Tales from Thailand

A THOUSAND STORIES


It is raining in Bangkok. I can hear the thunder rolling outside my hotel room.

My head is swimming with elephants. Around every corner, there’s another – and each has a story to make your heart stop. The past month has been sobering. When I close my eyes, they parade by in a silent, grey slide show of lost and found souls: Motala, Wassana, Pang Dow, Ton Gee, Willy, Mosha, Perm Sat, Taxi, Bobo… and of course, Pang Dao. There are dozens more whose names I didn’t get. There are thousands of stories in Thailand.

Elephants in Asia are caught in a nasty tangle of calamities: with little wild habitat, there are few wild elephants. And because there is no more logging, the domesticated elephant’s purpose has vanished…But here they are –more than 2,000 of them in Thailand. And I was told by numerous sources that elephants are still being captured from the wild (illegally) and sold into captivity.


Street begging continues (in the suburbs now), trekking camps are springing up like mushrooms (not all of them humane) and sanctuaries are taking in as many individuals as they can afford (with the very distant goal of returning them to the wild). Solutions are as complex and elusive as the problems themselves – but at least a consensus exists: there is a problem.

There is no doubt in my mind that The Story of Dao will reach deep into the public conscience, raising awareness and concern. The realist in me suspects that it won’t be a quick process, but I am armed with a lethal mix of passion and conviction. During the past five weeks I’ve been given a crash course on the issues, the players, the geography, the logistics – and most important: the current reality for elephants in Asia. I am ready to fasten my seatbelt and drive for as long as the journey takes.



It has been an extraordinary five weeks. We have worked our tail feathers off and the material we’ve shot looks great. Joe is a superb cinematographer and has a remarkable understanding and comfort level with elephants. Nim has been indispensible, shooting second camera, holding the boom pole, lugging equipment without complaint and translating till her head spins. We’d have been lost without her. It’s been a small but powerful team :-)

I must close now and try to cram my mud-caked belongings back into my bags... It’s been an amazing journey and I have you to thank for it. Together we will make a difference. Thanks for signing up for the mission.

With everlasting gratitude, xxAllison


 

On The Street


June 12, 2011

Greetings from the throbbing, bursting-at-the-seams city of Bangkok. It is a city that is exploding with life, in all its glory and shame – a city that I’ve grown to love... At night, washed in neon, there are women begging with children. And in the same neon glow there are children begging with puppies. But we have combed the streets in the heart of the beast, and I think I can safely say: the elephants are no longer here.

But there is more to the story...


While in Surin, we met the son of Chit (Pang Dao’s mahout). The little boy I’d met years ago is now a tall, handsome man of 20. I asked what he is doing now that he’s grown and his mother told me that he’d soon be heading to Bangkok to work with his uncle’s elephants. We exchanged mobile numbers and asked if we might be able to catch up with him in Bangkok once he gets there…


Three weeks later, we arrived back in the city – and we called. After a few tries, we finally got Chit’s son. My heart jumped. He gave us a description of where to find him. It was in the suburbs by a bus yard. We hailed a taxi and headed off. We’d driven a few kilometers before I realized that the fingers on both my hands were crossed.


After some speculation and hunting, the taxi driver let us out beside a grubby lot full of empty tour busses. Flanking the lot was a shanty town of sorts. Plywood and plastic tarps formed a little community. We asked someone if they knew where the elephants were and they waved their hand to the right without hesitation. We rounded the corner and suddenly, right before us, there were two baby elephants sleeping on a patch of grass & mud.


Chit’s son was with his extended family – aunts, uncle, cousins. They greeted us with surprising warmth and gave us permission to film the elephants. Both babies were males – tiny tuskers – one was two and the other three. The elder finally got to his feet and stood over the two-year-old. When a bundle of fresh sugar cane arrived, the little one bolted to his feet to eat. I’m not an expert by any means, but the little guys seemed to be in good condition physically – plump and fairly calm.


I asked Chit’s son a bunch of questions and he graciously answered them all. He had just arrived in Bangkok, taking over for his cousin who had returned to Surin. He would be here for two or three months. Their living quarters consisted of three tents, made from tarps, on top of an elevated concrete slab – perhaps the foundation for a building never built. Somehow they managed to have a spigot that supplied clean water – and they had electricity. He said that it wasn’t so good in the rain…


After an hour or so, his uncle arrived with another bundle of sugar cane and began to rake up around the elephants. He asked what we were up to and said that it was okay to film if we weren’t going to say that they abuse the elephants. He explained that they care about them and treat them well. He said that there is a vet who looks after them, as well. I asked the name of the vet... It is the same wonderful man who looked after Pang Dao when she was in Bangkok!


Two other boys, I assume cousins, began to wash the elephants (and themselves) in preparation for the evening’s work. The uncle pulled up in a small truck near the elephants. They placed a metal bench at the back and loaded the three-year-old onto the tarp-enclosed bed to transport him to the neighborhood where they we would work tonight. The elephant climbed into the truck without protest, and off they drove…


At first the uncle didn’t want us to film them working since they are trying to keep a low profile and not draw attention from the authorities. But they agreed to allow Joe to follow them with his smaller camera and no tripod. Nim, of course, was needed to translate. I reluctantly returned to Bangkok and waited to see the footage when Joe & Nim got back.


They got back to the hotel a few hours later and we huddled around the viewfinder to see what they'd shot….It was so interesting – so different from just eight years ago. The boys walked beside the little elephant down small, residential streets, going door to door selling sugar cane. The local children delighted in feeding the baby. It was almost a sweet scene… but not if you think that the little elephant would still be with its mother in the wild, and not if you fast forward. What future does this little tusker have? He will live for 60 years or more, become dangerous, most likely outgrowing his usefulness. Where will he land?


There are so many elephants and so many questions... With a heavy heart,


Love from Bangkok xxA


 

Bringing The Story of Dao To Life


June 11, 2011

After the FAE hospital, we continued south through Sukhothai to the Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary. I’d decided to return to BLES to film three key scenes for the promo (and, of course, to see Pang Dow again). Thanks so much to the elephants and the humans at BLES for letting us disrupt their normal routines and for being willing to play with us :-)…

The first scene that I wanted to capture was of Dao at the end of her life being unchained and disappearing into a forest sanctuary. Katherine felt that Wassana would be an excellent Dao stand-in. It had been pissing rain all day, but as we began to set up our camera at the edge of the forest, the sun broke through and rimmed the forest with a beautiful light. Loy, Wassana’s mahout, talked her into the appointed spot and quickly wrapped the chain around her leg. We were determined to get the shot in one take… On action, Loy reached down and unclasped the chain. Wassana immediately stepped forward and out of the chain. It was seamless. Joe widened the frame as Wassana wandered down the dirt path and disappeared into the forest.


It was so simple – and so powerful. I actually got teary. To make sure we had a back-up, Loy coaxed Wassana back to her spot at the head of the path, and we shot her wandering off again. The second take was equally perfect. There is no doubt: Wassana is a star.


It is such a joy to see how the mahouts are able to work with the elephants without the use of hooks or force. Of course, most of the elephants have decades behind them of logging, begging, and trekking, but at this point in their lives, they don’t seem to need more than a few words and the occasional light tug on an ear to respond.


I must tell you about Wassana and her mahout Loy. I couldn’t help but notice that Loy has a remarkably gentle, respectful way with Wassana… I learned that Loy is Anon’s uncle. He would occasionally come to the sanctuary to cut the grass and was drawn to the elephants. To shorten a much longer story… when Wassana arrived, Loy was drawn to her. He is now Wassana’s care-giver.


You can tell that he loves her deeply. And Kat told me that Loy feels certain Wassana is in love with him. He regularly tells Kat, “See, look at the way she’s watching me.” It's a beautiful relationship.


But Loy isn’t Wassana’s only companion. She has formed a sisterhood (that’s not a technical term – that’s an Allisonism) with two other females at BLES. Tong Yui and Bong Beng were street elephants in Bangkok less than two years ago. Their owners agreed to move with their two elephants to BLES. When Wassana arrived, she immediately bonded with Tong Yui and Bong Beng. Today they are inseparable. Well almost…


While Wassana spends her nights in a forested area of the sanctuary, Bong Beng and Tong Yui spend their nights by their owners’ house. Thought they are only separated briefly at night, each morning there is a raucous reunion between the three. Their trumpets can be heard for miles around. They run full throttle down the dirt road to reunite. For me, it’s more evidence that elephant bonds run deeper than we can imagine… which is why, in the final scene in “The Story of Dao,” Dao is reunited with her sister. Their bond is as strong as it was when they were separated 50 years earlier.


Needless to say, we filmed the morning reunion between Wassana, Bong Beng and Tong Yui. For “The Story of Dao” (at least as I’ve written it), it’s not ideal that there are three elephants rather than two, but… I’ll find a way to make it work! The morning reunion is beautifully dramatic and deeply touching. I have to admit… I am always filled with envy when I watch female elephants who are bonded. If only I could experience that depth of connection. Alas, I honestly don’t think our species has the same capacity. I am filled with awe…


More soon… Love from Thailand xA


 

Looking Closer


June 9, 2011

I

am so grateful that we were able to return to Lampang to film at the the FAE hospital. Each time I meet Dr. Preecha, I fall in love with him more. He is gentle, wise and deadly serious when it comes to his work, but his sense of humor is ready to erupt at any moment.


Just when I am about to jump on a bandwagon and join in generalities, I witness something that proves them wrong... At the hospital, I spotted a young tusker with a bandage wrapped around his rear leg. He was deeply focused on his mahout who stood beside him. There was a plank of wood on a stand in front of them, and the tusker held a thin stick in his trunk. With the mahout’s encouragement, he moved the stick slowly up and down on the surface of the wood. Every so often, the mahout would reach out and stroke his trunk or give him a banana. I was struck by the calm, the intimacy, the relationship. I asked Dr. Preecha what they were doing…


It seems the tusker has a history of extreme violence. He very nearly killed nine mahouts. The last one dug a spear deep into his rear leg. Fortunately, the young male landed at the FAE hospital. Here, he has a new mahout who understands that there is no future for an angry bull. He is too violent to work as a trekking elephant or beg on the streets, and logging is illegal. The mahout has decided to teach him to paint…


There were no hooks or spikes or nails, only bananas and words of encouragement. It was vocational therapy, but also seemed to offer a salve for the tusker’s rage. He worked with remarkable concentration, and with every interaction, the trust between man and elephant seemed to deepen.


I have heard that mahouts commonly teach elephants to paint by force -- using nails jabbed into their trunks. I was relieved to see quite a different scene unfolding at FAE...


Dr. Preecha has an affection and compassion for the elephants – and he also has a deep respect for those who care for elephants humanely. At the hospital he calls them “keepers” (not “mahouts). He explained that it is really important (and difficult) to find the right person for each elephant. It is not one size fits all...


It was lovely to see Motala again, so wise and patient. Dr. Preecha said that being a logging elephant with a hard life behind her, she was aggressive when she first arrived. Her handicap and the care she's received have transformed her into a remarkably patient and calm individual. If I can indulge in a bit of anthropomorphising, I'd also say that she is generous.

As for Mosha, she is an absolute bundle of dearness. She has outgrown her last prosthetic leg and they’re waiting for the new one to be made (which might take a couple more months, since the company is backlogged). I just wish they could find a suitable elephant companion for her. Preecha explained that they can’t put her in with other elephants because she’s not agile enough and could get hurt. Perhaps someday they'll find a gentle old female?


Apologies that I’ve fallen behind on my updates. We’ve been racing from place to place at too great a clip and internet access has also been inconsistent. I’m hoping to get caught up in the next day or two, so stand by for more…!