya, such as the grounds of Bali’s Hyatt Hotel in Sanur, Taman Bebek Bali, Hotel Kumala Pantai in Legian Kaja, the very exclusive Amandari in Ubud, and the Four Seasons Bali at Jimbaran Bay. There is also a small Bali Orchid Garden in Sanur.
Best gardens to visit in Singapore
The jewel in South East Asia’s gardening ‘crown’ is Singapore, which has been reinventing itself as the ‘City in a Garden’ during the past decade. Gardens by the Bay, the Singapore Botanic Gardens (includes the National Orchid Garden) and the biennial Singapore Garden Festival should be on every gardener’s bucket list. Streets throughout the city have interesting tree plantings and many of the larger hotels feature substantial roof and wall gardens. Top-end restaurants often now have their own herb and vegetable gardens and everywhere there are signs of how actively Singaporeans are embracing their gardening culture, even in high-rise apartments.
See more in the Garden Guide to Singapore
Garden festivals and shows in South East Asia
Thailand: Most festivals are during the cooler months from November to February, including the famous Chiang Mai Flower Festival in early February; Sunflower Festival in Lop Buri from Nov-Jan; Flora Park Festival in the Wang Nam Keow district of Natkhon Ratchasima (Khorat) from Nov-March.
Vietnam: Dalat Flower festival held at the Lunar New Year (Tet) usually late December-January.
Malaysia: Royal Floria Putrajaya – late May to early June
Singapore: See the Garden Guide to Singapore which includes the Singapore Garden Festival – biennial, next in July 2016.
In July 2016 my show garden ‘The Butterfly Effect’ will be in the prestigious Singapore Garden Festival. As I’m just developing a new landscape design career while managing a young family, how did this amazing thing happen?
Come with me in the footsteps of the plant collectors to one of the most botanically diverse areas on earth, Yunnan Province in China, home to many of our most treasured garden plants such as roses, magnolias, rhododendrons and poppies.
After 5 years my promise to return to the DaNang orphanage in Vietnam with a plan to give these people gardening skills and then help find them a resort job has finally begun.