Pang Tong, (“Mrs Gold”), first came in to my life 16 years ago. I was a young, clueless, backpacker, making my way around Asia and she was a mother, of a tiny, two month old calf, called Boon Lott….
I will never, ever, forget the first time I saw Pang Tong. She filled me with fear and absolute wonder. She was the most beautiful being I had ever seen – so fierce, so powerful and intimidating, so defiant and so strong… Pang Tong was the epitome of elephant.
For the last sixteen years, Pang Tong has been a constant inspiration to me. Her unshakable strength has carried us both, if not all of the BLES family, both elephant and human, through some deeply tough times. As I sit here, remembering the sacrifices it took to create BLES, the highs and lows of every rescue we have embarked on and every single achievement and accolade we have accumulated throughout the years, Pang Tong is there, shining her untamed, fiery light, over us all.
Pang Tong, is the sole reason why BLES is in existence.
When her calf, Boon Lott, took a tragic fall, causing severe nerve damage and paralysis, Pang Tong and I refused to give up on him. We raised Boon Lott, nursing him, protecting him, comforting him. He was our baby – She was his day time mother and I was his night time mother. Boon Lott went from strength to strength, but eventually lost his fight for life in June 2004. Both Pang Tong and I lost a son on that devastating day and I honestly believe neither of us has ever stopped mourning for him. He was our child and we dedicated every ounce of our being in to raising him.
The day Boon Lott died, I had him wrapped up tight in my embrace. He lay on my lap and in whispered words, only interrupted by my heavy tears, I made him a promise. I vowed to dedicate the rest of my life to the protection of his kind, his family and of course, his mother.
Shortly after Boon Lott’s passing, I rescued Pang Tong from her life of constant beatings and moved her to Sukhothai. It was a brave, if not stupid, move on my part, as I hadn’t even started building BLES or even really decided if that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Anon took her in to his home without hesitation and he spent his days walking Somai and Pang Tong through the forests of Baan Tuek, where we would eventually create the sanctuary we live in today.
Once I had raised enough funds to start building BLES, I moved back to Thailand and worked relentlessly with the community here, to create a facility that would embody everything that it means to live in true sanctuary – for all beings.
The days were long and intensely hot. I had times of unbelievable frustration and faced challenges I never thought I could overcome. Throughout it all, Pang Tong and Somai were there. Every time I rolled my eyes up to the sky, in moments of desperation and exhaustion, my eyes would always land on them. Standing side by side, gazing down from the tops of the hills at us, looking like a king and queen, proudly watching as the promise I made to Boon Lott on his dying day came to fruition.
Somehow, I knew that Pang Tong knew this was my memorial to her and to our baby boy and it was her constant presence that grounded me and refocussed me whenever I had doubts and notions about giving up and flying back to England.
Pang Tong was our matriarch, before we even had a BLES herd. We have never lived a day without hearing her passionate trumpets, without watching her stomp past us. We have never known life without our beloved Pang Tong and I never imagined I would have to face a day, without her, my sister, being right here with us, like she has always been…
This is why this is the hardest blog I have ever had to write…
I have sat here for hours, crying, reminiscing, crying again, shaking my head in utter disbelief and holding on to my chest to try and stop it from hurting so much. The truth is, I am struggling to comprehend and then compose what we have been through these past few days. I don’t know how to say the words that are going to cause so much heartache and I still can not believe that what I’m about to share is actually true… How can it possibly be? Pang Tong, the elephant that has been here longer than anyone else, the elephant that was supposed to outlive us all, the one who was meant to go on and on, forever…. How can it be that she has gone??? HOW CAN IT BE?????
Pang Tong was in her mid fifties and it is normally around this age that elephants start to lose their final set of teeth. This causes all sorts of complications and over the past six months, Pang Tong’s health has been slowly deteriorating. She was a strong-willed woman and typically didn’t like trying anything new. For example, she point blank refused to take advantage of giant tubs of shredded up supplementary food, specially prepared for her. We did this as an attempt to make things easier on her digestive system, as blockages can cause great discomfort and even death in captive elephants. But, she only wanted to walk deep in to the forest every day and select her own branches, leaves and grasses. Pang Tong was a stubborn lady and as much as I always admired this quality, I also pleaded with her to let us help her. In true Pang Tong style, she protested at every opportunity.
So, Pang Tong started to suffer from regular bouts of constipation. We constantly performed enemas and the vets from TECC would frequently come to offer their advice and support and administer fluids.
Four days ago, Boo Lor, Pang Tong’s dedicated mahout for the past eleven years, noticed that Pang Tong had not defecated during the night. She was very bloated and clearly in discomfort. Boo Lor and I started the usual preparations to perform an enema, but as we did, I had this strange, agonising ache in my stomach. Something felt very wrong. The mahouts jumped in to action, but despite their best efforts, they could not reach any of the dung that was stuck in her digestive tract.
We led Pang Tong to the pond, with hopes that being submerged in the water would stimulate her bowels. She entered the pond slowly and carefully and then in her own time, made her way to the far side, where her soulmate, Somai is now buried. She lay there, on her side, every now and then moving on to her other side, beside Somai’s grave, for over two hours. her breathing was deep and slow. Her eyes were closed for long periods of time and as I sat on the grass watching her, I wondered if this was a sign. Many of you will say I am crazy, but it felt like Pang Tong wanted to be as close to Somai as possible. Our pond is very large and she could have settled anywhere, but she made a very deliberate line for where Somai was laid to rest three years ago. She settled right there and didn’t move. Was she trying to gain strength from him? Was she asking him to take her away? Was she reaching out to his spirit and saying her goodbyes? Well, I think she was.
Pang Tong’s stomach continued to swell and she was looking increasingly weary. I called the vets, who immediately came and we soldiered on through the stress, did everything we could think of, but still, Pang Tong did not defecate.
The next day, we decided we should relocate Pang Tong to the hospital for emergency care. She was even more bloated and had started collapsing. She was not passing gas or even trying to defecate. It was deeply upsetting to see her in so much discomfort and we were all at a loss. So, we loaded her on to our truck and drove as quickly as we could to the elephant hospital in Lampang.
The journey took four hours and Pang Tong’s legs were giving out on her throughout the ride. She was shaking and at one point started to lash out at the truck. Boo Lor stood right beside her the entire way, giving her reassurance and as I drove along behind, following them, not taking my eyes off of them, my thoughts were filled with Boon Lott…
As soon as we arrived, the vets administered fluids and drugs to stimulate her bowels. I sat on the floor, watching and feeling so incredibly helpless, as Pang Tong twisted and contorted her body out of sheer desperation and pain. She repeatedly ripped out the IV lines from the back of her ear and she was lunging out, attacking anyone who went close to her. She was collapsing more and more frequently and it was getting harder for her to rise to her feet. I wanted to run to her to calm her, but she had gone crazy. She was smashing her head against the support frame, she was tugging at the ropes and straps put around her body to support her weight so hard, she was tearing her skin. Pang Tong was fighting us tooth and nail and making it all so hard.
Hours were the only thing that passed that night. The drugs were not working and Pang Tong was exhausting herself. In the early hours of Saturday morning, Pang Tong took one last angry lunge out at the humans around her. Her back legs gave way and she fell to the ground. She died instantly…
I screamed, ran to her and fell to my knees. I wrapped my arms around her and just screamed again and again. No words came out of my mouth. Just harrowing sounds of grief and disbelief. My whole body was shaking and I buried my face in to hers, trying to ignore everyone standing there, watching us. One by one, they walked away, until there was no one left, but the two of us.
Fourteen years earlier, I sat in that exact same spot, on the floor, in the hospital, cradling Pang Tong’s dying baby in my arms.
I got towels and warm water and started washing the blood stains from her face. I watched my tears wet her skin, just as I had watched my tears roll down Boon Lott’s cheeks, all those years ago…
As I sit here, still trying to fathom it all, it is my belief that Pang Tong wanted to be reunited with her son. I honestly believe that the reason she was fighting so damn hard, was because she didn’t want to be here anymore. I truly think that she was in control and that she lead us to Lampang so that she could complete our life journey.
You see, it is in Lampang where my journey with Pang Tong and Boon Lott first began. We met in Lampang and so in a way, it makes sense to me, that we parted ways in Lampang too.
I sat holding her and stroking her head, running my fingers through her hair, over every wrinkle and crevice in her face, just as I had with Boon Lott, fourteen years ago. I wanted to remember every tiny detail of her and absorb all of her being with every breath I drew.
Hours later, my tears eventually stopped falling and I fell asleep beside her.
Boo Lor woke me in the morning and once I realised where I was, I burst into tears again. The mahouts tried to comfort me, telling me she was at peace now, but all I could think about was how empty our lives were now that she was no longer here.
As the sun started to rise, I had to shake myself out of my grief and start organising her funeral. I had already decided where she would be buried. I was determined to lay her to rest right next to the grave of her baby boy, Boon Lott.
Pang Tong’s funeral was immense and nothing short of what she deserved. As soon as news spread of her passing, people from all over the country, came to offer their condolences and pay their respects to her.
Pang Tong was a legend and as we all stood, circling her grave, dropping our flower petals and words of love on to her lifeless body, I thanked everyone for being there for her. I told them all the story of Pang Tong, her baby Boon Lott and a young British backpacker, that together changed the world, just a little bit and created a movement of compassion. I reminded them all, that Pang Tong was the one who breathed life in to BLES and gave us all a reason to live and give back to the elephants.
As I stood there, beside the graves of the two elephants that I have loved the most, tears, once again rolling down my face, I stopped talking and slowly smiled. My tears no longer felt cold and sad, they felt warm and proud. I looked around at everyone, laying down their flowers and offerings, comforting each other, arranging pebbles and leaving their own personal marks and messages to our beautiful matriarch. Some of them had known Pang Tong for sixteen years. Some of them had known her less than a month. Regardless, of the length of time, one thing was evident: Pang Tong had touched us all. She had brought us all together, from our varying walks of life, from our distant corners of the world and there we were, united in our admiration for one of the strongest, most beautiful and respected elephants in the world.
The Universe works in meaningful ways when you allow yourself to be open to the signs. It is no accident that Pang Tong’s ceremony was performed under the shade of the trees planted in memory of her baby, Boon Lott. It is not a mere coincidence that the elephant cemetery is full, yet the space beside Boon Lott’s grave was free….
This, as much as it hurts me, is how this was suppose to end. This is what Pang Tong wanted and this is the way every mother and calf should rest – side by side, their spirits reunited, and this time, nothing can tear them apart.
Pang Tong, you were like a sister to me. Without you, I would not have embarked on this crazy life journey and realised my destiny. Without you, I would not have my beautiful children, my incredible family and we would not have any purpose to our lives. You created BLES and I promise you, just as I promised your baby, I will never, ever, give up. I will carry your fierceness in my heart and keep on fighting with everything I have, so that we can keep on giving your family, the elephants, the lives they should have always had.
I am sorry you had to suffer so much during this lifetime. I know I will see you and Boon Lott again and until then, I will smile when I feel your spirits with me, walking beside me through the forests of BLES.
There are not enough words…
Pang Tong – you’re the best thing that ever happened to me…
– Rest In Eternal Peace –