Help in the forest

The forest has been surveyed for several months past by a local group organised by Mahidol University, Amnat Charoen campus. The work has relied heavily on a science teacher at Phana Suksa School who has brought some of her students with her and taken on the responsibility of collating the data collected and transmitting it back to the university.

A few days ago, the same teacher, Ajarn Bu (Boo?), brought some of her students to help out by doing some cleaning up in the forest. They started at 7 am and left 3 hours later, after putting down unhusked rice for the ever-grateful long-tailed macaque monkeys.

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So, good work by these girls and boy. THANK YOU ALL VERY MUCH. We hope that there will be more like you to come help maintain a clean and decent environment for the monkeys.

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Welcome in Phana

I boarded a plane in Johannesburg, South Africa not knowing what to expect.  Would the placement be legitimate, could I possibly be kidnapped upon disembarking the plane, would I be sleeping amongst mice and snakes? A lot of questions streamed through my head that I had no answers to.  What if I didn’t like it there? I worked in the Air Force for eight years and have been in combat zones and have been through some pretty intensive training regimens but that type of training doesn’t prepare you for being in “the big world, all alone”.  I was heading for Bangkok, Thailand to spend a few days prior to ending up in the place that I would be spending the next 9 months to a year.  Bangkok was big and exciting and left me wondering what a small village in the North Eastern part of the country could offer.  I knew that there would be no malls, no fancy restaurants, and most-likely no transportation.  After my short stint in Bangkok, I boarded another plane to Ubon Ratchathani (about an hour’s flight).  

Upon arrival, I was greeted by six Thai people, dressed to the nines.  They were holding a sign with my name written on it and huge smiles adorned their faces.  They wrapped me in their arms and gave me quite possibly the best “welcome” I’ve received to date.  After having dinner, we made an hour journey to a small village called Phana.  We were making the journey at night, so it was difficult for me to get a glimpse of my new surroundings.  All I saw were headlights and heavy raindrops pelting the windshield.  When we finally made it to my new accommodation, I was given a key and wished a goodnight.  My new home was a beautiful, old, wooden two-story traditional Thai house.  It had been turned into a research center some years back, but it was empty and waiting for a new occupant.  I quickly chose one of the three rooms provided and began unpacking my bags, though I was exhausted and wanted to sleep.  

After a good night’s rest, I woke up to birds chirping and people milling around below me on the street outside.  After a quick shower, I was met by Add — a high-ranking official in Phana.  Add drove me around Phana and gave me a tour of everything that there was to see.  I was quite literally shocked as I had never seen such beauty in my entire life.  Everything from the people waving and smiling, to the fluorescent green rice patties lining every road.  There were shops galore and more restaurants than I could count.  A feeling came over me that I could not explain, it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed.  I quickly thought back to those ridiculous questions that I had been asking myself only days earlier, and began to laugh as I knew that the universe had given me a gift that many people will never have the pleasure of receiving.  

The selling point of this new oasis was that of a monkey forest located just minutes from my doorstep.  I had been so excited to see these Long-Tailed Macaques and today was the day.  I quickly grabbed my backpack with camera gear packed neatly inside and jumped on one of the bikes sitting behind the house.  As I got closer to the forest, I could see a couple small brown objects darting back and forth a few hundred yards in front of me.  I was nervous yet thrilled at an opportunity to be so close to a life form so similar to ours yet so different.  Upon entering what seemed to be the pearly white gates, I saw more monkeys than I had ever seen on National Geographic.  There were hundreds just feet in front of me, looking at me inquisitively and making noises.  I dismounted my bicycle and began to walk amongst these wild animals not knowing what their reaction would be.  

forest morning

meditating monkey   monkey in the rain

Chris & Charlie

I didn’t make any noises, and had been told about “the rules” of the forest prior to entering so the monkeys seemed OK with my presence.  I spent about an hour there, just watching and admiring them.  Upon meeting the local stakeholders and visiting the local temples, something in the back of my mind kept telling me to “go back, go back”.  So, when I had a bit of free time — I once again, pedaled into the forest and spent more time with the monkeys.  I knew that Thailand had a magical allure about it that many could not explain but this was far different.  Being amongst the monkeys was a new found type of meditation not taught in books or in the temples.  Their every move captivated me and made me focus on being aware.  For the first time in a long time, I was thinking less and acting less.  I guess I would describe it as an unveiling, a feeling of such profound peace and contentment that my body/mind had never had the privilege of knowing.  

Over the following weeks, these voice in the back of my head (if you will), kept telling me to go back and so I would do just that.  After about three weeks, I had spent around 60 hours with these beautiful creatures. There were about 1,000 monkeys in total, separated between three main groups.  I would walk around and interact with each group but one in particular took the most noticeable interest in me.   I would visit them multiple times a day when I didn’t have anything going on and just sit amongst them.  After getting comfortable with me, weird things started to happen.  I would have monkeys surround me and just watch every move that I made.  They would come up and touch my arm and then run away again.  The mothers would walk up to me and set their babies down to play (a sign of complete trust), and large males would bring their food and eat right next to me.  They had let me in their circle and I was forever changed.  

monkey & hose pipe    monkey & running watermonkey in the mirror     thoughtful monkey

No longer did my mind wander about the to-do list, or the meeting that I had coming up.  My mind was void of all worldly things and I was content. It has now been two months since living in Phana and I still go see the monkeys everyday, sometimes two or three times a day.  On a daily basis, I am charged with feeding them rice, giving them water to bathe in/drink, and picking up litter that people leave in the forest.  It isn’t necessarily difficult work but it can be tiring when the humidity is high and the sun is beaming down.  On average, my work in the forest takes about three hours to complete.  There are a couple of other volunteers that work in the forest along with me, they are both Thai and mainly focus on sweeping leaves from the pathways, and occasionally pick up trash along with me.  

Mr Goh in forest

beautiful butterfly 

proud monitor lizard    spider in forest

Outside of the forest, I have been teaching math, English, and science to a local secondary school.  It has been a very rewarding experience so far but not the easiest of adventures.  For starters, English is maybe spoken by less than 5 percent of the village.  Therefore, trying to teach a subject in a foreign language can have its difficulties.  I teach two hours of math on Tuesdays, two hours of English on Wednesdays, and two hours of science on Thursdays.  The science classes have proved to be the most difficult as finding relatable information in an easy to understand format can be quite challenging.  English and math classes have been a bit easier and have been going quite well — not to say that science hasn’t.  The teachers at the school are lovely and really look after the foreigners in Phana.  

Two teachers in particular have really taken me under their wing and have introduced me to a whole new world (only known by the natives) of Phana and the surrounding areas.  Since being in Phana, I have: Eaten along the Mekong River, ridden an elephant in Surin, Thailand, swum under a waterfall along the Laos border, eaten lunch on a floating wooden hut as traditional boats paddle by, and fed monks in the pouring rain.   Phana and the surrounding areas are truly magical and I’m so lucky to have been afforded such a thrilling experience.  I just visited a local monk training school and will begin teaching lessons next month.  How incredible it will be to teach monks English! 

That is it for now but I will write more when I have a bit of free time.  I am currently working on a few video projects for the forest/community and so time is not on my side.  If you’re contemplating making the trip out to Phana, I would highly recommend it!  Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions about the position(s) or just general questions about the area.  I look forward to meeting you soon. 

Christopherlove00@gmail.com

Chris Love

Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Botswana 2013 1014

Posted in Amnat Charoen Province, Butterflies, Long-tailed Macaques, Monitor lizards, monkey forest, Monkeys | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Magic of Don Chao Poo Forest, Phana

Don Chao Poo Forest, in Phana, Amnat Charoen Province, is regularly described as a ‘magical’ place. Residents of Phana who regard the forest as the home of the village’s guardian spirit, might not find this surprising.

The forest itself may seem magical:

Buddha Path      forest interiorforest trees      tall treetrees in forest

But the forest is more than trees:

mushrooms 2      mushrooms 3mushrooms in forest      termite mounds

And then there is the fauna, though sighting these is rare and requires time and patience:

ground squirrel 1      ground squirrel 2

ground-nesting squirrels are quite numerous but very shy

baby bird 1      baby bird 2Liz bird 1      Liz bird 2owl baby      owl in forest

Birds are heard, especially early in the morning and towards evening, but are rarely seen.

monitor on ground      monitor on treeskink 1      skink 2skink with orange tail      snake red-neck keelbacksnake walls bronzeback      tokay at shrine

Skinks and Monitor lizards  are the most frequently seen reptiles, snakes and tokay geckos the rarest.

Bees build elaborate hives high in the trees:

bee hive hanging      bee hive in branches

and there are thousands of butterflies … but I challenge you to get a better photo of one than this:

red butterfly

and how do you like these two?

frog in small pond      scorpion

As if all that forest life was not enough, the main attraction is undoubtedly the large tribe of long-tailed macaques which inhabit the forest. To a large extent they are dependent on human provisioning and so they are habituated to humans. They will steal bags from you – so don’t bring them into the forest – and the same goes for small items like cameras, mobile phones, sun glasses, that sort of thing, if you have them with you, hang on to them at all times. The monkeys are still fearful and defensive, so don’t try to touch them. Nevertheless, you can get close to them but closer than a metre or so makes them uncomfortable and they don’t like you running around and shouting or screaming.

Keeping these things in mind, you will surely enjoy observing their activities and their social behaviour. Here are some photos to whet your appetite for these fascinating creatures:

monkey ad m with corn & young    monkey alertmonkey in rain    monkey juv with root vegmonkey standing holding ball    monkey running with ballmonkey solitary thoughtful   mother and juvenile

monkey in rain    monkey with cloth in tree    monkeys huddling    monkeys on blue bike    monkey twins & friend

A big thank you to all the volunteers whose photos appear here. They enjoyed their time in the forest, and you can see how productive it was in the photographic sense!

Posted in Bees, Bio-diversity, Butterflies, lizards & skinks, Long-tailed Macaques, Monitor lizards, monkey forest, Snakes | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monkey on Tour

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For the second year running a monkey (this monkey?) has visited our house THE DAY WE LEFT for England, with the intention of eating our last mango. Last year he succeeded. This year the mango was at the end of a dangerously slim branch so he had second thoughts and went back home to the forest. Sorry about that, Mr Monkey.

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Trees and Bees

Contibuted by Pensri Mahanil Whiting

In April 2014 we found 8 beehives in Don Chao Poo Forest. It started when James, Pensri and some of her relatives went to Don Chao Poo to GPS map the location of the Yang trees (mostly Dipterocarpus Alatus Roxb. ex G.Don). Interestingly, all 8 hives are found on yang trees, with a colony of 4 hives on one tree and the other 4 hives on other trees, singly.

All 5 trees are in quite an open space surrounded by big communities of yang trees.

photo 1(1)   photo 2 photo 5     photo 5(1)

photo 2(2)

Later, James, Pensri and Tina measured the height of these yang trees. We found that the average height of the 4 tall trees is about 53 metres and the average height above the ground of the 7 hives on those trees is about 38 metres. The only beehive that is slightly apart from those 7 hives  on a medium sized yang tree of about 17 metres in height and the hive is about 7 metres above ground level.

Here are some of the hives we have found so far:

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The bees we found in Don Chao Poo have been identified as Apis dorsata, commonly called the Giant bee, or Phung Luang ผึ้งหลวง (Royal bee) in Thai. Here are some specimens we collected:

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A Walk in the Bark

Contributed by James Carruthers

I was leaving the forest recently, when out of nowhere there was an eruption of noise accompanied by almost every monkey in sight marauding with purpose towards the road. Having never experienced such intense energy produced by them I hurriedly made my way towards the epicentre of the commotion, suspecting a battle between two potential alpha males. As I reached the main gate the noise had elevated further, arising from more monkeys than I had ever witnessed in one area flooding the road and pavements.

After a few seconds I saw a group of large adult males which seemed to be pursuing a dog. In an effort to ascertain why, I made my way through the crowd of screeching monkeys to get closer, only to see a young juvenile monkey locked helplessly between the jaws of the ravaging hound. After several minutes, the adult males managed to surround the fleeing dog, but not a single monkey approached it to within striking distance. What seemed to overcome the dog was a bizarre combination of boredom and fear as he dropped the juvenile and continued along the road, still followed closely by a large group of aggressive adult males who were re enforced further by the rest of the monkeys.

I was surprised by the fact that as the juvenile lay motionless, only two other monkeys, both young, inspected it briefly before moving on. As the dog drew further away and the situation began to simmer, I cautiously approached it myself to see if there was any sign on life. After a few short seconds the monkey gasped its final breath and its eyes closed, resigning itself back to the earth. The rest of the monkeys went back to their business with the danger to each individual diminished with the now absence of the dog and I was struck by a moment of sadness, to think that only 10 minutes ago this young monkey was joyfully playing in the place where it now peacefully lay. A tragic event in many ways; ultimately, however, it is just another example of the sometimes vicious circle of life.

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Surveying the forest

Mahidol University (Amnatcharoen post-graduate campus) has been running an ambitious project under the patronage of the Crown Princess. The aim of the project is to conserve what is left of the forests in Isan, North-east Thailand; and the starting points for conservation are to know what you have and to understand why it is worth conserving.

Don Chao Poo Forest in Phana District of Amnat Charoen Province is currently being surveyed following a pattern or model that has already been established in about a dozen other forests in the province. Mahidol University has developed the model and provides guidance and assistance but the surveys themselves are carried out by local people, thus establishing their ‘ownership’ of the project as well as equipping them with skills in science-based research.

March 2014 / 2557 saw the first steps in this process. A group gathered in Don Chao Poo Forest to establish the boundaries of the forest. All the ‘stakeholders’ were represented:

Khun Ratana, Deputy Mayor, Phana Municipality     Khun Kanok, Mayor, OTP Phana & Lawrence, Phana Monkey Project

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Senior citizens of Phana, including two ‘wise men’                   A Long-tailed macaque of Don Chao Poo Forest

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                             Khun Kasemsan, our mentor                          James, on work placement with PMP & Khun Add of Phana Municipality

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Pensri, of PMP and Acharn Tatsanaporn of Phanasuksa School, co-ordinators of the project

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The two ‘wise men’. Khun Puta and Khun Tongdun, both residents of Phana, are already proving invaluable to the project. They are experts in identifying trees and plants and the use of plants in herbal medicine.

The survey of Don Chao Poo Forest started on March 29th and a further survey will be carried out on 2nd April. But this is just the start. Watch out here and on our Facebook page (Thai Monkey Forest) for updates on this exciting project.

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