Sumatran environmentalist wins Whitley Fund for Nature award

Great article by Annette Gartland about the inspiring Panut Hadisiwoyo winning the Whitley Fund for Nature, and fantastic work by Orangutan Information Centre.

CHANGING TIMES

10010033_386833914848126_6860987801774639263_oThe director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Sumatra, Panut Hadisiswoyo, has won a prestigious Whitley Fund for Nature award.

The Princess Royal presented Hadisiswoyo with the 2015 Whitley Award for Conservation in Ape Habitats, which is donated by the Arcus Foundation, at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London yesterday (Wednesday).

The Whitley Fund says their awards honour “exceptional individuals who, through their outstanding conservation work in developing countries, are redefining the way people engage with the natural world in the 21st century”.

Hadisiswoyo has been awarded £35,000 (about 54,000 US$), which will be used to expand the OIC’s network of conservation villages and its Community Agroforestry, Reforestation and Education (CARE) programme to a new region bordering the Gunung Leuser National Park.

The OIC will establish sustainable agriculture schemes with 100 farmers, and plant 66,000 trees at the new site. The team will also focus on…

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Into Borneo

I stepped into the car, plonking my bags down in the back. I sat silently for the first few minutes, looking around out the window, at Borneo. I had finally arrived.

I had just met Professor Owen Lewis in the airport, and he alongside Dr. Eleanor Slade were the principal investigators of the project I was working on. Kikiy had come from the SAFE camp to pick us up and we chatted about the life at camp as we set off.

After some time I fell silent, thinking about where I was, and how recently I had just been in England. I imagined zooming out from where I was and seeing where I really was, nested in the midst of a thousand islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. I became a bit unstuck with this thought, and drifted into a long silence.

As we drove off I considered that I was about to see the true extent of oil palm cultivation and the etcha- sketch destruction of the landscape. I had heard and read so much about the agricultural practice behind this crop and its ecological impact since working with Ape Alliance charity in Bristol and it had since become a very important, pivotal issue for me. I sat absorbing the view and talking to Owen and Kikiy, as the hills rolled by, and forest yawned back, giving way to an immesne sweep of oil palm.

Dark green and monotonous, the oil palm landscape blurred by. The term monoculture is completely accurate. As a whole landscape, a primary forest, of ecological complexity beyond what we currently know, is now reduced to a single, alien species. This is one of the most biologically rich places on this planet, and we have erased that rich ecological history, marginalizing and endangering a wealth of life that has taken millions of years to evolve, and replaced it with a single species that didn’t even originate on the same continent. As we drove by, I lapsed into sleep, thinking as I drifted off that I hadn’t actually felt the pang of sadness or loss that I expected. Mostly just excited to be here.

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My reaction to the first time I saw the landscape wasn’t apathy. I have strong feelings about the palm oil agriculture and its ecological ramifications. But upon seeing the landscape, it failed to stir in me what I had expected. There was nothing to compare it to. No primary forest on the border, hunched in retreat. It just seemed like one big piece of farmland. After a while Kikiy stopped the car and we got out. Owen and I walked up to a lookout shed that stood at the top of a hill, and we could see the valleys plains from all directions, a single colour.

From a distance I could see a single, massive tree, far away and distinct against the crinkled edges of distant valleys. It moved softly in the hot, dry breeze. Owen explained that some of the large trees had silica in the wood which ruins the teeth of chainsaws, so they left these alone. Kikiy said that they are also believed to contain ghosts. These were the last remnants of the old growth forest that was once here, dwarfing the squat little oil palms by several times their height. They looked sad, standing isolated, and at the same time surrounded by the crowd of ecological strangers.

We drove on and it grew on me where I was going, deep into a landscape I had never been. The fact that this landscape is human modified is what had really perked my interest to begin with. A previous project I had worked at the University of Bristol was investigating the trophic networks of saltmarsh islands and how they responded to seasonality and habitat destruction. Disturbed landscapes, as human modified landscapes usually are, have a dynamic nature which I find really fascinating. As we rolled over endless hills and patches of forest dressed by swathes of oil palm, it dawned on me that this would be an incredible example. Enormous fragments of secondary forest, with orangutans, elephants, a huge diversity of birds and a huge complexity of plant and insect life. It felt amazing to be here, in the middle of such an experiment.

I had come to work on a study by Dr. Eleanor Slade on the effects of habitat fragmentation and degradation on dung beetle ecology. These were a group of beetles I’ve always had a fascination with, and now to actually have the opportunity be here studying them in Borneo. I was practically giggling with excitement.

We reached camp in the late afternoon and hauled our stuff out of the car. Trestled tables, corrugated tin roofs, vines, grass and happy faces greeted us. This place suited me at once. We met Ryan, a beaming Aussie who showed us around the camp and we dumped our stuff in the dorms. I’ve spent time at rainforest research stations before, in Thailand and Hawai’i, but this seemed very different, bigger and very active. The rest of the day swirled by as I took it all in, wide eyed and absorbing my new surroundings. I had a lot to look forward to.

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Morning Song

The next morning I woke up to a distant looping call. Sad and high pitch, the cry pulsed through the cold, still air. My toes ached with cold and my mouth tasted sour. The gash on my foot from the previous week throbbed painfully as I stood up to redress the ragged bandages in the faint morning light.

Pins and needles bit at my legs as I hobbled down the hill to the kitchen.

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A few people were already up, even though it was about 5 in the morning and light had only just begun to penetrate the thin, dry canopy. There were a few couples at camp, standing in silent company as they completed the ritual of making food for the day in the field.

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It reminded me of the beautiful morning routine in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl- “When Kino had finished, Juana came back to the fire and ate her breakfast. They had spoken once, but there is not need for speech if it is only a habit anyway. Kino sighed with satisfaction – and that was conversation.”DSC_0639 (2)

I took a few photos of the tender preparation of the food, but after a few moments felt like I was somewhat intruding, and decided to leave the kitchen in its calm, quiet zen.

I turned to the forest and trained my ears on the morose hoots of distant gibbons. On my way I noticed that the thermometer read 16C. I didn’t expect to be able to see my breath in Thailand.

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I walked on and up into the woods. Fallen dipterocarps bridged gaps in old, dried gullies, deep gouges bitten into the hillside by ancient rivers. It was my favourite time, early enough that the cold air holds sound with delicate clarity, and the light is soft and clean. I breathed deeply and followed my feet.

DSC_0628I followed the mournful whoops deeper, feeling clumsy in my approach and watching where I stood, so as not to crunch the deep layers of dry leaves and twigs that would betray my presence to the forest. I imagine all the big animals present had noticed me from a mile off anyway.The calls became clearer, and I felt like I was close to the source. I rounded the top a small hill and stood silent. I blurred my eyes and stared into the canopy. This is something I’ve always done, since looking for monkeys in the trees in the garden in Barbados. The Vervet monkeys, or green monkeys as they are locally known, are beautifully camouflaged, and against the deep green, brown hue of the old mango trees they blend in invisibly. But if I blurred my eyes, I could see the change in light in the canopy, the opening and closing of gaps to the sun, the tell-tale sign of something in the trees, dipping a branch with its weight. Now whenever I walk into a patch of forest, I blur my vision to see if anything is slinking through the woods.

I still couldn’t see anything, but had to trust my instincts that I was close, because I could hear the call so strongly that I felt it was coming from directly above me. After about five minutes of staring into the branches I felt like it was some hearing trick. I began to lose hope that I would see anything, but continued to look up. I blinked. There it was.

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From nowhere, the gibbon appeared. I had been staring at the exact spot it materialized, and never saw it emerge. Maybe it had always been there. It peered down with a calm curiosity, and I gazed back.DSC_0671 (2)

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I feverishly clicked away with my camera, trying to get as many pictures as I could while it was still there. After about two minutes, it still showed no sign of leaving, just looked at me, and out into the broccoli tops of the open canopy. I think it was a Lar Gibbon (Hylobates lar).DSC_0650 (2)

It must have been a solid ten minutes we stood there, staring at each other. I stopped taking pictures, the distraction of the camera kept me from engaging with what I was actually looking at. It peered down, sent a long, deep hoot into the sky, and once again, vanished.

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We got back to the camp, had some lunch and snoozed in the shade. I was exhausted by the effort of concentration that morning and fell asleep deeply, but woke with a start soon after, as I realized how little time I had left here, and how much I still wanted to see.

Komg sensed my restlessness and started putting things in the truck. He said I could charge my batteries at the ranger’s station down the road, as there was no electricity during the day at the research station. Piak and Ooh climbed in the back with the drone and I got in the front with Komg.

We bounded down the rocky path, churning dust and pausing to see some animal we had disturbed, or to move debris from elephant tracks across the road.

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I asked Komg what elephants were like here. His expression darkened but he continued to smile, as he withdrew his phone and tapped the translation app on his phone. He held up the screen to show me a single symbol-ดุร้าย with only one translation- fierce.

We chatted with the rangers at the station and they let us their power to recharge the batteries. I had a lost in translation moment with one of the rangers, as I answered one of his questions in broken Thai. He assumed I knew more than I did, and launched into a speech about (I think) the forest and borders, which had I understood it, would have probably been very interesting. However at the end of his spiel he looked at my slightly exasperated and blank smile, registering that I understood nothing, he stomped back inside to watch TV.

We drove a little way with one of the batteries to one of the forest plots known as Kapuk Kapeang and launched the drone from there. Something burst out of the forest right behind me, and I turned the airborne camera around to find it, the footage didn’t actually show any thing in the end, so I assume it was a frightened deer or a lurking macaque. After a long flight over the plot with video and photos, I brought the drone down and we drove back to the station to collect the last battery. On the way we passed a truckload of soldiers, off to patrol the border.

We drove in the direction of camp along a steeper and narrower road. After about an hour of being thrown around in the cab, I realized we weren’t going to camp. I asked Komg where we were, he looked back at Ooh and Piak and burst into laughter. ‘We going to see Chang.’ He smiled- chang means elephant.

Salt licks are a very important feature for forest mammals. The sediment, usually clay, is rich in minerals and animals travel huge distances, risking predation and lack of food to get these scarce vitamins. The clay is rich in iodine and calcium, and are vital to the health of the mammals that feed here. Predators will therefore often come here to hunt, so deer are on high alert for the approach of predators.

As we got out of the car, I felt slight electricity in the air, or a heightened sense of stillness. The leaves beneath my feet crunched loudly. I swallowed nervously and the wet grind of my throat sounded loud and obvious. As we got out of the car, Komg impressed upon me again that elephants are not be messed with. He put this succinctly, “When we run, you run.”

We walked down to the first opening in the trees, where a dry mineral lick simmered in the grey, evening light. The canopy was very open, so I sent the drone zipping up overhead easily. Once hovering happily above us, we started walking to the main mineral lick, about 300m away. I noticed big, round footprint indenting the ground next to the river, it was around this point that everyone made an effort to keep quiet. I noticed that Piak when Piak snagged his shirt on a rattan vine, he stopped to carefully unhook the little thorns, rather than pluck it off loudly. The same vine caught my sleeve. We walked until the path opened up to reveal a small ledge. Piak waved a hand for us to stop. Piak has been working in Haui Kha Khaeng for about ten years, and the forest completely. He also understood how to move without scaring things, which is a difficult skill to grasp. I took two short steps and tottered to a halt, my flip flops slapping the wet ground loudly. He squinted into the forest and we waited. I sent the drone higher, quieter.

The forest fell silent as we waited. I peered hard into the forest. The words ‘Jurassic park’ rattled through my head. Something crunched distantly, soft enough to have been imagined. Something shimmered distantly, like light being blocked for barely an instant by some big movement. I narrowed my focus on a long corridor into the darkening, hazy forest and gaze shimmered with the concentration. No one moved.

“AAAIIHHHHK!”

I practically shat myself.

A barking deer plunged out of the forest. It scrambled onto the path in front of us, gave another truly ear splitting shriek and launched itself back into the forest on the other side. I let out a huff of relief and the guys laughed at me, my other hand was white and red, grasping the hem of my jeans tightly.

We stalked a little closer, just past the bottleneck before the mineral lick. I noticed that this path wasn’t man made, but rather cleared by the persistent trampling of generations of elephants. I stepped into a fresh, wet elephant footprint, the size of a dinner plate. Piak stepped forward and then stopped in frame, knee crooked in the air. His left flapped wildly while his eyes remained unshifting on some distant point. The tree crown of a dipterocarp twitched, betraying the presence of something very big beneath it.

I was scared, definitely, but not terrified, despite what I had heard. I felt aware of my surroundings, ready for my instincts to kick if we had to move quickly, I had a sense of being in control. How naive.

Somewhere not far from where we stood, several liters of air had just vanished from the forest undergrowth. Only moments before, it had been wafting lazily through the canopy, enjoying the lazy nibble of the mosaic of a billion tiny stomata covering the dense chatter of leaves. A second later it found itself being sucked down a long, dark tube, with incredible force and speed. It whooshed into an enormous organ and felt itself swirl and compress into the gigantic chamber. The chamber was inside of an even bigger, greyer animal that was gearing up to do something very scary. It tightened tremendous muscles in its diaphragm, pinching its stomach and expelled the contents its massive lungs between two small, but incredibly strong muscles in its head, and out again through the long tube. The hot, humid air shot back into the forest, looping up into the canopy in a whippy little vortex. A few milliseconds later, this powerful exchange of air produced an immense and horrifying sound that reached the eardrums of four humans who had been waiting nearby. The terrifying sound precipitated the shrinking of their own smaller, different organs and they leapt into action, running as fast as their clumsy legs could carry them as glands emptied panicked hormones into their bloodstream. The hot jet of air continued to rise high above the canopy, until it reached the propellers of a small robot. The robot had been observing whole process with a keen, vacant eye, and merely gave its flight stabilizing algorithms a quick squeeze as the warm air offset its tilt.

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Can you see the elephant? (Left hand corner by the stream). Sorry about the quality of the picture, screenshot from the video I’m editing.

The sound of the elephants scream was probably the most horrifying noise I have ever heard. It thumped out of the woods, with such depth, weight and strength that I think I could see it. It flicked a deep seated, primordial switch and knew to run. Not to slink of gracefully back into the woods, or hold our ground for some standoff. Just get the fuck out. So we did.

Ha- sib/ Ha- sib

Hi everyone! I’m really sorry about the lack of blog posts! Been a long time and there’s a lot to catch up on. I’m in Borneo now, which needs a whole bunch of new posts, but I’ll start from back in Thailand, using the drone too survey the forest plot in Haui Kha Khaeng.

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We covered ground much faster than in Khao Chong, as the ground was dry and flat, compared to the deluge down the sometimes actual cliff faces I was used to. We made it to the end of the plot where the trees were supposed to be thinner and I set up the drone.

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The canopy was pretty thin, but pioneering arms of lianas leaned out into the space above us, and I could imagine getting tangled in the propellers easily. Still, we’re here, only one thing to do. I showed Komg how to safely hold the drone on the flats of his palms for takeoff and I sent it up.

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In the car on the way to the camp the day before, Komg had asked me what was the likelihood of just losing the drone in the forest. I had read about drones sometimes just flying away, taking all the equipment with them and disappearing, this image seemed very real and plagued my thoughts whenever I took it out of the case, thinking that my last rough landing would have dislodged something and introduced a bug into the system. In theory when the drone is almost out of battery, it should fly back to the controller using its GPS. However I had no desire to test this theory for myself, so I had no idea what would happen if it ran out of battery, out of sight and above the dense forest. So what was the likelihood of just losing it here? “Ha- sib/ Ha- sib.” I answered, laughing. 50/50.

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“Ha- sib/ Ha-sib!” yelled Komg as it took off over the forest, rising with tinny whine into the air and over us. I gulped and laughed, it was time to be brave and test the limits of my ability with the drone, launch it through tight spots in the canopy and pilot it with limited visibility in between the trees. I sent it on a long sweeping arc over the forest, taking photos and then again in a zig zag to get the whole area.

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The sun was really bright and it was hard to spot the drone in the sky, but the little engine made enough noise for us to figure out where it was when I lost it in the air.

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After a good, long flight that would I hoped capture as much of the site as I could, I brought it back down, there was no space to actually land it on the ground here, but I had found a soft bush which I would strategically crash into, in theory. I brought it down slowly, seesawing to avoid branches. Finally I brought it until was about eight feet from the ground and let it hover. What I forgot however, was that Ooh was standing behind me, on a large log, I brought the drone up again and set it down on a course much farther away from us, while Ooh stood his ground defiantly against the misdirected robot.

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We did a few more flights, and with every one, I kept thinking Hahn- seep/ Hahn- seep. After a good, long flight that would I hoped capture as much of the site as I could, I brought it back down, there was no space to actually land it on the ground here, but I had found a soft bush which I would strategically crash into, in theory. I brought it down slowly, seesawing to avoid branches.DSC_0728 (2)

I did one flight taking pictures to map the plot and another to film flying over it, then crash it neatly into the soft undergrowth. While flying it was hard not to get distracted by the forest around me, absolutely fizzing with the sounds of life.

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We wandered back to the camp and fired up the computer to see what we had got, my hands drumming against the flaky bench top I was perched on, itching to view the landscape from a perspective seen by no one before us. To top it, the drone was tucked safely between my feet, dusty and defiant having beaten the odds.

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Who Will Save the River Dolphin?

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I’m working for the Tropical Dolphin Research Foundation, based at the moment out in the Sundarbans, Bangladesh, filming a documentary on a population of Ganges River Dolphins around the UNESCO national park in the region.

The documentary focuses on four young conservation biologists doing everything they can to save the maybe 1000 Ganges River Dolphins left in the wild. The dolphins face many problems including water pollution, sound pollution preventing them from hunting, getting caught in nets and drowning and being persecuted by fishermen.
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Farhana Ahktar (Education coordinator for Cetacean Diversity Project in Bangladesh) Sits for an interview about the struggles she faces staying in conservation biology.
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Subhasis Dey (center) (research associate with dolphin lab in Bhalglapur, India) talks with fishermen about their observations on the river.
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Ganges dolphin researchers (Dr. Sunil Choudhary and Subhasis Dey) from NE India.
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Manish Datta (left) (graduate student Khulna University, Bangladesh) talks to fellow students about his work between classes.
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Gopal Khanal (student Nepal) prepares for a meeting with villagers about least destructive fishing methods.
However whilst filming was taking place, as you may have heard, an oil tanker crashed in Shela River, off the Sundarbans, spilling over 75’000 gallons of crude oil into the national park.
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Its hugely important that we got this documentary produced as we investigate the government’s response to the crisis, such as asking local to clean it up themselves for the government to sell back to the Pamda Oil Company.
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The mangrove ecosystem is tidal, and the roots of the trees actually need to be exposed to air in order to breathe, so the layer of oil is effectively suffocating the trees in badly affected areas.
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First dead dolphin spotted- not sure of the species, but its undeniable that this is already having a severe impact on animal populations here at the UNESCO National Park.
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TDRF has set up an Indiegogo campaign to fund this production and see it through filming in the region and need all the help we can get to come close to our target.
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Ganges River Dolphin
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Please watch the trailer and make a donation to the project. All donations will go toward the film, so even if we don’t meet our target in time, there will still be funding for the production of the documentary. So Please let us make this documenary happen, as this is a very important story.
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Sepak Takraw- Man vs Physics

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After a long day’s trekking across the forest plot at Huai Kha Khaeng, scouting for spots to fly the drone, we arrived back at the camp. Another group had already come back and were playing boule, stretching and taking off their shirts like some bizarre ritual. I asked Nong what was happening and he replied with a grin “Takraw”.

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Takraw is a game between the players and the laws of physics. You can’t use your hands and the objective is to keep the ball from landing on the ground in your side. You can use your feet, legs, body and head, which inspires the most creative bodily contortions to knock the ball back in the other side.

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Someone serves, throwing it to a team mate, DSC_0417

they kick it up

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The first side getting the most points in three sets wins. DSC_0405

The ball itself is made of tough, flexible plastic, weaved into a ball, so that it bounces under its own tension and lasts pretty much forever. Its hard plastic, so you need to be tough to play this game. One of the guys kicked the ball straight into his own face, to the roaring amusement of everyone, but I imagine it must have hurt.

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The game was going amazingly, bodies flinging themselves with ease across the court as a tantrum of hot dust clouded their feet. The game pushes completely past the limits of my own flexibility,

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and sometimes theirs too.

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We watched and drank ice cold beer while the points played out. The game was going really well, even after a day in the field, walking kilometres through the forest. After a few glasses of whiskey, Nong hoisted up his white shorts until they were level with his belly button and strode confidently into the court like an enormous, tattooed baby.DSC_0596

And then I pranced in. There was a lot of banter around the court, I watched bemused at they pointed at me and did a mime for ‘boobs’. Must have been an inside joke.

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And then I actually scored a few points.

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We rotated the games, playing a few and then sitting back to drink and watch the next set.

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After a few more games I collapsed back onto the bench and proceeded to get pretty drunk on the continuous shots of what I think was whiskey, handed to me copiously by the loveliest, friendliest people.

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The talent, hilarity, swiftness of the game and amazing people filled me with so much sheer joy that my smiling muscles ached as I stumbled off the court.

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Here Be Tigers

The road to the field site was long and windy, going steadily deeper into the forest to the point that tarmac dissolved into dust and leaves. On the way we stopped at a restaruant for lunch and Komg explained how the road affected our travel time, drawing a simple map, we would be going 70km along the main road, which would only take about an hour, but travelling the 30 km through the forest would take an hour and a half because of the state of the road, and points where the road actually disappeared.

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We passed a lot of soldiers on the way, as Hau Kha Khaeng is along the border between Myanmar and Thailand, so there is a lot of monitoring to make sure the trafficking of drugs and occasionally people along the border.

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Every few moments we stopped to see furry things scatter through the trees.

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We bumped down the road until my jaw rattled and brakes squealed ahead of hidden bridges. We crossed a few wooden bridges and I got out on most of them to guide the truck, as I could imagine the ridiculous scenario that would arise if we crashed the truck.

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After what seemed like the whole day, we finally arrived at a row of galvanized tin roofs, sitting on small shacks. We pulled ourselves out of the truck and went to meet the crowd that had gathered. About 15 people work at the forest plot, and we had arrived as they began to pour out of the forest in the early evening. They greeted us with big smiles and I spoke the entirety of my Thai vocabulary in the first few seconds trying to keep up with them. They spoke very little English so I had to get by on whatever I could convey. The language barrier would prove to be quite challenging here over time.

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We smoked some Thai palm cigarettes and chatted, and after a few minutes I took out the drone to show them. We handed it around for a bit, then thinking that now was as good as ever, I sent it up.

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Later on we had dinner as sunlight died. I couldn’t get over how nice everyone was, quietly accepting into their tight knit group without a flicker of hesitation.

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Later on we watched Thai soap opera- which included a Thai dwarf karate fight scene- drank beer and smoked until the batteries began to flicker and we lost power. The bushes next to my room rattled with animal activity through the night.

In the morning we had what was left of dinner and freshly steamed, sweet smelling rice. I found a porcupine quill resting by the basin, where it had been foraging the night before. People didn’t really speak in the morning, just hugged their knees in the cold and sipped sugary coffees. It was really peaceful in the morning. Birdsong rang with clarity through the cold air and distant hooting of gibbons haunted our silence.

After breakfast we packed our gear and strolled into the forest. I was  excited, nervous and faintly bemused, this was all happening and I felt like I had more or less just fallen into it. I walked into the forest with a triumphant smirk.

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Huai Kha Khaeng/ Forward

I sat down and watched the landscape trundle by. I could feel the heavy engine beginning to churn over the tracks, warming hunks of metal rolled beneath as the city smeared past the dusty window. I sat for a while watching and walked out to the back of the carriage, where the second car joined the first and looked down at the gaps of light flitting by on the tracks below.

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Sitting back down, I tried to write and made conversation in my limited Thai with the old couple next to me. I felt restless, having left Khao Chong, but I wasn’t sure what for. Last time I had been travelling it had been my own decision where I went and what I did, I had a choice this time, but I had a schedule and a plan, so I felt concerned that I wasn’t open to the spontaneity of a solo trip. After a while of thinking about it though, I realized I was on the way to Huai Kha Khaeng, a UNESCO world heritage site, a massive swathe of forest encompassing The border of Thailand and Myanmar, and Dr. Sarayudh’s 50 hectare forest monitoring site, which I was going to photograph with my drone. I guess things could be worse.

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I walked around the train, saying hi to the car attendant, and walked down through third class. The ticket cost about 14 pounds and would take me almost 1000km north, at that price I couldn’t even make it to London from Bristol in England. I went to sleep in my seat, but felt suspenseful when I woke a few minutes later, concerned I was missing some potentially extraordinary vista from the train. I grabbed my camera and walked over to the open carriage doors to take pictures of the world streaming by.

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Watching the land slip past from the side of an open train is an odd feeling, the sight seems to have an odd kind of viscosity, like pouring syrup, your eyes get tangled in some tiny moment, finding purchase on the tiniest bubble, and ebb back to the normal flow of time. Things so tiny and fast pass through the moment that they can hardly be said to have happened. I watched people on the road next to the train, split seconds of eye contact blossomed like an ocean of time as we looked at each other from our spinning, pivoting perspectives, and then we whisked forward, until the instantly intimate interaction was no more than a distant pixel. I sat on the side and watched the landscape happen, the rise and sigh of limestone cliffs, the purr of rice paddies and gush of open fields.

After a while the train made a stop and a lot of the local passengers hopped off. The old guy sitting next to me smiled and said “Eem- lau?” Asking if I was full, I realized this was where they were buying food so I grinned and jumped off to see what was available. A woman sold curry in tiny plastic pots, there wasn’t anything else and it smelled great, so I bought two. I turned around to see the train lurch forward behind me. I overpaid the woman and sprinted to catch it. It probably wasn’t even going that fast, but it had everything I owned on board so I was keen to catch it. I made it onto the carriage behind mine and breathing a sigh of relief, walked through, holding plates above my head to head to not spill curry on the pair of fighting kids.

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The curry was so spicy that the only way to stop it burning was to eat more of it, so I kept eating until my mouth was on fire while I watched the landscape spill by. I didn’t have any water so I just sat and fanned my mouth and waited for it to pass.

I went out to brush my teeth, but instead of going to the toilet, I walked out between the carriages and watched villages turn into empty dusty roads, into oil palm plantations and sports stadiums in five of minutes standing, looking out into landscape. I finished brushing my teeth and made a disastrous error. I was stood on the space between the two carriages, Behind me sat the car attendant, staring wistfully out of the open window with a cigarette, I had waved when I walked over but forgot he was there when I spat my mouthful of toothpaste, the rushing wind took this gob of fluid , lifted into the air and flung back into the train, only a few feet from where I had been standing, straight through the open window of the train attendant, extinguishing his cigarette, and probably his mood. I walked back to my seat.

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After wiping off the mint he came round to make all the beds in the train, quite a mammoth task which he finished in about ten minutes, neatly pulling beds out of the moving walls and dressing in hospital sheets, pulling the neat little curtains tight. I hauled myself in, pulled off my boots and listened to the monotonous thud of metal below. Before I knew I was asleep, fully clothed and happy with a still slightly bloody foot and toothpaste splattered shirt.

DSC_0651 DCIM106GOPROI woke around 3 am and got up, walking around the train. Everyone was asleep but it was still loud on board the train, with sound of engines, and the buzz of serious looking fans that made the inside of the train freezing in the night. I met a girl on the bus a few weeks before and she told me that her train had been delayed by about three hours and it made me concerned that I would miss my stop. So, about two hours earlier than I needed to be, I was awake and waiting to go. So about two hours later I got off, as the train arrived perfectly on time, at 5.30 in the morning, and I hopped out into the fresh cold morning air of Bang Sue. Haha, Bang Sue.

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I grabbed a cab to the university and waited until Komg and Ooh arrived. They worked for Dr. Srayudh and were going to go to take me up to Huai Kha Khaeng. They were cheery and friendly, and after chatting in limited Thai and English, we piled into the car and drove to Haui Kha Khaeng.

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So Long, Khao Chong

I don’t really do goodbyes. When I finished my job as a research assistant at the University of Bristol, I left without a word to anyone. I spoke to some of them afterward, but not all. `in hindsight this was a quite rude, but at the time,  didn’t want to make the promises of meeting up again when I didn’t know when I would next be back, but most of all I hated the summarizing a person into a short sentence about how great it’s been to work with them. I feel that by describing someone back to themselves in that kind of “It’s been such a pleasure to work with you” kind of way, compresses the whole working relationship into some passing remark, an anticlimax. I left without saying goodbye, and now I left Khao Chong on the other end of this notion entirely, hugging Pitoon and Janya goodbye on the train, and struggling to find words for my feelings. Khao Chong has been such a fantastic, spontaneous, happy, painful burst of experience and I really, really want to come back.

I spent Sunday catching up on emails and scouring the net for my research proposal. It was my last whole day in Khao Chong, but it was pouring rain, and I had had my formula for productiveness two hours earlier- three cups of coffee and no breakfast. Being hungry makes me work harder, I feel soft and useless after eating so I held out until lunch. Rain pounded against the tin roof and did that invasive thing that rain can sometimes do, of being blown right into the room where you are, despite the roof and ten feet between me and the elements, on the upstairs balcony. Whilst I worked I thought about where I was going next, Huai Kha Khaeng, the forest monitoring plot in Northern Thailand, established by Dr. Sarayudh in 1993. It was about six hours away from Bangkok, so I would travel thee and get a lift with the researchers going back into the field. I leapt at this opportunity because it was the only time I would be able to see this pristine piece of forest, with a different, more mammal- driven ecology. I decided to take the train to Bangkok instead of flying, as I could save a night’s accommodation by sleeping on the way and I would get a chance to see a lot more of Thailand.

I went out with Pitoon later that day to get my ticket, a second class with a bed for 741 Baht, not bad, 15 pounds for 800km. That wouldn’t even get me to London from Bristol in the UK. We stopped off at a market and got a load of food for that evening. Pitoon and I split up, I went to get vegetables and he went for the chicken. It occurred to me as I walked through the stalls and the many different and not always pleasant smells they emitted on that hot, rainy day, that I had learned a decent amount of Thai. I could do the numbers, ask for stuff, knew most vegetables and fruit, I could even muster a bit of fruitless negotiation. I bought everything green and fresh, a big pineapple, loads of leaves and eventually came past a bowl of insects I recognized. They are called something which sounds like Meh-a-Kong, and are a kind of water beetle. They were huddled, dead and drying in the basket. I bought three and looked them over. They were very big, fitting squarely in the palm of my hand, and had thick, meaty legs. I put them with the baby corn and kept on shopping.

Back at Khao Chong, I washed my clothes and started hauling out the junk I accumulated in my room over the course of my time here. As much as I try to fool myself, I am not a tidy person. I realized the far end of my bed was peppered with bat poo, so apparently there had been a bat in my room with me for quite a few nights. I wasn’t aware of this. Eventually I got all my gear together and threw it in the washing machine. It clunked and groaned with the effort while I groaned and tapped on the humid keyboard of my laptop.

A few hours later I went downstairs to start cooking. Bel, an entomologist and probably the toughest of the crew, was sat with a tall brown whiskey, shouting about the football match. Nok sat at the table, smiling chatting to Janya whose face had already lit up with the flush of drinking.

I tinkered in the kitchen, chopping things up but not sure what to make. After about ten minutes I went off to the shops to get some more booze, as I anticipated tonight may be a heavy one. To get to the shop, you can go about 100m out of the gate and then come back down the road, or you can cut straight through the flower bed and down a ditch that leads straight out in front of the shop. I walked through the flowerbed, hands outstretched in the dark and guided myself through the mass of spiky palm fronds. After getting three bags of whiskey, beer and ice, I walked back down the road, considering how to get back, as walking the whole 100m clearly was not an option. I walked down the road to find a less step gap in the side of the road to walk up, as I was carrying a lot of stuff. I stepped onto the curb and lifted myself and the bags up. My sandal flipped over and something stung my foot.

I pushed through the palms and made it back onto the path. I had that sinking feeling of having inflicted some damage on myself. My foot didn’t hurt as such, but I could feel that it wasn’t ok. There was something extra on my foot, a little baggage that pressed against the sole of my flip flop. I limped back, water from cold dark puddles splashing onto my feet and stinging more. I got back to the kitchen and sat down. As a rule, it doesn’t hurt until you look at it. I didn’t know what was on my foot or why it felt so delicate, so I kept my gaze ahead, and sprayed the hose on the muddy limb. I was putting it off as much as I could, the last thing I wanted was to get hurt right before I went to Huai Kha Khaeng, where I would be hiking all day. I lifted my foot up and looked into it. A clean, curved gash circled the ball of my foot. The skin was cut and some weird, white strands that I assumed were tendons or something important, were poking through. Great.

I showed my foot to Pitoon and he chuckled, shaking his head, which is exactly what I was doing. Of course this would happen right before I leave. Mr. Noi took the iodine and squirted it beneath the flap of skin, which was quite painful. He wrapped it in cotton and pressed down. This also hurt. I looked down in exasperation, wondering whether it would be ok to put it back in my shoe for the next seven days. Pitoon was thinking the same and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital to get stitches. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to get stitches, but the alternative of having this thing fester in my boot seemed all too real. We piled into the car, me eating cookies to dull the pain and Pitoon wearing his ever- calm expression.

We drove for about ten minutes until Pitoon turned off down a dark alleyway. Having realized it was the wrong dark alleyway, he pulled and carried on until he found the right one. The familiar, twice life size portrait of the king stood at the entrance of the hospital, expressionless as we pulled in. I swallowed hard and hobbled out of the car, careful not get the gutter water in my foot. I hobbled up the stairs and Pitoon explained the situation to the nurse on call, it didn’t need much explaining after I raised my foot, and they pointed toward the cold light of an operating theatre. Fuck.

Inside the nurses were cheerful and spoke a little English, Pitoon filled them on the details and I provided the foot. They cleaned it up and drew over a small tray with iodine, water, alcohol, stitches ad a rather large syringe. I couldn’t believe this was my Sunday night. The doctor cleaned away the flecks of cotton and mud and poured icy water over it, which was surprisingly pleasant, am I a masochist? The following, injection of anesthetic right into the wound was the farthest thing from enjoyable, and confirmed that no I was not. The injection was excruciating, but I’m glad they did it, as after that I couldn’t feel a single thing. I felt the sponge dabbing cleaning it gingerly and the unnerving tug of stitches tightening but there was no pain. So I took a few pictures with my GoPro and watched the process happen.

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Once I was stitched and bandaged up they gave me a wodge of pills and a bill for 500 Baht, I was happy to pay the ten pounds for the great treatment I had received but after some chatter they took the bill back. I asked Pitoon what happened and he said that they don’t need to charge tourists, as the government covered tourists in emergency. This was unbelievable, literally I didn’t believe it because the hospital I had gone into was empty, whereas a private one I went to earlier in the month had been ram packed with people, using private medical care as an alternative to the standard of government care. Why then would they provide free medical care to every pillock, like me, who has fallen off a scooter and needs piecing back together, if the standard of treatment drove people to pay for it? The paint was peeling a bit here, but was otherwise fine. Still, they wouldn’t accept payment and even handed me a ziploc bag, with more alcohol and sterilized q-tips to clean the wound. Another example of the beautiful kindness of people here. I went back to the house and applied further alcohol to my wound, internally, I’m trying to say that I drank a lot of whiskey.

A diversity of dishes covered the table, Janya had already got through half a bottle of whiskey by the time we got back and his face was reaching that roasting pink tint. Janya is a one man pantomime. He tells his stories in Thai with his hands mostly, as his upper lip, whilst concealing a lump of chewing tobacco, recedes up and up his face, until there is just gums and teeth. The stream of traffic into and out of his face is constant; chatting a stream of noise out, drinking in whiskey and spooning in som tum. His face is alive with expression as he is caught, totally in the moment and happy.

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Pitoon has an innate calmness about him, his furrowed brow shows his constant thought process whirring away, but it rarely surfaces. I have never seen him express anger or disappointment, just happy or neutral. Across the table from me, his eyes tracked down to find Clong, the cat, sitting in his lap. He hugged the cat close and it purred, falling asleep. One afternoon I came out to the kitchen to find Pitoon asleep on the bench in front of the TV, hugging Clong fast to his chest like a soft toy. It doesn’t get anywhere near what I would consider cold here, but Pitoon brushes off this display of affection by saying he’s chilly, and a warm cat belly is the perfect solution.

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We watched videos of Thai music videos which are fantastic to watch, but run on pretty restricted themes. Usually its boy meets girl, falls in love, has to win over her father, wins over her father and they hold hands. Or there’s the broken hearted guy, recollecting the times he had with his girlfriend, whilst he watches her get into the car of another richer guy. There all pretty similar but they are super low budget and are shot in villages with the people there. I watched one set in a shopping mall I had been in earlier that day. They also usually feature a clip of someone harvesting rubber and working in the heat, illustrating the cultural importance of the crop.

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After a few glasses of whiskey, the throbbing in my foot seemed to settle and I rested it up on the chair. I thought about my time here and how tomorrow I would be heading away. Most of all I didn’t want to say the familiar “I’m definitely coming back” When in reality I have no idea when I would come back, or if I would get the opportunity.

The next day I woke early, with my hangover throbbing in my head and packed my bag. It didn’t take long and I spent a while in the hammock thinking about my trip as early morning rain drifted onto the verandah. I took some photos of the place, and piled into the car with Pitoon and Janya. On the way out I saw Yun and gave him a hug through the window of the truck, he’s such an incredibly nice and genuine guy, I already miss him.

We drove into Trang, past a fantastic roundabout of dugongs I didn’t have time to photograph, reminding me of how different and great every moment was out here, and how valuable every minute you kept your eyes open. They dropped me off at the train station and we sat together for a few minutes, waiting to go. I mumbled about how great my time was and how I’d love to come back, thanking them for being so accommodating and friendly. Words kind of paled at this point, and when they left me in the train I felt drained as much as happy, grateful for the opportunity to meet such fantastic, warm people. The engine started and I watched them disappear behind me as the train moved on forward.

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