If you don’t count the markets or the zoo, I haven’t seen much by way of wildlife during my trip—that is, animals on their own terms. I suppose that’s inevitable when staying in cities—although even there, the geckos are constant, if uninvited, houseguests. But one group I hadn’t expected just knocks itself out in fleeting but breathtaking displays, reminding me that Southeast Asia is, in fact, a tropical hotspot of biodiversity.
I’m talking about butterflies. Some are orange-and-black Monarch look-alikes; others wear pale green with black stripes, dark blue or light blue, white with orange markings, bright yellow. Aside from the occasional Monarch flutter-by in Santa Cruz, I’m not used to spending so much time in their winged company. Whenever a butterfly zips past, it feels like an event, calling to mind trips to an orchid greenhouse or the rainforest exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences. Adding to my excitement, each new butterfly was usually different than any I had already seen.
The abundance of these pretty insects signals their ability to survive in urban areas, but undoubtedly their habitats here are changing. As we drove to visit a village in Laos, I would watch a passing butterfly try to power its way above us, only to get swept up and sent sailing in the drafts of air the cars created with speed. A four-lane highway becomes a non-stop death corridor—not to mention the clearing of vegetation on either side. Watching a derailed butterfly go tumbling away, I could only hope it would recover, that it hadn’t collided with our windshield.
As much as I marveled at these wanderers, I had pretty much given up hope trying to photograph them. I grew up playing the computer game Amazon Trial, the more modern, ecologically conscious cousin of the famous Oregon Trail game. Rather than trying to shoot buffalo (or those annoying squirrels), the goal in the South American version was to shoot photos of rainforest wildlife. If an animal like a butterfly darted across the screen, you just had to click it with your mouse-based “camera.” And presto, a perfectly framed, focused picture of the animal appeared on the screen, as if it had kindly posed for you. Even at the time I had a sneaking suspicion this type of photography was a notch easier than the real thing. Here, as I watch the butterflies darting around, I am definitely pining for that kind of Go-Go-Gadget-style camera magic.
Happily, the bushes and flowers at the Vien Chieu temple, where I spent Thanksgiving, turned out to distract the butterflies just long enough for me to sneak up on a few and snap their pictures. Poised with my camera instead of a net, I felt like a modern day insect collector, tracking my flitting quarry from one branch to the next, usually in vain. These are the successful encounters—hopefully you can extrapolate from this small sampling to their amazing and colorful diversity.