Why you should care

Because you’ll never look at orchids the same way again.

“What do you see?” asks Katai Kamminga, her Cheshire cat smile growing as she nudges the orchid in my direction, her index finger gesturing ever so slightly to the flower’s stigma.

“Uh, a clitoris?” I question back to her after a not-so-brief hesitation. She nods, utters an elongated “Yesss,” apparently approving of my qualities of perception.

I’m in northern Thailand and only just starting a tour of this curious collection of flora. Yet already I’m saying things I never thought I’d utter to a person who, not five minutes earlier, was a complete stranger. But this is no ordinary garden and Kamminga is no ordinary garden designer.

This is the Erotic Garden and Teahouse, located just a dozen or so kilometers from Chiang Mai, the old capital of Thailand’s north. Billed as the first of its kind in Southeast Asia and stretching to nearly half the size of a football field, the attraction is proving a hit, despite its explicit defiance of the conservative social norms in the rural Thai countryside.

“This one I call ‘My Dream,’ ” she says, pointing to a life-size sculpture of a woman embracing a 5-foot-tall penis.

For Kamminga, sensuality, art and nature are intertwined, and aspects of the combination can be appreciated in almost everything — if you are willing to look for it. That approach is evident in her garden, where handcrafted sculptures of legs, busts and penises are commissioned from up-and-coming artists at nearby universities. A smorgasbord of vivid flowers accentuate the more explicit sculptures with a subtle undercurrent of sexuality. In one area, the gently landscaped garden has been made to resemble a resting woman’s bum, reminding me of Lost in Translation’s glorious opening scene. And while Kamminga describes some of the more explicit artworks in the jocular tones of a mischievous teenager — “This one I call ‘My Dream,’ ” she says, pointing to a life-size plaster sculpture of a woman embracing a 5-foot-tall penis — she is also keen to point out the differences between the erotic and the pornographic.

It’s a subtle distinction that has caused Kamminga some trouble in the past. A month after the garden’s grand opening in 2014, police raided her garden “because they thought this was a brothel,” she says. An innuendo-heavy photo gallery may also have caused some confusion. Turns out there isn’t a word for “erotic” in Thai, which doesn’t help.

Kamminga’s genial and lighthearted character — and an increasing flow of curious tourists — soon eased suspicions. At the end of 2016, the local Chiang Mai provincial government even awarded her with a medal for being a model citizen and promoting Chiang Mai’s image abroad. Today, just 300 baht ($8.50) will grant you access to the grounds, an ice-cold complimentary drink and, if you’re lucky, a tour with Kamminga, who seemingly never tires of showing guests around.

After all, the erotic garden was never just a passion project meant to shock, but a genuine expression of something she feels is overlooked in her home country and in the region more broadly: eroticism. She’s hopeful that her small patch can help change that.

“And here? What do you see?” Kamminga has moved on to a new flower, one with an unmistakably phallic stamen. I bite my tongue and decide to simply agree.

“You’re right,” I say, “I guess everything is a little erotic. Now, shall we have some tea?”

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