The Central Heartland Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise


The Central Heartland

Documentary exploring the paradise of Thailand. In central Thailand's forests, plains and city streets, nature finds a way of living alongside people.


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Transcript


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In the heart of South East Asia is an ancient kingdom.

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With over 3,000km of coastline.

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But beyond its golden shores

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there are secret worlds.

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Home to mysterious creatures...

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..and forest giants.

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This is a fast-changing country

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where East and West collide.

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People and animals must work together to survive.

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Forming unique relationships.

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A spiritual land...

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..full of magic and wonder.

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This is Thailand.

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Each morning,

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a magical chorus rings through the forests

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of Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand.

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The cry of the lar gibbon bonds males and females.

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ANIMAL CALLS

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These intelligent apes often pair for life

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and advertise their territorial rights with song.

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In their forest sanctuary, this cream-coloured male

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and his dark-haired mate are raising a youngster.

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Grooming helps keep family bonds strong

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for the ten or more years they'll stay together.

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Finding food is the next priority.

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And it's not always easy.

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It requires an intimate knowledge of their patch of forest.

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Building momentum helps them swing from tree to tree

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at speeds of more than 50km per hour.

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Following memory maps of highways through the tree tops,

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the gibbons find the perfect places to forage.

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But sometimes a gibbon highway meets a human highway.

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When the fruiting trees are on the other side,

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there's a big problem.

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Gibbons are strictly arboreal.

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So they're reluctant to leave the trees

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and are vulnerable on the ground.

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Crossing a busy road on foot would be too dangerous.

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No-one passing below this rope bridge gives it a second thought.

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But, for the gibbons, it's a lifeline.

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The rope bridge allows the park's gibbons

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to access fresh feeding grounds.

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The devoted couple have located a fruiting fig tree.

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Time for a lazy breakfast.

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Their lives have been made just a little bit safer

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by a human helping hand.

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Life in one of Asia's fastest-changing countries

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means people and animals are finding new ways to get along.

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Central Thailand is the richest and most productive region.

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Its fertile flood plains nourish rice fields

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that cover 40% of all the farmland.

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Where the land meets the Gulf of Thailand...

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..lies the great city of Bangkok.

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Around 8 million people live in the nation's capital.

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And this bustling central region is known as the nation's rice bowl.

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Even here, there are magical places to be found,

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hidden from view...

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..where age-old beliefs and traditional practices live on...

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..and time seems to have stood still.

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Phraya Nakhon Cave was discovered some 200 years ago,

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when Thailand was still known as Siam.

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Thai kings have visited this cavern for centuries.

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The Royal Pavilion crowns this mystical place.

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Spirituality is the key to understanding

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central Thailand's harmonious relationship with nature.

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This Lyle's flying fox is waiting out the heat of the day.

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And he's not alone.

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With leathery wings nearly a metre wide,

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he can fly 30km or more in search of fruit.

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These flying foxes are often regarded as pests,

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destroying orchards and causing conflict with farmers.

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But this bat and his colony are special.

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They are under Buddha's own protection.

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This is the temple of Wat Pho Bang Khla.

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HE BANGS DRUM

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As dusk approaches,

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the resident monks are called to prayer by the beat of a drum.

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But the bats have heard it all before.

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Here, the spiritual and animal kingdoms are united.

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MONKS CHANT

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Buddhism is the religion of more than 90% of Thai people,

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profoundly influencing their everyday lives.

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Buddhist teachings state that

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all living things are worthy of kindness,

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compassion and tolerance.

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This very tolerant place is known as the Bat Temple.

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It's the daytime residence of 6,000 or more flying foxes.

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Leaving their sanctuary to forage far away,

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they'll return at dawn to this spiritual haven.

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The natural world features prominently

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in Thai religion and mythology.

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The lotus is linked to Buddha himself.

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In shallow lakes to the west of Bangkok,

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tightly-filled buds rise on slender stems

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as if craning their necks to the heavens.

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The contrast of the blooms to the muddy water

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inspired Buddha to use the lotus as a symbol of enlightenment.

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The passage from darkness to light,

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ignorance to wisdom.

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Yukha spends every day in the watery fields

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plucking the stems.

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Almost every part of the lotus is edible,

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and the petals, roots and stamens are used in traditional medicine.

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By dawn the next day, these bouquets will be on sale in Bangkok.

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But not as ingredients for food or pharmacy,

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they are destined for a higher purpose.

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The lotus bud is one of the most popular ways to pay tribute

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at one of more than 30,000 temples.

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Embracing both Buddhist and Hindu principles,

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people make daily offerings to honour the gods.

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This shrine is named after Erawan -

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the elephant that carried the Hindu god Indra,

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so he deserves a floral offering too.

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Here in Thailand, one animal's fate is intertwined more than any other

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with the country's history and its future.

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The Asian elephant.

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It has been revered for centuries.

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Even the word for its dung also means moon.

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A new beginning, the propagator.

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Creating new life from seed dispersal.

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But the story of elephants in Thailand is not always a happy one.

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There are more than 4,000 of these giants in captivity.

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And most visitors to Thailand

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take a ride on a domesticated elephant for granted.

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At Sublangka Wildlife Sanctuary,

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a new life is offered to elephants rescued from the tourist trade.

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The Elephant Reintroduction Foundation

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releases rehabilitated elephants back into the forest.

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31-year-old Wadsana was bought by the sanctuary in 2011.

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Four years later, a calf called Earn arrived.

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And they have been inseparable ever since.

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Earn and her adopted mother are now taken

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on regular walks in the forest.

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To be ready for their release,

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they'll need to be familiar with its sights, sounds and smells,

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know where to find water, and what they can and can't eat.

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Annan is a former mahout, an elephant trainer and rider.

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He is now one of the team of rangers

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responsible for the daily care of the elephants.

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IN THAI:

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Wadsana and Earn will soon be ready to join

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Sublangka's growing population of elephants.

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And for when the day arrives, a royal send-off is being planned.

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300km south-west of Bangkok

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lies the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan.

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The plains flood during the rainy season,

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and with the waters come rich deposits of silt.

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These fertile fields not only fill the rice bowls of a nation,

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they also provide a major export.

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So, for farmers, living side-by-side with animals is a delicate balance.

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Chestnut munias do their best to steal the rice grains

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ripening in the paddy fields.

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And the farmers chase them away,

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just as they always have.

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Open-billed storks were once hunted by villagers for food.

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But in the 1980s, golden apple snails were introduced to Asia

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from South America, and became a major agricultural pest.

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Suddenly, the storks became the farmers' friends.

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They are snail specialists.

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So they are left to forage in peace.

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Local farmer Uncle Alf is draining a pool.

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Fish are abundant among the paddies.

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Family and friends muck in to help with the catch.

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These freshwater fish were trapped here

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when floodwaters receded at the end of the last rainy season.

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Scooping them up by hand is the way it's always been done.

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But sometimes the fish make it easy for you.

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LAUGHTER

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The harvested fish will be sold at the market,

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and the little egrets are welcome to any left behind.

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There's one kind of fish that is highly prized

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across central Thailand.

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But not as food.

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And these village boys are out to catch some.

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BOYS CHATTER

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Here's what they're after -

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a fish that's admired for showing no fear in defence of its territory.

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The Betta fish is better known as the Siamese fighting fish.

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They share their fearless reputation

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with the gladiators of the ancient martial art of Muay Thai.

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Or Thai boxing.

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Top fighters can become household names...

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earning millions of Thai baht per fight.

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Fortunes can be won or lost on the outcome.

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The opponents size each other up.

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The fish extend their fins to make themselves look bigger.

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When one fish is slipped into the bottle of the other,

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their true nature as born fighters is revealed.

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BELL RINGS

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A knockout ends this bout...

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..and the fish fight is over

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when one retreats to the bottom of the bottle.

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Tomorrow, both fish will be returned to the wild.

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For centuries, Siamese fighting fish have been admired as prize-fighters,

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but selective breeding to enhance colour, tail and fins

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has also made them into exquisite objects of desire.

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Photographer Visarute is well known in Thailand

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for his photographs capturing their silky sensuousness.

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Extreme slow motion reveals their dance in all its willowy grace.

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These little fish loom large in Thai culture...

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..epitomising the exoticism of this country.

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Food is a huge part of Thai culture.

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But among the more familiar ingredients

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in Thailand's food markets are some unexpected delicacies.

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Wi Li has bought this supper of live crickets to feed her family.

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Insects have long been on the menu in Thailand.

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And the children love these crispy bugs.

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But thieves lurk in the shadows.

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The soles of their feet are covered in microscopic bristles

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that split into hundreds more,

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gripping every surface.

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It's one of the largest geckos in the world.

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The tokay.

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A gecko might steal a meal or two,

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but they also help get rid of unwelcome insects.

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Geckos evolved to climb trees and rocks,

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so scaling a wall is no problem.

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At up to 35 centimetres long,

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they're big lizards with big appetites.

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Thai people may be accustomed to large lizards in their houses...

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..but some giants make more intimidating neighbours.

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Lumphini Park in the heart of Bangkok.

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An oasis of green amid the daytime bustle.

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But something's not quite right

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with this picture of carefully tended tranquillity.

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There's danger in this urban paradise.

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Huge lizards, called water monitors, stalk these lawns.

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Water monitors can reach more than three metres in length

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and weigh over 50kg.

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These lizards are exclusively carnivorous.

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They even dispose of the remains of less fortunate monitor lizards,

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which may win them a few friends.

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Razor-sharp teeth and germ-laden saliva

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can inflict life-threatening wounds.

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But water monitors rarely bite humans.

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The reaction to these latter-day dinosaurs is typically Thai.

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Their attitude, when it comes to potentially lethal lizards

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sharing public spaces, is summed up by one of their favourite

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Buddhism-inspired expressions - mai pen rai -

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it's fine.

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Just be calm, carefree, and we can all get along.

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Some Buddhist teachings advise that things are best left alone.

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But they also may urge direct action to preserve the natural world.

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Like symbolically ordaining trees as monks,

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complete with robes,

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as a sort of spiritual preservation order.

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Other Buddhist ceremonies can also benefit nature.

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And for Wadsana and Earn, it's a very special day.

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SINGING OVER MICROPHONE

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Making merit is a way of earning celestial favour

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for doing a good deed.

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It might be giving alms to a monk, chanting Buddhist scripture,

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or releasing an animal into the wild.

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As befits their size and place in Thai culture,

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to release an elephant is one of the highest forms of making merit.

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Today, six will be set free,

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six elephants for the 60th birthday

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of Thailand's much-loved Princess Sirindhorn.

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It's a very big day for a little elephant like Earn.

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She has to face the crowds of well-wishers.

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And Annan has even taught her to bow for the Princess.

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The Princess blesses them with holy water.

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She offers them each a stick or two of sugar cane for their journey,

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and they are free.

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Annan and the team of rangers will continue to monitor their progress.

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There's already a herd of previously released elephants

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roaming the forest.

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Hopefully, in time, Wadsana and Earn will join up with them.

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But first, they need to get used to life without Annan.

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Elephants have always occupied a special place in Thai mythology.

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But other animals share that mythical status.

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And some are a lot harder to get along with.

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In rural Sakaerat, north-east of Bangkok,

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a lethal conflict is taking place between villagers and snakes.

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There are more than 175 snake species in Thailand.

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This little Asian vine snake is one of more than 100 that are venomous.

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And more than half of those are highly dangerous.

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There are up to 10,000 snake bites per year in Thailand.

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And one type of snake bites more people

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than all the other snakes put together.

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This roadside community is typical of rural Thailand.

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Running through its centre

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is a river that dries up entirely in the hot season.

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As night falls, it becomes a perilous place,

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haunted by predators.

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Pit vipers.

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Barely 60 centimetres long,

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this green pit viper is making its way to a site

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where it can ambush frogs, lizards or mice.

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It's all too easy for someone passing by

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to brush dangerously close to this striking little snake.

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Snakes are often killed on sight,

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but there's a snake conservation team here

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that is trying to save the snakes and people

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in the Sakaerat area and beyond.

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A call has come in that a huge king cobra has tried to enter a house,

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and has taken refuge in a potted shrub.

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Colin Strine, head of the snake team, assesses the situation.

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Stet back, step back, step back.

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It's one of the world's most deadly snakes.

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OK, I'm going to go ahead and make the grab now.

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I'm trying to bring out the vines that it's grabbing onto.

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The bite of a king can deliver enough venom to kill an elephant.

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So there's no room for error.

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Here we go, here we go. Go, go, go.

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-Grip now, grip now, please.

-OK.

-Good.

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Good job.

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Release, let go.

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OK.

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If this snake had not been rescued, the locals would have felt

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they had no choice but to kill it.

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Bagged and boxed, the cobra will be taken back

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to the conservation centre.

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Nice and easy. We don't see any parasites. OK.

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Snakes that are brought in by the team are given a sedative

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prior to a thorough health check.

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Measurements are taken for the team's research.

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Perfectly natural, and it's quite common with humans

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to be very fearful of snakes.

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I guess we should just be really happy

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that they were willing to call instead of just killing it.

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We do work pretty hard to try and educate people about snakes,

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and about not to be afraid of them.

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The king cobra is the longest of all venomous snakes

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and reaches close to six metres in length.

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This male is a mere three-and-a-half metres.

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The sleeping king is inflated.

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The long lungs running down his body are full of anaesthetic

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which has to be manually forced out before he can come around.

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It's crucial that rescued snakes are returned to their own territories,

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so they're given time to recover fully

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before being released a short distance from their capture sites.

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For Colin, every king safely returned to its territory

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is a success story.

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It feels good, because they're still alive.

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It's always a pleasant feeling when they're going back into the wild.

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Some Thai people believe that encountering a snake

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is a sign of good luck and good fortune...

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..though it might be best to avoid sharing the water with one.

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The ancient serpent cult of this region teaches

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that the wealth of Thailand was bestowed upon it

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by the Naga snake spirits,

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living in the kingdom's waterways.

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For centuries, these waterways have helped transport

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people and goods around Thailand.

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At watery crossroads, floating markets sprang up everywhere.

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These days, modern commerce is fast replacing the traditional.

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But an amiable armada of old women, vessels laden with local produce,

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still invades Tha Kha, west of Bangkok,

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to buy and sell from boat to boat.

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The lowlands of central Thailand

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have long been the agricultural heart of the country.

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A network of canals was constructed to link rivers

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and allow the transportation of goods

0:42:200:42:23

east from Cambodia and south-west from coastal provinces.

0:42:230:42:27

During the rainy season,

0:42:300:42:32

fertile sediment washes down these waterways,

0:42:320:42:36

eventually reaching the Gulf of Thailand.

0:42:360:42:39

As the monsoon subsides, the sea teems with life.

0:42:420:42:46

The waters are ripe for harvest.

0:42:480:42:51

And one of the largest yield comes in the form of a very small fish.

0:42:510:42:57

It's anchovy season at fishing villages all along the Gulf Coast.

0:43:020:43:07

The daily catch is deftly filleted

0:43:090:43:12

and neatly laid out to dry in the sun.

0:43:120:43:15

This must take place before the fish start to spoil.

0:43:210:43:25

So everyone plays a part in the process.

0:43:260:43:28

Once the sun and breeze have done their work,

0:43:360:43:39

the dried fish will keep for up to a year.

0:43:390:43:42

There's plenty for everyone in this seasonal pay-out.

0:43:540:43:58

Flocks of terns are always ready to cash in.

0:44:050:44:08

But a much larger fisherman has arrived in these waters.

0:44:140:44:18

The locals call it chao pho lai, meaning very big grandfather.

0:44:260:44:31

A 15-metre-long Bryde's whale.

0:44:340:44:37

Whales are thought to bring good luck,

0:44:440:44:46

but locals believe that bad things happen to those who harm them.

0:44:460:44:50

Chao pho lai is also the name for Thai mafia.

0:44:520:44:56

Godfathers.

0:44:560:44:58

From August to December, the whales gather in the Gulf of Thailand

0:45:020:45:07

to make the most of the abundant anchovies.

0:45:070:45:10

They usually feed alone,

0:45:120:45:13

though a mother and calf will hunt together.

0:45:130:45:16

These two have located a school of anchovies.

0:45:310:45:34

Like other whales in the rorqual family,

0:45:470:45:50

such as blue and humpback whales,

0:45:500:45:53

Bryde's whales sieve each monumental mouthful

0:45:530:45:56

through long, coarse bristles called baleen.

0:45:560:46:02

At least, that's how it usually works.

0:46:020:46:04

These whales are exhibiting behaviour

0:46:070:46:09

that is puzzling marine biologists.

0:46:090:46:12

Some think the anchovies are too small,

0:46:240:46:27

and would slip through the coarse baleen of the Bryde's.

0:46:270:46:31

So the whales rock and swill the fish to the back of the gullet

0:46:310:46:34

so they can swallow them.

0:46:340:46:36

In other parts of the world where they feed on larger fish,

0:46:550:46:59

Bryde's whales don't use this method.

0:46:590:47:02

But here they seem to have developed a unique way of making the most

0:47:020:47:06

of Thailand's fertile waters.

0:47:060:47:08

These giants of the sea are treated with respect and reverence.

0:47:180:47:23

In central Thailand, the giants of the forest are gaining freedom

0:47:400:47:46

and ever more footholds in the wild.

0:47:460:47:48

The little elephant family is learning to live on its own.

0:47:530:47:58

Climbing a tall and slippery bank could be dangerous for Earn.

0:48:220:48:26

But Wadsana shows her how,

0:48:270:48:29

ascending the slope on her knees.

0:48:290:48:32

It looks like Earn's going to be just fine.

0:48:480:48:51

The rangers follow the elephants regularly,

0:48:570:49:00

checking to make sure they are healthy

0:49:000:49:02

and learning to feed themselves successfully.

0:49:020:49:05

Annan will never come into close contact with them again.

0:49:230:49:27

They'll now live out their lives in the forest as wild elephants.

0:49:270:49:32

The Asian elephant is the enduring symbol of Thailand.

0:49:550:49:59

At Sublangka, their breeding herd in the wild is also a symbol

0:50:000:50:05

of Thailand's transition from past to present.

0:50:050:50:08

Making merit and earning goodwill from the gods,

0:50:100:50:13

means also renewing the forest.

0:50:130:50:16

In the forests, fields, and even the cities of central Thailand,

0:50:280:50:33

nature thrives, with the blessing and help of its people.

0:50:330:50:38

Unique, spiritual and still untamed.

0:50:480:50:53

The ancient bonds between humans and animals live on.

0:50:560:51:01

During the filming of the central Thailand episode,

0:51:140:51:18

the crew visited Sakaerat,

0:51:180:51:20

a hot spot for conflict between humans and snakes.

0:51:200:51:24

The one creature they really wanted to film was a very pretty snake

0:51:270:51:32

with a very bad reputation.

0:51:320:51:34

It's a snake that has been carefully studied

0:51:380:51:41

here at the Sakaerat Environmental Research Station.

0:51:410:51:44

These will put you in hospital.

0:51:440:51:46

Producer Steve Cole is introduced to the serpent in question

0:51:480:51:52

by snake research assistant Ben Marshall.

0:51:520:51:55

These guys are responsible for the vast majority of bites in Thailand.

0:51:550:51:59

They are beautiful, aren't they?

0:51:590:52:01

It's a green pit viper.

0:52:010:52:03

How far would that snake strike?

0:52:030:52:05

Is it a she? Would she expect me to be a lot closer before she...

0:52:050:52:09

Yeah, much closer, and a lot more agitated.

0:52:090:52:11

These guys are not going to waste their time, waste their venom,

0:52:110:52:14

they will attempt to hide.

0:52:140:52:16

They will attempt to just stay absolutely still.

0:52:160:52:19

It sounds like the sort of snake we might have some hope of filming!

0:52:190:52:23

Absolutely. Especially when you find one,

0:52:230:52:25

cos he's not going to be going anywhere.

0:52:250:52:27

Finding these creatures in the wild can be both difficult and dangerous.

0:52:290:52:34

But, luckily for Steve, this team rescues and releases

0:52:350:52:38

the types of venomous snake

0:52:380:52:40

that most often come into conflict with people.

0:52:400:52:43

Many of these are radio tagged

0:52:450:52:47

to provide data on their habits and whereabouts.

0:52:470:52:50

I keep thinking she, but I could be wrong.

0:52:500:52:52

It's this inside info that Steve needs.

0:52:520:52:55

And snake researcher Sammy Assad is here to guide the film team.

0:52:560:53:01

Three tagged pit vipers have made this dry riverbed their home.

0:53:040:53:08

They don't move around much, so they should be easy to find.

0:53:100:53:14

That's the theory.

0:53:140:53:15

Green pit vipers hunt under the cover of darkness.

0:53:210:53:24

Sammy quickly picks up the signal of one of the transmitters.

0:53:270:53:31

So, at the moment,

0:53:370:53:38

it's sounding like he's just within the base

0:53:380:53:41

of this, kind of, liana vegetation covered tree.

0:53:410:53:43

I'd definitely be careful moving around here,

0:53:450:53:48

cos there are lots of other green pit vipers in the area.

0:53:480:53:50

So if you're going to walk around,

0:53:500:53:52

make sure you've got a head torch on.

0:53:520:53:54

After checking he's not about to have his very own snake conflict,

0:53:560:54:00

cameraman Si Wagen sets up lights.

0:54:000:54:03

I can see him now.

0:54:060:54:08

Got him.

0:54:100:54:11

Ah, fantastic!

0:54:110:54:13

In this tangle of twigs and branches,

0:54:150:54:17

you can just see his coils there.

0:54:170:54:20

The scales.

0:54:200:54:21

It's impossible to pick out his head at the moment.

0:54:210:54:24

They just blend in so beautifully,

0:54:260:54:28

it's almost impossible to see them in this tangle of leaves.

0:54:280:54:32

But if he stays there,

0:54:350:54:36

we won't be able to get a good shot of him.

0:54:360:54:38

The pit viper showed no sign of moving,

0:54:400:54:43

so the team come back to the same location the next night.

0:54:430:54:47

They hope to find a more accessible snake.

0:54:490:54:52

So...

0:54:560:54:57

It's amazing that our light doesn't bother him,

0:55:000:55:02

but it seems like his method of defence

0:55:020:55:04

is the same as his method of attack.

0:55:040:55:07

Just keep very still.

0:55:070:55:09

Now, they have seen for themselves how still pit vipers can be,

0:55:110:55:16

they have an even more complicated shot in mind.

0:55:160:55:20

We are going to try to get a motion-control camera shot.

0:55:200:55:24

Motion control cameras run along small tracks,

0:55:260:55:29

allowing smooth moves into a subject.

0:55:290:55:33

In this case, Steve is hoping they can create the feel

0:55:330:55:36

of a striking snake

0:55:360:55:38

without the danger of an actual snake attack.

0:55:380:55:41

I've no idea even if it's pointing in the right direction.

0:55:420:55:45

No, it's not.

0:55:450:55:47

It's trickier than we thought.

0:55:500:55:52

I always thought it would be tricky!

0:55:520:55:54

I, on the other hand, was an optimist.

0:55:540:55:57

Wrongly so!

0:55:570:55:58

The problem is, the focus has to be pin sharp

0:56:000:56:03

at the closest point to the snake.

0:56:030:56:06

I can't quite achieve focus there.

0:56:060:56:07

And that means the camera is well inside the snake's striking range.

0:56:070:56:12

I physically have to get closer to it.

0:56:120:56:14

To get focus,

0:56:310:56:33

I'm going to have to put my hand right next to its face.

0:56:330:56:35

-You can't do that.

-No. So I'm going to guess the focus.

0:56:350:56:38

And then run it back and forwards

0:56:380:56:41

until such time as we get the focus correct.

0:56:410:56:44

OK, so... We're going to have to inch forward.

0:56:450:56:49

Once Si has set the focus as close to the snake as possible,

0:56:490:56:53

he has to stop the camera in exactly the right spot.

0:56:530:56:58

I've got about 3mm to park this camera.

0:56:580:57:01

The depth of field at point of focus is so shallow

0:57:020:57:05

there's no margin for error.

0:57:050:57:08

Right, Steve, here we go.

0:57:140:57:17

Well, that's sharp.

0:57:230:57:24

Spot on.

0:57:240:57:26

I think that's about as close as we're going to get.

0:57:290:57:32

It's closer than I thought we'd be able to get,

0:57:320:57:35

and he's been very patient,

0:57:350:57:37

so I think it's time for us to leave him alone now.

0:57:370:57:40

He's also paying way too much attention me now.

0:57:400:57:43

And I don't like that! He's only little, but he's scary.

0:57:440:57:47

The team has got the shot.

0:57:500:57:53

The green pit viper finds a less busy place to hunt,

0:57:530:57:57

and speeded up,

0:57:570:57:59

the shot is suitably striking.

0:57:590:58:01

Next time, we head to Thailand's untamed north,

0:58:070:58:11

where mysterious cloud forests are home to ancient customs.

0:58:110:58:16

Here, life can be tough.

0:58:170:58:19

And survival means forging unexpected alliances.

0:58:190:58:23

Both old...

0:58:270:58:28

..and new.

0:58:290:58:31

In central Thailand's forests, fertile plains and even city streets, nature finds a way of living alongside people. Spirituality can be found in human and animal relationships, both likely and unlikely. This bustling region is known as the nation's rice bowl - but even here, there are magical places to be found.