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Tales From Thailand

June 13, 2011


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,


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.

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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.  

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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.  

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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…!

Digging Deeper

June 3, 2011

We have traveled as far north in Thailand as one can go.  In fact, we could see Burma on the other side of the riverbank I stood on this morning.  I pointed across the muddy river and asked if we could film the elephants in “the patch of forest over there”.  The answer was “No, we cannot take the elephants to Burma”..! 

This is the famous Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet – and the second largest supplier of opium (next to Afghanistan).  Joe said that the Thai government has managed to convert much of the local crop from opium to tea, but I haven’t had the opportunity to research this (we’ve been too busy with elephants!).

More elephants and more stories...  I am desperate to hear each and every one.  If you ask and listen, nearly every elephant’s history is epic and worthy of a film.  Here at Anantara there are over 30 elephants and almost as many mahouts.  The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation pays the mahouts to live on the grounds of Anantara with their elephants, thus keeping them off the city streets. 

We came to the Elephant Camp at Anantara in hopes of filming a sequence that would give a sense of elephants in the wild.  I wanted to capture a scene of Dao with her family in the forest.  The Foundation’s director John Roberts was game to try it and graciously invited us in to give it a whirl... None of us had any idea what would ensue.  


The mahouts led Boonna with her one-year-old infant Pa Choke, and three young females 5 & 6 years-old out to a patch of forest and then, at our request, they backed away from the elephants to get out of the shot. 
There was a moment of uncertainty, a nano-instant of calm…and then all hell broke loose.  The kids went wild!  They ran in circles, trumpeting and chirping, racing back & forth full throttle through the trees.  It was little Pa Choke’s first day out with the big girls in the forest and I imagine it was a taste of heaven.  

We were all in hysterics (film crew and mahouts), dodging elephants and laughing so hard we could hardly shoot.  I do believe the eles were laughing, too.  I imagine the mahouts thought we were a little crazy at first, but once the elephants and humans settled into it, we spent two glorious days romping around the “forest”.  It was a magical mixture of utter chaos and elephant/human joy.

The heat and humidity in this part of the world are hard to beat.  It makes shooting a definite challenge – but the elephants are the ultimate reward.  They lumber along, taking it all in stride, while we huff and puff and sweat and moan…

I was able to spend time with the mahouts at Anantara, and that was a gift.  I showed them the photos of Pang Dao and to my amazement, three of them knew her. Lun, Pat and Noi are from Surin and grew up with Chit, Dao's mahout.  Lun told me that Pang Dao was in her twenties when he was a boy.  They all agreed that she was “old” when she died, and that she had led a hard life.  Lun said that decades ago they didn’t use trucks to transport the elephants, they used to walk the elephants all over Thailand to make a living.  It would take months to walk an elephant from Surin to the Chiang Rai, close the Golden Triangle.

Lun said that Chit had originally owned a male elephant, but he wasn’t good for working with tourists on the streets.  Up north, Chit traded the male for Pang Dao, who was being used for logging.  A male was more valuable in the forests and a female was better for the streets...  

The more I ask, the more complex the story becomes.  The chapters don’t always match up, but I am certainly getting a better understanding of what elephants like Pang Dao have gone through…

I must close for now.  We’re heading south now to Lampang and the FAE elephant hospital.  Joe and Nim weren’t with me when I scouted there last week, so we’re going back now to capture it on video…

Love and thanks for being part of this amazing journey!

Reading an Elephant

May 31, 2011

Yesterday we left Chiang Mai and headed north towards the Golden Triangle.  Scheduling this scout has been a bit of a challenge, as I’ve wanted to stop at every possible project in order to see the location and observe how life is evolving for elephants in Thailand.  Fortunately we were able to stop at the Elephant Nature Park on our way north.

I had met Lek, the remarkable woman who founded ENP, almost 8 years ago – back when her project was only the seedlings of a dream.  It was extraordinary to see how it’s grown!  Though Lek was at a doctor’s appointment, she arranged for Bhau, Derek and Jody to give us a warm welcome.  After the spectacle of post-lunch bathing, I was able to steal away and sit on one of the mahout platforms with ENP’s head mahout, Bunchu.

Bunchu is Karen, from across the border. Though he’s from Burma, he does not consider himself Burmese and explained the distinction to me.  It makes my heart heavy to think about how much the Karen people have suffered… While we were talking, I showed Bunchu the photographs I’ve been carrying with me of Pang Dao.  He sat in silence and studied them.  He pointed to a discolored area on her lower belly, only a small spot on the photograph, and said, “She was hurt here – I think from logging.”  This is exactly what the vet treating Pang Dao had told me when we filmed The Urban Elephant. 

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Bunchu said that Pang Dao looked thin and sick, and not very well-cared for.  “She is not clean – and she is too thin, weak.”  He suspected that her teeth were bad and that she should have been receiving a soft diet of bananas and other fruit at this point in her life.  In the photograph, her flaccid trunk is half-heartedly holding a palm frond – probably the only food available.  He pointed to her eye and said, “Her eye is hurt – maybe infection.  She is sad, crying.”  He then said either “She has bad luck” or “She has bad life”.  I imagine that both were correct.While we were talking, elephants were wandering in the field beyond, and I thought how wonderful it would have been if Pang Dao had been given a taste of freedom, a decent diet, a proper retirement in the final chapter of a hard life...  How I wish that the end of Pang Dao’s story could have been different…

It was heartwarming to meet Bunchu.  He is one of the most intelligent and sensitive humans I have met on this trip – and I’ve met quite a few…I must make brief, as there’s work to be done!  Just had to tell you about my encounter with Bunchu.  More soon…

Land Mines and Elephants

May 28, 2011

I’ve been to the FAE hospital outside of Lampang twice in the past, but it’s much larger now – and every “room” is full.  It was heartbreaking to see four landmine victims – innocents caught in the crossfire of human madness.  To see a young elephant’s foot blown off at the ankle is almost unbearable.

Dr. Preecha very patiently showed us around after hours.  The public had left, but the work continued.  At one point I heard a series of plaintive screams from down the hill… Dr. Preecha said it was Mosha, calling for her mahout.  Without the lower half of her leg, she’s not able to safely interact with other elephants.  He said that her mahout is with her 24 hours a day.  They’ve made a number of prosthetic legs for her, but being a young elephant, she keeps outgrowing them.  They’re in the process of making yet another one to fit her, so she should be mobile again soon...


On a more positive note, it was so special to see Motala again.  She is a remarkable being.  The suffering this elephant has endured is hard to imagine.  I first met her when we were filming The Urban Elephant over a decade ago (before they had come up with her prosthesis).  She was in such pain it actually made me a bit faint to watch her.  Seeing her now was a relief.  Her leg was temporarily off, but she seems to be out of the intense pain.

Unfortunately Soraida Salwala (FAE’s founder) was in Bangkok, so we missed her -- but it was wonderful to spend a bit of time with Dr. Preecha. 

He was extremely generous with us and lingered well beyond his work hours. To learn more about FAE (Friends of the Asian Elephant) and their patients, visit:

Tomorrow I am going to visit Patara, a tourist trekking camp about 45 minutes northwest of Chiang Mai.  I’ve been told that it is a quite a good camp, where the elephants are not saddled with platforms for the tourists to ride on.  We shall see…stay tuned!

Breaking With Tradition

May 27, 2011

Hello all – Greetings from BLES (Boon Lott Elephant Sanctuary).  BLES is about five hours north of Bangkok, outside the town of Sukhothai.  I arrived last night and fell asleep to a symphony of frogs – new species to me, with calls I’ve never heard.  This morning I awoke to trumpets filling the valley where BLES sits. 

It was a joy to meet the elephants here and see the bonds they’ve formed.  They are all refugees with pasts that are a tangle of tragic chapters.  I have to admit, one individual in particular has stolen my heart.  Her name is Pang Dow (yes, it’s true!).   I promise you, it wasn’t her name that captured me… She’s led quite a brutal life and has the scars to show it.  Lesions from a yeast infection have polka dotted her skin, and her left leg was injured so that she walks on her wrist – but her spirit has not been broken. She limps around with determination and has a wonderful friend named Pang Suai.  Aside from her distrust of cars and motorbikes, she seems remarkably calm and content.  You can learn more about her on the BLES website (and while you’re at it, check out BLES!):

Kristin McLaughlin (founder of Artists for ) is another guest here, and it’s been wonderful to meet and brainstorm about how to help Asian elephants.  The founders of BLES, Katherine & Anon (and their children) are very special human beings.  I now understand why BLES has so many devoted supporters.  Beyond seeing the elephants ranging freely in the river and the patch of adjacent forest, it was exciting to watch the mahouts.  At BLES they have been asked to break from tradition.  They carry no hooks and allow the elephants under their watch freedoms I’m sure they were unaccustomed to.  There is a calm at BLES, and it seemed to come from everyone’s comfort level -- both elephant and mahout. 


…There was a mahout (not employed by the sanctuary) who showed up the two mornings I spent there. He just sat in the shade and observed. His presence struck me as being significant.  He had come to BLES on his own to witness this different way of managing elephants, and I can only imagine that his observations made an impact… It was only one mahout, but as Margaret Meade so famously put it “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”


May 23, 2011

Our time in Thailand has already been a roller coaster ride.  Trying to find Pang Dao turned out to be quite an emotional affair.  The villages in Surin are so small that we simply began our search by knocking on doors and stopping people on the street, showing them photos of Pang Dao and asking if they knew of her mahout.  I remembered that his name was Chit, so that was a help.  Everyone we asked was so thoughtful and kind.  They studied the photos, long and hard, and tried to help in any way they could.  One clue would lead to the next… and the next…
As our search widened, we started getting what seemed to be conflicting information: Pang Dao was sold, Pang Dao was dead... In the next village, after a couple of queries we were finally able to locate the wife of Pang Dao's late mahout -- we were led straight to her door by two women who knew her.  I had met her years ago and she remembered me well (and I certainly remembered her!). It was a bittersweet reunion, since her husband was still alive when we'd last met…

She told me the story of Pang Dao:  When her husband became ill from AIDS, she wasn't able to care for Dao, so she sold her.  She was apologetic, explaining that she'd had no choice.  Her son was only 12 at the time and too young to help.  She told me that Pang Dao died three years after she was sold...  I asked what she had died of and the widow said "She was old."  When I asked how old, she said that Pang Dao was in her sixties.  I tried to find out more about Pang Dao's past, but she knew nothing -- only that her husband had the elephant for about 10 years and had gotten her from his parents.  They, too, are dead, and so no one seems to have any further information.

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As sad as the news was, I have to admit...there was some relief in knowing that Pang Dao has been released from this life.  I think it was a difficult one.  I was so worried that I'd find her in a horrible situation. I guess that would have been even more heartbreaking.  Still… it's all very sad.  I will just have to help other elephants who need help -- and, above all, make the film so that others won't follow in Pang Dao's footsteps.  If anything, it inspires me to push harder to make a great film that will make a difference.  

Tonight I wandered a few blocks from the hotel to grab some dinner from a sidewalk stall.  I froze in my footsteps…There, across   the street, was the very spot where we had filmed Pang Dao and Chit for The Urban Elephant.  If you’ve seen the film, they were standing in front of the golden arches of MacDonalds, right next to a department store…
There are ghosts walking these streets – or perhaps it’s just ghosts inside of me -- memories that are so clear it feels like only last night we were filming Pang Dao and Chit weaving through the traffic.  I am going out again after I post this to see if I can retrace our steps and find the hotel fountain she drank from and the lot where they set up their little camp.  I imagine it’s been built on, but I have to see – or at least try to…

I will write again tomorrow.  I’m feeling a bit sad tonight.

Back from Surin

May 22, 2011

We are back in Bangkok, filthy and exhausted, regrouping after Surin.  My feet are a mess from the fire ants and our clothes & gear are covered in red mud, but aside from that we’re in fine form.  What a trip!  Where to begin?

We arrived in the small village of Baan Tha Klang (in Surin province) just before the procession of elephants, a traditional parade that takes place this time each year for the ordination of monks.  It was a huge local event, almost exclusively Thai.  I don’t think we spotted more than three foreigners in the sea of people.  The elephants are painted (using chalk) and walked to the temple, stopping for food along the way at the houses where villagers have put out food.  There’s blaring music with a pounding bass, wild dancing, bottle rockets shooting into the air, stifling heat and utter chaos.  I wondered how the elephants could remain so calm, but I was told that most of them have been part of this tradition for decades.  Incredible.  We managed to get some good footage, but it was a bit challenging to get clean shots of the elephants – there were so many trucks & people & loud speakers in the foreground.  In the film, the procession takes place in the 70s when Dao is only 10 years old, so Joe tried his best to frame out the modern elements – but it was definitely a challenge… The music was so intense, our ears were ringing by the time the procession ended in the evening!


We stayed in a home-stay at the Elephant Study Center.  The Study Center was established by the government to help get elephants off the city streets.  Though the conditions are a bit tough for filming, it was perfect to be stationed right in the heart of the village.  We’d wake at dawn to the sound of roosters and trucks and motorbikes bringing sugar cane to the dozens of elephants around us.  One morning at first light, there was a huge commotion of trucks pulling up beside out house.  Suddenly elephants emerged from all around us and the loading began. The mahouts had no idea what the event was they’d been hired for, but off they drove in four trucks, each with two eles.  It was so reminiscent of the circus...

That evening as the sun was setting, the trucks pulled back into the village, and the elephants were unloaded and tethered again in their usual spots.  We were able to film both the loading and unloading, which was fortuitous since it was a scene I was hoping to capture. In fact, that’s the way most of our shooting unfolded.  There were so many elephants and so much happening everywhere around us, we were able to get almost all of our material “on the fly.”

Living in the village for six days was an unsettling experience.  The village is packed with elephants, nearly all of them on short chains.  It is a bittersweet feeling to be surrounded by so many elephants, but to see them tethered apart.  One afternoon when we filmed a group of five walking down a muddy road, we let them pause for a while in the shade of a tree.  It was a relief to see them finally have a chance to interact…

Meeting Alex Godfrey and seeing the Surin Project was a highlight.  Alex, Pum (his right hand woman) and the volunteers are working with tremendous dedication to bring about change.  I imagine it must be especially challenging when one can see so clearly that it is only a drop in the bucket – but Alex and Pum are doing great things.  The project gives the mahouts incentive to take their elephants off the chains during the day by paying them to participate in the program.  At the moment they have 11 elephants in the program.  They’re in the process of enclosing five acres for the eles to roam freely (with the mahouts in close proximity).  It sounds so simple, but in fact it’s revolutionary if you put it into context.  You can read about the project at:

I couldn’t leave Baan Tha Klang without making a donation.  After talking to Alex, I decided to sponsor one of the elephants (and her mahout) for a month for $300.  It’s not cheap – but it’s really important to support this project in these early days.  The elephant we are sponsoring is Perm Sat.  She’s a beautiful young female.  As a result of your donation, Perm Sat will have a better diet than she otherwise would -- but that's not all.  Perm Sat’s mahout would normally earn money by taking her to festivals or training her to perform in the twice-daily tourist show at the Elephant Study Center.  Our contribution will help ensure that Perm Sat stays off the streets and out of the “ring.”  Thank you for making this possible!!

And please read more about the project at  Also, do consider volunteering.  This is the backbone of the project, and I guarantee you, your life will never be the same once you spend time here... Mine certainly won’t be!  I just discovered some glowing reviews about volunteering for the project on Trip Advisor:

Okay, I want to get this out to you sooner than later, so off it goes!  This is only a first installment for Surin. I need to get back to planning & coordinating the rest of our shoot!  More about our search for Pang Dao soon…

Lots of love from Thailand, xxAA

Quick Update from Surin

May 18, 2011

A quick note from Surin. It is intense! Finally am online for a moment before we head an hour east to find the mahout's widow. I finally found out that Pang Dao's mahout did die of AIDS. The other disturbing news is that his widow sold Pang Dao after he died because she needed the money. We are going to try to find her now to ask who she sold Pang Dao to. We still don't know whether or not Dao is alive.  Stay tuned... We are managing to shoot some very good footage.  More about that once I get back to Bangkok tomorrow night!!  Off to continue our search or Pang Dao… Love to you all.  xxAA


May 13, 2011

Sawasdee kaa!  
After two days of flying I’m here!!  Despite a bit of jet lag, I’m feeling quite perky.  The energy in Bangkok is infectious and the people are so warm and embracing.  Joe and Nim arrived at midnight last night.  We’ll be scurrying around today, renting the last bits of film gear and prepping for our shoot.   We’re staying at a wonderful little hotel in the very heart of the beast, right near the SkyTrain.  I would definitely recommend it (the CityPoint Hotel).  They’ve just opened and the rooms are nice and quiet -- and reasonable.  

two elephant.jpg

I told them that I’m a vegetarian, and this morning I was served a large green salad for breakfast!  It was actually a very refreshing way to start the day :-)

I am so thrilled that we made our goal and then some...  The extra funds will give us a bit of wiggle-room – both in terms of helping any needy elephants we encounter and in terms of filming.  Anything that isn’t spent on this trip will go directly into editing the promo and moving into pre-production.  Thank you so much, every one of you.  YOU have made this possible.  I will send updates as often as I can.  Next time you hear from me, we will be in Surin (assuming I can find an internet connection!).  

Much love and thanks to my flock of angels (you),   xAllison

Thailand Bound!!

May 10, 2011

Dearest Dao team, old friends and new,
Once again you have moved me to tears. Your generosity and wonderful wishes didn’t let up when we hit our goal. The outpouring continues… I feel such support from each and every one of you. We have grown to 208 strong. I have looked at every one of your names. I know who you are, and I will carry you with me when I leave tomorrow.
I still haven’t packed my suitcase, but it’s only 2pm :-)  I just had to take a moment to tell you how deeply, deeply grateful I am.  I know I speak for Joe and Nim, too.  We promise to make you proud.
Thanks for joining us on this amazing journey. It’s going to be a great one!  Next time you hear from me, we’ll be in Thailand...!!!
Tons of love to you all,

The Good News Continues…

May 7, 2011

Dearest backers, old friends and new... The magic continues!  There is a wonderful article about The Story of Dao at
For those of you who've just recently joined us, welcome -- and thank you!! Every additional dollar that is donated means more time in the field, more donations for the elephants, and a bit of support once we return and begin to edit the material.
We are racing around like mad, getting ready for the adventure. I leave on Wed and have not even thought about packing.  I'm still trying to tackle the logistics and schedule our travels. No one will mind if I wear the same t shirt for 3 weeks, right?  :-)  At least I've got the most important items ready: my still camera and my little laptop, so I can send you posts from the field (when there's internet).Joe and Nim are still scrambling around, gathering gear. They'll be flying from Seattle and will meet me in Thailand. We plan to head straight down to Surin, so that is where you'll probably hear from me first.  
Sending you love and thanks!  xxAllison and the crew

A Huge Trumpet!!

May 5, 2011

Dear, dear, DEAR people, YOU DID IT!!!  We hit our goal at 7:02 this morning thanks to a donation from Monica in Tokyo!  I am so moved and excited, I'm shaking (and in tears).  I've never tried anything like this before and had no idea whether it would work.  And now we are on our way!!  We promise to make you proud. You have my word that I will do whatever it takes to make a film that will help ensure a better future for elephants in Asia.
Now... we still have 7 days to go on Kickstarter (can you believe it??).  If we get more donations, the funds will go directly into helping the projects and the elephants we meet in Asia -- and also towards editing our promo and getting the film off the ground.  So... if you'd intended to donate and just hadn't quite gotten to it -- or if you've just learned about the project -- no worries!  It's not too late!  Your support will still be invaluable. 
With all my love and deepest thanks, xxxxxAllison

147 Strong!

April 29, 2011

Joe, Nim and I are running around like crazy, gathering our video gear, plotting the schedule and planning the filming. The emails are flying fast and furiously! It promises to be an amazing shoot. And each day that I cross off the calendar brings the prospect of finding Dao closer…
We are so excited and feel so deeply privileged that you’ve given us this opportunity. It’s hard to believe we’ll be landing in Bangkok in two weeks. Until then, I will continue to reach out for support until we hit the magic number (20,000). If you know of anyone who’s been meaning to donate to Dao, please urge them to do so. We are getting sooooo close!!!
Thank you, dear people. With oodles of gratitude and love, xAllison

More Thanks..

April 5, 2011

Dear, dear backers (old friends and new) – I am so moved by the show of support for this project. I feel the wind gathering beneath its wings…If elephants can fly, this one certainly will.  Today I plunked down my frequent flyer miles and have my ticket (as does Joe).  I'll be flying out on May 11th and am terribly excited!!  I will keep sending updates but will try not to overwhelm you...
A friend just sent me this link.  The royal couple is asking for donations to Thai elephants instead of gifts (among other things)...  So you are in good company!!! Here is a video clip from The Urban Elephant.  The clip is from the top of the film and it still gets me where I live.  It helps me to remember why I'm doing this...

Deep Gratitude…

April 2, 2011

Dearest backers (old friends and new)... I am simply overwhelmed by the burst of support since yesterday's Kickstarter launch.  I've been nervous about this brave, new world, but excited, too.  There are so many wonderful and important projects on Kickstarter, I am proud to be among them.
With each pledge, I can hear a distant rumble...Thank you, dear friends.  xAllison

Director Allison Argo and cinematographer Joe Pontecorvo filming in Asia.JPG