Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise (2017) s01e02 Episode Script

The Central Heartland

In the heart of South East Asia is an ancient kingdom.
With over 3,000km of coastline.
But beyond its golden shores there are secret worlds.
Home to mysterious creatures .
and forest giants.
This is a fast-changing country where East and West collide.
People and animals must work together to survive.
Forming unique relationships.
A spiritual land .
full of magic and wonder.
This is Thailand.
Each morning, a magical chorus rings through the forests of Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand.
The cry of the lar gibbon bonds males and females.
These intelligent apes often pair for life and advertise their territorial rights with song.
In their forest sanctuary, this cream-coloured male and his dark-haired mate are raising a youngster.
Grooming helps keep family bonds strong for the ten or more years they'll stay together.
Finding food is the next priority.
And it's not always easy.
It requires an intimate knowledge of their patch of forest.
Building momentum helps them swing from tree to tree at speeds of more than 50km per hour.
Following memory maps of highways through the tree tops, the gibbons find the perfect places to forage.
But sometimes a gibbon highway meets a human highway.
When the fruiting trees are on the other side, there's a big problem.
Gibbons are strictly arboreal.
So they're reluctant to leave the trees and are vulnerable on the ground.
Crossing a busy road on foot would be too dangerous.
No-one passing below this rope bridge gives it a second thought.
But, for the gibbons, it's a lifeline.
The rope bridge allows the park's gibbons to access fresh feeding grounds.
The devoted couple have located a fruiting fig tree.
Time for a lazy breakfast.
Their lives have been made just a little bit safer by a human helping hand.
Life in one of Asia's fastest-changing countries means people and animals are finding new ways to get along.
Central Thailand is the richest and most productive region.
Its fertile flood plains nourish rice fields that cover 40% of all the farmland.
Where the land meets the Gulf of Thailand .
lies the great city of Bangkok.
Around 8 million people live in the nation's capital.
And this bustling central region is known as the nation's rice bowl.
Even here, there are magical places to be found, hidden from view .
where age-old beliefs and traditional practices live on .
and time seems to have stood still.
Phraya Nakhon Cave was discovered some 200 years ago, when Thailand was still known as Siam.
Thai kings have visited this cavern for centuries.
The Royal Pavilion crowns this mystical place.
Spirituality is the key to understanding central Thailand's harmonious relationship with nature.
This Lyle's flying fox is waiting out the heat of the day.
And he's not alone.
With leathery wings nearly a metre wide, he can fly 30km or more in search of fruit.
These flying foxes are often regarded as pests, destroying orchards and causing conflict with farmers.
But this bat and his colony are special.
They are under Buddha's own protection.
This is the temple of Wat Pho Bang Khla.
As dusk approaches, the resident monks are called to prayer by the beat of a drum.
But the bats have heard it all before.
Here, the spiritual and animal kingdoms are united.
Buddhism is the religion of more than 90% of Thai people, profoundly influencing their everyday lives.
Buddhist teachings state that all living things are worthy of kindness, compassion and tolerance.
This very tolerant place is known as the Bat Temple.
It's the daytime residence of 6,000 or more flying foxes.
Leaving their sanctuary to forage far away, they'll return at dawn to this spiritual haven.
The natural world features prominently in Thai religion and mythology.
The lotus is linked to Buddha himself.
In shallow lakes to the west of Bangkok, tightly-filled buds rise on slender stems as if craning their necks to the heavens.
The contrast of the blooms to the muddy water inspired Buddha to use the lotus as a symbol of enlightenment.
The passage from darkness to light, ignorance to wisdom.
Yukha spends every day in the watery fields plucking the stems.
Almost every part of the lotus is edible, and the petals, roots and stamens are used in traditional medicine.
By dawn the next day, these bouquets will be on sale in Bangkok.
But not as ingredients for food or pharmacy, they are destined for a higher purpose.
The lotus bud is one of the most popular ways to pay tribute at one of more than 30,000 temples.
Embracing both Buddhist and Hindu principles, people make daily offerings to honour the gods.
This shrine is named after Erawan - the elephant that carried the Hindu god Indra, so he deserves a floral offering too.
Here in Thailand, one animal's fate is intertwined more than any other with the country's history and its future.
The Asian elephant.
It has been revered for centuries.
Even the word for its dung also means moon.
A new beginning, the propagator.
Creating new life from seed dispersal.
But the story of elephants in Thailand is not always a happy one.
There are more than 4,000 of these giants in captivity.
And most visitors to Thailand take a ride on a domesticated elephant for granted.
At Sublangka Wildlife Sanctuary, a new life is offered to elephants rescued from the tourist trade.
The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation releases rehabilitated elephants back into the forest.
31-year-old Wadsana was bought by the sanctuary in 2011.
Four years later, a calf called Earn arrived.
And they have been inseparable ever since.
Earn and her adopted mother are now taken on regular walks in the forest.
To be ready for their release, they'll need to be familiar with its sights, sounds and smells, know where to find water, and what they can and can't eat.
Annan is a former mahout, an elephant trainer and rider.
He is now one of the team of rangers responsible for the daily care of the elephants.
Wadsana and Earn will soon be ready to join Sublangka's growing population of elephants.
And for when the day arrives, a royal send-off is being planned.
300km south-west of Bangkok lies the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.
The plains flood during the rainy season, and with the waters come rich deposits of silt.
These fertile fields not only fill the rice bowls of a nation, they also provide a major export.
So, for farmers, living side-by-side with animals is a delicate balance.
Chestnut munias do their best to steal the rice grains ripening in the paddy fields.
And the farmers chase them away, just as they always have.
Open-billed storks were once hunted by villagers for food.
But in the 1980s, golden apple snails were introduced to Asia from South America, and became a major agricultural pest.
Suddenly, the storks became the farmers' friends.
They are snail specialists.
So they are left to forage in peace.
Local farmer Uncle Alf is draining a pool.
Fish are abundant among the paddies.
Family and friends muck in to help with the catch.
These freshwater fish were trapped here when floodwaters receded at the end of the last rainy season.
Scooping them up by hand is the way it's always been done.
But sometimes the fish make it easy for you.
The harvested fish will be sold at the market, and the little egrets are welcome to any left behind.
There's one kind of fish that is highly prized across central Thailand.
But not as food.
And these village boys are out to catch some.
Here's what they're after - a fish that's admired for showing no fear in defence of its territory.
The Betta fish is better known as the Siamese fighting fish.
They share their fearless reputation with the gladiators of the ancient martial art of Muay Thai.
Or Thai boxing.
Top fighters can become household names earning millions of Thai baht per fight.
Fortunes can be won or lost on the outcome.
The opponents size each other up.
The fish extend their fins to make themselves look bigger.
When one fish is slipped into the bottle of the other, their true nature as born fighters is revealed.
A knockout ends this bout .
and the fish fight is over when one retreats to the bottom of the bottle.
Tomorrow, both fish will be returned to the wild.
For centuries, Siamese fighting fish have been admired as prize-fighters, but selective breeding to enhance colour, tail and fins has also made them into exquisite objects of desire.
Photographer Visarute is well known in Thailand for his photographs capturing their silky sensuousness.
Extreme slow motion reveals their dance in all its willowy grace.
These little fish loom large in Thai culture .
epitomising the exoticism of this country.
Food is a huge part of Thai culture.
But among the more familiar ingredients in Thailand's food markets are some unexpected delicacies.
Wi Li has bought this supper of live crickets to feed her family.
Insects have long been on the menu in Thailand.
And the children love these crispy bugs.
But thieves lurk in the shadows.
The soles of their feet are covered in microscopic bristles that split into hundreds more, gripping every surface.
It's one of the largest geckos in the world.
The tokay.
A gecko might steal a meal or two, but they also help get rid of unwelcome insects.
Geckos evolved to climb trees and rocks, so scaling a wall is no problem.
At up to 35 centimetres long, they're big lizards with big appetites.
Thai people may be accustomed to large lizards in their houses .
but some giants make more intimidating neighbours.
Lumphini Park in the heart of Bangkok.
An oasis of green amid the daytime bustle.
But something's not quite right with this picture of carefully tended tranquillity.
There's danger in this urban paradise.
Huge lizards, called water monitors, stalk these lawns.
Water monitors can reach more than three metres in length and weigh over 50kg.
These lizards are exclusively carnivorous.
They even dispose of the remains of less fortunate monitor lizards, which may win them a few friends.
Razor-sharp teeth and germ-laden saliva can inflict life-threatening wounds.
But water monitors rarely bite humans.
The reaction to these latter-day dinosaurs is typically Thai.
Their attitude, when it comes to potentially lethal lizards sharing public spaces, is summed up by one of their favourite Buddhism-inspired expressions - mai pen rai - it's fine.
Just be calm, carefree, and we can all get along.
Some Buddhist teachings advise that things are best left alone.
But they also may urge direct action to preserve the natural world.
Like symbolically ordaining trees as monks, complete with robes, as a sort of spiritual preservation order.
Other Buddhist ceremonies can also benefit nature.
And for Wadsana and Earn, it's a very special day.
Making merit is a way of earning celestial favour for doing a good deed.
It might be giving alms to a monk, chanting Buddhist scripture, or releasing an animal into the wild.
As befits their size and place in Thai culture, to release an elephant is one of the highest forms of making merit.
Today, six will be set free, six elephants for the 60th birthday of Thailand's much-loved Princess Sirindhorn.
It's a very big day for a little elephant like Earn.
She has to face the crowds of well-wishers.
And Annan has even taught her to bow for the Princess.
The Princess blesses them with holy water.
She offers them each a stick or two of sugar cane for their journey, and they are free.
Annan and the team of rangers will continue to monitor their progress.
There's already a herd of previously released elephants roaming the forest.
Hopefully, in time, Wadsana and Earn will join up with them.
But first, they need to get used to life without Annan.
Elephants have always occupied a special place in Thai mythology.
But other animals share that mythical status.
And some are a lot harder to get along with.
In rural Sakaerat, north-east of Bangkok, a lethal conflict is taking place between villagers and snakes.
There are more than 175 snake species in Thailand.
This little Asian vine snake is one of more than 100 that are venomous.
And more than half of those are highly dangerous.
There are up to 10,000 snake bites per year in Thailand.
And one type of snake bites more people than all the other snakes put together.
This roadside community is typical of rural Thailand.
Running through its centre is a river that dries up entirely in the hot season.
As night falls, it becomes a perilous place, haunted by predators.
Pit vipers.
Barely 60 centimetres long, this green pit viper is making its way to a site where it can ambush frogs, lizards or mice.
It's all too easy for someone passing by to brush dangerously close to this striking little snake.
Snakes are often killed on sight, but there's a snake conservation team here that is trying to save the snakes and people in the Sakaerat area and beyond.
A call has come in that a huge king cobra has tried to enter a house, and has taken refuge in a potted shrub.
Colin Strine, head of the snake team, assesses the situation.
Stet back, step back, step back.
It's one of the world's most deadly snakes.
OK, I'm going to go ahead and make the grab now.
I'm trying to bring out the vines that it's grabbing onto.
The bite of a king can deliver enough venom to kill an elephant.
So there's no room for error.
Here we go, here we go.
Go, go, go.
- Grip now, grip now, please.
- OK.
- Good.
Good job.
Release, let go.
If this snake had not been rescued, the locals would have felt they had no choice but to kill it.
Bagged and boxed, the cobra will be taken back to the conservation centre.
Nice and easy.
We don't see any parasites.
Snakes that are brought in by the team are given a sedative prior to a thorough health check.
Measurements are taken for the team's research.
Perfectly natural, and it's quite common with humans to be very fearful of snakes.
I guess we should just be really happy that they were willing to call instead of just killing it.
We do work pretty hard to try and educate people about snakes, and about not to be afraid of them.
The king cobra is the longest of all venomous snakes and reaches close to six metres in length.
This male is a mere three-and-a-half metres.
The sleeping king is inflated.
The long lungs running down his body are full of anaesthetic which has to be manually forced out before he can come around.
It's crucial that rescued snakes are returned to their own territories, so they're given time to recover fully before being released a short distance from their capture sites.
For Colin, every king safely returned to its territory is a success story.
It feels good, because they're still alive.
It's always a pleasant feeling when they're going back into the wild.
Some Thai people believe that encountering a snake is a sign of good luck and good fortune .
though it might be best to avoid sharing the water with one.
The ancient serpent cult of this region teaches that the wealth of Thailand was bestowed upon it by the Naga snake spirits, living in the kingdom's waterways.
For centuries, these waterways have helped transport people and goods around Thailand.
At watery crossroads, floating markets sprang up everywhere.
These days, modern commerce is fast replacing the traditional.
But an amiable armada of old women, vessels laden with local produce, still invades Tha Kha, west of Bangkok, to buy and sell from boat to boat.
The lowlands of central Thailand have long been the agricultural heart of the country.
A network of canals was constructed to link rivers and allow the transportation of goods east from Cambodia and south-west from coastal provinces.
During the rainy season, fertile sediment washes down these waterways, eventually reaching the Gulf of Thailand.
As the monsoon subsides, the sea teems with life.
The waters are ripe for harvest.
And one of the largest yield comes in the form of a very small fish.
It's anchovy season at fishing villages all along the Gulf Coast.
The daily catch is deftly filleted and neatly laid out to dry in the sun.
This must take place before the fish start to spoil.
So everyone plays a part in the process.
Once the sun and breeze have done their work, the dried fish will keep for up to a year.
There's plenty for everyone in this seasonal pay-out.
Flocks of terns are always ready to cash in.
But a much larger fisherman has arrived in these waters.
The locals call it chao pho lai, meaning very big grandfather.
A 15-metre-long Bryde's whale.
Whales are thought to bring good luck, but locals believe that bad things happen to those who harm them.
Chao pho lai is also the name for Thai mafia.
From August to December, the whales gather in the Gulf of Thailand to make the most of the abundant anchovies.
They usually feed alone, though a mother and calf will hunt together.
These two have located a school of anchovies.
Like other whales in the rorqual family, such as blue and humpback whales, Bryde's whales sieve each monumental mouthful through long, coarse bristles called baleen.
At least, that's how it usually works.
These whales are exhibiting behaviour that is puzzling marine biologists.
Some think the anchovies are too small, and would slip through the coarse baleen of the Bryde's.
So the whales rock and swill the fish to the back of the gullet so they can swallow them.
In other parts of the world where they feed on larger fish, Bryde's whales don't use this method.
But here they seem to have developed a unique way of making the most of Thailand's fertile waters.
These giants of the sea are treated with respect and reverence.
In central Thailand, the giants of the forest are gaining freedom and ever more footholds in the wild.
The little elephant family is learning to live on its own.
Climbing a tall and slippery bank could be dangerous for Earn.
But Wadsana shows her how, ascending the slope on her knees.
It looks like Earn's going to be just fine.
The rangers follow the elephants regularly, checking to make sure they are healthy and learning to feed themselves successfully.
Annan will never come into close contact with them again.
They'll now live out their lives in the forest as wild elephants.
The Asian elephant is the enduring symbol of Thailand.
At Sublangka, their breeding herd in the wild is also a symbol of Thailand's transition from past to present.
Making merit and earning goodwill from the gods, means also renewing the forest.
In the forests, fields, and even the cities of central Thailand, nature thrives, with the blessing and help of its people.
Unique, spiritual and still untamed.
The ancient bonds between humans and animals live on.
During the filming of the central Thailand episode, the crew visited Sakaerat, a hot spot for conflict between humans and snakes.
The one creature they really wanted to film was a very pretty snake with a very bad reputation.
It's a snake that has been carefully studied here at the Sakaerat Environmental Research Station.
These will put you in hospital.
Producer Steve Cole is introduced to the serpent in question by snake research assistant Ben Marshall.
These guys are responsible for the vast majority of bites in Thailand.
They are beautiful, aren't they? It's a green pit viper.
How far would that snake strike? Is it a she? Would she expect me to be a lot closer before she Yeah, much closer, and a lot more agitated.
These guys are not going to waste their time, waste their venom, they will attempt to hide.
They will attempt to just stay absolutely still.
It sounds like the sort of snake we might have some hope of filming! Absolutely.
Especially when you find one, cos he's not going to be going anywhere.
Finding these creatures in the wild can be both difficult and dangerous.
But, luckily for Steve, this team rescues and releases the types of venomous snake that most often come into conflict with people.
Many of these are radio tagged to provide data on their habits and whereabouts.
I keep thinking she, but I could be wrong.
It's this inside info that Steve needs.
And snake researcher Sammy Assad is here to guide the film team.
Three tagged pit vipers have made this dry riverbed their home.
They don't move around much, so they should be easy to find.
That's the theory.
Green pit vipers hunt under the cover of darkness.
Sammy quickly picks up the signal of one of the transmitters.
So, at the moment, it's sounding like he's just within the base of this, kind of, liana vegetation covered tree.
I'd definitely be careful moving around here, cos there are lots of other green pit vipers in the area.
So if you're going to walk around, make sure you've got a head torch on.
After checking he's not about to have his very own snake conflict, cameraman Si Wagen sets up lights.
I can see him now.
Got him.
Ah, fantastic! In this tangle of twigs and branches, you can just see his coils there.
The scales.
It's impossible to pick out his head at the moment.
They just blend in so beautifully, it's almost impossible to see them in this tangle of leaves.
But if he stays there, we won't be able to get a good shot of him.
The pit viper showed no sign of moving, so the team come back to the same location the next night.
They hope to find a more accessible snake.
So It's amazing that our light doesn't bother him, but it seems like his method of defence is the same as his method of attack.
Just keep very still.
Now, they have seen for themselves how still pit vipers can be, they have an even more complicated shot in mind.
We are going to try to get a motion-control camera shot.
Motion control cameras run along small tracks, allowing smooth moves into a subject.
In this case, Steve is hoping they can create the feel of a striking snake without the danger of an actual snake attack.
I've no idea even if it's pointing in the right direction.
No, it's not.
It's trickier than we thought.
I always thought it would be tricky! I, on the other hand, was an optimist.
Wrongly so! The problem is, the focus has to be pin sharp at the closest point to the snake.
I can't quite achieve focus there.
And that means the camera is well inside the snake's striking range.
I physically have to get closer to it.
To get focus, I'm going to have to put my hand right next to its face.
- You can't do that.
- No.
So I'm going to guess the focus.
And then run it back and forwards until such time as we get the focus correct.
OK, so We're going to have to inch forward.
Once Si has set the focus as close to the snake as possible, he has to stop the camera in exactly the right spot.
I've got about 3mm to park this camera.
The depth of field at point of focus is so shallow there's no margin for error.
Right, Steve, here we go.
Well, that's sharp.
Spot on.
I think that's about as close as we're going to get.
It's closer than I thought we'd be able to get, and he's been very patient, so I think it's time for us to leave him alone now.
He's also paying way too much attention me now.
And I don't like that! He's only little, but he's scary.
The team has got the shot.
The green pit viper finds a less busy place to hunt, and speeded up, the shot is suitably striking.
Next time, we head to Thailand's untamed north, where mysterious cloud forests are home to ancient customs.
Here, life can be tough.
And survival means forging unexpected alliances.
Both old .
and new.

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