Media, Thailand, Work

Elephant Nature Park

As soon as I arrived back in Chiang Mai, from Bangkok, I got a phone call saying that I was going to be picked up at 07:00 in the morning. We were providing production services for Leopard Films in America to film their House Hunters International series. It’s an ongoing project that the company has worked on various times in the past.

This episode was following a guy from America who was looking for property in  Thailand. Chiang Mai to be exact. If you’re not familiar with the show, they follow a person or family as they look to move abroad. They normally view 3-4 properties and then at the end of the show they pick one. During the course of the show they talk about their new lifestyle in the country and participate in various activities, normally ones that highlight the area they are in. It’s a widely used format, I know that in the UK we have at least three shows that are almost identical.

It was nice to be on a small crew again. We had a crew of six. Pretty standard for a documentary style TV shoot. Once again I had the chance to meet some new crew. And again, they were great.

I joined the crew after they had completed the filming of the properties. As I joined, we had two days of ‘activity’ filming. On the first day we visited some temples, which was nice, because Mos and I had only managed to visit a handful so far. We also went to a few spots around town for eating and drinking.

Day two was the real highlight. We went filming at the Elephant Nature Park. There are many places up here in the mountains of Northern Thailand to see elephants. If you want to ride one or see them working (Thai’s use elephants much like we use work horses in the west), you can go to a handful of places. Some of these places are great and care for the elephants like members of their family. Some, beat the elephants unconscious as part of their training, chain the elephants to trees for days on end and generally abuse them. Sadly, for tourists, you won’t be able to know for sure until you get there. If you ask to see where the elephants sleep or how they are trained etc and the staff get defensive, you have almost certainly stumbled across a place that tortures elephants in the name of tourism. If they are open and happy for you to look around and the elephants seem happy, hopefully you’ve found a good one.

The Elephant Nature Park, is different. They rescue elephants from work camps, tourism facilities and zoos. Any elephant that is being used for financial gain is rescued. They bring the elephants to their park, give them medical assistance, get them healthy, then let them roam free around the expansive park. Visitors to the park are educated about the use (and abuse) of elephants and taught the story of each elephant at the park.

Each elephant at the park has a member of staff that looks after them. They feed them, walk them down to the river and bath them and generally build a friendship between them and the elephant.

We arrived to film the visitors feeding the elephants, or course we all had a go. My favourite was a blind elephant (I can’t remember the cause). She could hear you and would feel around with her trunk until she found you and then find your hand and then take the fruit.

After a few hours of feeding and filming interviews we walked around the park with the elephants occasionally coming over to see what we were up to then wandering off again. Some of the elephants were clearly still a bit nervous around people showing their previous lives of fear. Others just wanted to play or take the camera.

In the afternoon we walked with a few of the elephants down to the river, where volunteers can help bath the elephants. For most elephants this is a fun exercise. For some, this assistance from the volunteers is the only way that they can bathe. One elephant, called Medo, carried an extremely visible limp and disfigured hip from a life of abuse. Please read more about Medo by clicking her name (it’s a link). Here is a picture of Medo that I’ve pinched from the Elephant Nature Park website –

As you can see. She is severely disabled. But thanks to the park she is living freely, without abuse and in the company of other elephants. Medo is just one of the many stories at the park. If you want to help you can look at the Elephant Nature Park website here.  You can volunteer there, they will provide accommodation, food etc. Or you can just visit for the day. I would highly recommend a visit. Although you can’t ride an elephant as so many people seem to want to do. You are able to see happy and ‘free’ elephants playing, socialising and generally being elephants.

Media, Thailand, Work

Baltica7

I’d been back from Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days when I got the call to head back to Bangkok to oversee a TVC shoot (Television Commercial). It was for Baltica7 a Ukrainian beer brand. Mos gave me a lift to the airport on the scooter and I checked in and boarded within and hour. Chiang Mai airport is brilliant. Flew with Thai airways. Very good service, as you’d expect from the national airline.

The crew had all been booked into the Mayfair hotel, we’d also booked half a floor as a production office space including wardrobe department. As I was a late addition to the crew I decided to book myself into a hostel that I’d been wanting to visit for a long time (Lub d, Siam Square), and it was only a short commute via the BTS sky train to the Mayfair. Again, I opted for a private double room to accommodate my laptop and paperwork. It was a great hostel and a great room, I’d highly recommend it!

I had arrived in the middle of the prep work for the shoot. We had two days left until the recce then we were to shoot on the following day. I spent most of my time getting to know the crews and trying to pick out the differences in the techniques and structure of this production team in comparison to the UK crews that I was much more familiar with. The first thing I noticed was the quantity of crew. There was easily three to four times the amount of people there for the size of the shoot than would have been in the UK. We’ve shot big-budget beer commercials in the UK with crews of 15-25 people. This one was bordering on 80-85. I am of course referring to the entire crew list on both projects not just the staff in the Mayfair production office.

Each day I would jump on the BTS and go the two stops to the Mayfair hotel which cost ฿20 each way (less than 50p). And then head home the same way. Normally stopping in the huge food market in MBK on the way to get my dinner. But, on the recce day I had to meet the production vans at 05:30, well before the BTS opens. So I treated myself to a tuk tuk ride. After a bit of haggling, I got him down to ฿80.

The first stop on the recce was the street location, we had an awesome sunrise and managed to get some great photos and got all of the camera positions mapped out. Second location was Bangkoks Suvarnabhumi airport. We had booked a corner of the departures floor with floor to ceiling glass. as a backdrop. Really nice location. And the airport staff and security were very helpful. Final stop was the Bangkok Column apartment building. Here we had three locations, first, the 25th floor Long Table Restaurant, and second the 37th floor apartment and third, the huge 37th floor balcony.

We were up nice and early again the following day to start filming, shooting in the same order we had previously recce’d. I met a lot more of the crew, and was very impressed by the quality of the work. I have to be honest and say that when I moved to Thailand, I did not expect the production services to be up to UK standard. These guys were brilliant, all of them.

After the final shot, on the 37th floor balcony, we dished out some iced beers, sushi and cake. My first shoot in Bangkok was over.

Thailand

Visa Run

When I arrived in Thailand to get married, I was issued a 30-day tourist visa on entry. I was on day 27 when I went to the Chiang Mai immigration office to get a 7-day extension. Enough time to prepare documents for a visa run to Kuala Lumpur. As I was now going to be working in Thailand I needed a visa that allowed the addition of a work permit. The most sensible and achievable was the Non-Immigrant B visa, the ‘B’ standing for business. In Thailand to obtain such a visa requires you to apply from outside the country at a Thai embassy. I’d done some research and found a few prime locations, but decided to head to Kuala Lumpur, which would also be my first visit to Malaysia.

My wife (Mos) and I both headed down to Bangkok on the overnight train from Chiang Mai. She was planning to visit some friends in Bangkok whilst I sorted out my visa in Kuala Lumpur. The next morning I booked my flights online, paid for them over the counter in 7 Eleven (yes, you can do that), and jumped on a minibus for the airport. Strangely the cheapest flights I could find were with Egypt Air, both the flight to and from KL were at most thirty percent full.

Once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur got on the KLIA Ekspres train and headed to my hostel where I had booked a private double room to enable me to complete my paperwork. I stayed at PODs in the Brickfields area of KL. Which is heavily populated by Indians as it is only a short walk from the famous Little India district. Brickfields is also home to a large population of blind people. Most have been trained to work in massage shops to enable them to earn a living. The area was great, loads of restaurants (mainly Indian), really good transport links as it is right next to KL Sentral station. PODs was brilliant too, highly recommended.

The next morning I was up and ready to head off and find the Thai Embassy, I’d heard it was a pain to find, and in the interest of saving time and hassle I got in a taxi. It took about forty minutes and cost about £5 ($8). Well worth it to not be drenched in sweat when arriving in my shirts and ‘smart’ jeans at the Thai Embassy. Once my number was called I went to the window, gave in my paperwork and the cash. Simple. Such a relief. I’d heard horror stories about other embassy offices. But it wasn’t over, I would have to return tomorrow afternoon to collect my passport, hopefully with a Non-Imm B visa in it!

I decided to spend that 28 hour window productively and got myself a two-day hop-on hop-off bus ticket and explored the city. Petronas Towers, museums, shopping centres and the old Colonial centre of the city with the mock-tudor club houses for the then British government. It’s a great city and I hope to go back with Mos one day.

When the time came I used my hop-on hop-off ticket to reach the Thai Embassy, this time via a much more scenic route (with commentary in a variety of languages). Lined up outside the embassy and waiting for the gates to open. Two hours later, I had my passport and with it, my Non-Imm B visa. I treated myself to a pizza and a cold coke and headed back to the hostel, ready for my evening flight back to Bangkok.

Thailand

Bueng Kan

Shortly after confirming my role in the new company we had started to look for places to live. We started off by looking online. Most of the property in Chiang Mai is managed by a handful of big estate agencies. I was amazed at what we could get for our money. The price I was paying in London for our two-bedroom flat could have got us a six-bedroom house, with swimming pool, aircon, tennis court and an apartment in the back of the house for a live-in maid. Slightly different to our lifestyle in the UK.

We headed out to look at a house that we found online, just east of the city, and much more modest than the one mentioned above. We pulled up to the three-bedroom house, with a huge gate, perfect garden and pristine neighbouring houses. Sadly, it was already taken. As we got back on the scooter we spotted a small sign on the railing of the house next door. We phoned the number and the owner raced to meet us. The current tenants, three TEFL teachers from South Africa needed to move out. One had split with his girlfriend, the other had lost his job and the only one remaining just wanted to go home. Within two hours we’d signed the contracts and the house was ours.

To celebrate we planned a short break away to stay with our family in Bueng Kan. Although it’s possible to fly from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani and then either bus or hire a car. We decided to take the overnight bus. It was as uncomfortable as any of the other night busses in Thailand. The aircon is always either blowing our stale, warm air or ice-cold air, so cold you need to ask for blankets. This bus was the latter. We arrived in Udon Thani nice and early, so early this small town had not woken yet. We jumped into a tuk tuk to take us to a hotel we could get some rest in until lunchtime.

Once we’d woken up we got in another tuk tuk to try and find a car rental place. And after sitting in an office (living room) with two cats, three dogs and an elderly Thai woman for nearly an hour the owner arrived with a little Mazda hatchback. Which was surprisingly new and clean considering the office (living room) we’d been waiting in. We gave her the paperwork and with a hand-drawn map headed north to Bueng Kan. From there the route would rely entirely on my wife’s memory. The last time she made this journey she was six years old. I didn’t hold much hope…

We hit Bueng Kan, and as this was the closest town to our families house, we booked into a hotel. The, got back on the road for the short drive to the village. Once in the village we asked some locals to point us in the right direction and a few hours after leaving Udon Thani we had arrived.

It was great to see them again, and to visit there small and humble home for the first time. This was also the first time I would meet my new brother-in-law, Foamy (12). He was unable to make the long trip south to Koh Tao for our wedding due to a busy schedule of exams at school. The first time he saw me he was shy. He hadn’t seen many farang (foreigners) before, let alone a 6’1″ guy that’s now married to his sister. But, by the end of the day we were playing badminton on a patch of dirt with a ripped up net and DIY rackets. He won. Convincingly.

One thing I quickly learnt about my new family was that they love to eat. Or at least loved to offer me food, all the time. Language was a barrier, food was a bridge. We sat and ate food that they’d made all day. With friends and villagers coming and going to meet me and see my wife who they’d not seen for many years. It was a great day!

The next day we drove the short distance to our latex farm. A huge expanse of latex trees, each with a small cup hanging from a peg that is hammered into the tree to collect you seeping liquid latex. Our family have 750 trees which my are cut very early every morning by my mother-in-law and father-in-law. It’s a huge amount of work for a fairly small reward. To add and extra income they’ve also got two huge fishponds, each slightly bigger than a tennis court, which provides fish to sell at the local market.

That night we drove everyone to Bueng Kan for a music festival. It was much like any festival in the UK. But this one cost ฿40 each (about £0.80) to enter. Inside they had market stalls selling everything, televisions, socks, beds, furniture, gadgets, knifes, ballons, food, drink… everything. We worked our way to the main stage and laid down a mat to sit on before the crowd got too big. We sat and drank whiskey with our family and various friends and villagers who had joined us while the children went to play on the fairground rides. It was the perfect end to a great trip.

Thailand

Arriving in Chiang Mai

After leaving Koh Tao we arrived in Bangkok, our last stop before Chiang Mai. I sent out a few emails to companies that I thought might consider employing me. As I was now newly married, unemployed, five thousand miles from home and running very low on funds. We stayed in Bangkok for a week visiting friends, planning our future and generally enjoying being a Mr & Mrs.

As we left our hotel in Bangkok to head for the train station, I checked my emails (and Facebook) one last time. I had an email. A company had replied to my offer of work. Not only did they want to talk to me face to face, they were also willing to put us up in a hotel for a week whilst we had these talks. I told my wife we’re not going to Chiang Mai after all, assuming that like most production companies, this one would be in Bangkok. But, after looking over the companies website I found that they are not only one of the two major film production companies in Thailand, they’re also based in Chiang Mai.

A couple of hours later we were on the sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Excited, nervous, scared. My wife and I had always wanted to go to Chiang Mai, since long before we even met each other so this was a dream coming true. And now we had a glimmer of hope for a more permanent stay there. We had decided that we would leave it a week before making any decisions. Hopefully that would give us a chance to let it all sink in.

We arrive in Chiang Mai Railway station at 08:30 after a surprisingly comfortable night on the train. Waiting at the station was one of the two owners of the company waiting to pick us up and take us to our hotel.

On the fairly short drive to our beautiful hotel we discussed how the journey was and the weather… everything but work. Which was nice, as we just wanted to explore the city, mountains, rivers and markets. We agreed to have our first meeting in two days time at the companies office.

Whilst waiting for this first meeting we took the chance to rent a scooter and explore Chiang Mai. By the end of day two we were in love with the area. We had already decided to stay here is my meeting went well. And it did. I’m now producing for the company and freelancing on various projects around Asia as a camera operator. It’s my dream job. Well my second dream job. My actual dream job is a rescue helicopter pilot in the Canadian rockies. Sadly my eyesight and the prerequisite of military flying experience has pissed on that bonfire.

Thailand

The Beginning

On the 14 March 2012 I got married on the remote island of Koh Tao, 50 miles East from the coast of Chumphon, Thailand. Having lived and worked on Koh Tao at various points during the last few years, and having met my now wife on the island, it was the perfect location for us to get married.

We had my family do the gruelling LDN-BKK flight followed by a flight to Koh Samui, then a two hour speed boat to reach Koh Tao. And that’s the easy way! As many travellers will tell you, the ‘real’ way to get to Koh Tao is the 12-14 hour night bus from Bangkok to Chumphon, then to catch either the 12 hour night ferry the following day to Koh Tao, or to catch the extremely fast Lomprayah boat (two hours).

My wife’s family, who live in Bueng Kan right in the northwest corner of Thailand on the Loas border river. They came by bus. And even more tiring journey than all mentioned above.

The mountain top location, hotels, staff, views, flowers Buddhist monks, friends, family and lots of excited children. It was perfect.

Four days after the wedding. Once our family had returned to there respective homes, and once we’d completed a fairly heavy round of parties, BBQs, all nighters and general madness with our friends on the island. We travelled up to Chiang Mai, in the mountains of northern Thailand for our honeymoon.

It was during this journey and after taking into account various Skype conversations with my good friend David in California, that I made the biggest decision of my life. I wasn’t going home to the UK. That night I phoned my employer and quit my extremely well paid producer role in the UK. I phoned friends and family to see if I could find someone to rent my brand new, and recently furnished, London flat. Luckily the fantastic Emily moved in. And that was it. Aside from my obscene O2 monthly mobile phone contract, I was free.