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Exploring Thailand, Part 4: 40 Years of Progress at Khao Chong Pran

It shouldn’t have surprised me when Daniel pointed my way in his search for volunteers. I could only make myself look so small in a room of primary school students. Rising from my seat, I heard him pick out two more members of our group to help with his demonstration. Then he handed me an eye mask and said, “You’ll be the Bat.”

The game we were going to demonstrate was called “Bat and Moth.” It was a call-and-response game of tag used to teach the children at Khao Chong Pran Elementary about echolocation, and I had the dubious honor of being “it.” As the Bat, I was blindfolded and spun around before being released to search for Moths. I would call “bat” and they would respond “moth moth.” By repeating our call-and-response, I would home in on a Moth and tag them, demonstrating how certain species use echolocation to hunt. The students spectating formed a ring around our demonstration. Their job was to say “tree” whenever I started to approach the circle’s edge but only the students closest to me could call out.

Suffice it to say, I did eventually catch a Moth. Having witnessed our educational performance, the children were excited for their turn to participate. As our group joined the circle of Trees, the game began in earnest. The conversations that flowed between us and the students were warm, if sometimes shy, while the rambunctious sounds of children playing echoed in the background.

Brynn Tarnowsky and Kim Zenz playing “Bat and Moth.”
Merlin Tuttle and students playing “Bat and Moth,” an echolocation game, while Surapon translates.

It was midmorning of our first full day in Ratchaburi Province. We were in the small town that surrounds Wat Khao Chong Pran – a large Buddhist monastery that owns Khao Chong Pran cave. The cave is home to millions of bats and is the site of one of Merlin’s favorite conservation success stories. Deviating from our recent routine of being all about caves, we were at our second of two schools. Merlin was giving presentations at each, sharing a trove of information about bats with the students. We were very fortunate to have Surapon Duangkhae still with us as he translated Merlin’s talks.

Spectating these presentations, I felt like I was watching Merlin in his element. He was a charismatic and engaging speaker, often weaving information with humor. He gave examples of the incredible diversity of Thailand’s bats and the fruits that depend on them for seed dispersal and pollination. He also spoke about the harvesters of Khao Chong Pran who collect guano from the cave weekly and sell it as a sustainable fertilizer. At this, one of the students proudly shared that their parents were guano miners at the cave. Khao Chong Pran now draws tourists from around the world who come to watch the nightly emergence, providing another source of revenue to the town. Above all, the presentations showed how easy and beneficial it is to live in harmony with bats, a theme echoed in Merlin’s recent talk at TEDxUTAustin. 

Stopping in at the two schools was a relatively small part of our trip that attested to the deep, long-standing relationship between Merlin and the people of Khao Chong Pran. This relationship was evident in obvious ways – from Merlin going on to meet with Phrakhruwisutthanantha-khun, the head monk of the region, to being invited onstage during the Lunar New Year celebrations; but it existed in subtleties too. On our way to Khao Chong Pran Elementary, Merlin recalled how one of the students from his first visit 43 years ago had gone on to become a teacher there. She still remembered the ”Batman’s” first visit, and she now helps organize MTBC’s school appearances.

Merlin greeting elementary school students before his morning presentation.
Merlin teaching the values of bats to students with Surapon translating.
(Left to right) Surapon Duangkhae, Merlin Tuttle, Pongsanant Trirat, and head monk Phrakhruwisutthanantha-khun discuss the needs of the Khao Chong Pran bat colony.
The spectacular emergence of wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats at Khao Chong Pran Cave, with the Lunar New Year celebration fully underway below.

The relationship between Khao Chong Pran’s bats and its people was on full display later that evening. Following our morning at the school and a visit to the tourist-accessible part of Khao Chong Pran’s cave, we returned to the temple grounds for the second night in a row. A large, paved parking lot that doubled as a courtyard had been outfitted with a small stage and rows of folding chairs. A raised viewing platform stretched along the north end of the lot, facing a hill that overlooked the monastery and sheltered the cave. The courtyard had been empty the evening before, but no less noisy as Lunar New Year celebrations were ongoing throughout our visit. Pavilions surrounded the temple, including market stalls, while music thrummed over speakers in the background.

Merlin with the bat dancers of Khao Chong Pran. These dancers celebrate the history and importance of bats to their community through this ancient art form.
Merlin, workshop participants, and the students and teachers of Khao Chong Pran Elementary after a fun-filled day of celebrating bats.

Not long before the emergence, two groups of young dancers took to the stage, the second of which were in costumes made to resemble painted bats. Their performance coincided with the emergence, and dancers in black and orange echoed the twists and turns of thousands of bats flying overhead, both graceful in their own right.

I’ll confess that my eyes strayed to the bats overhead more often than not, but the significance of the performance wasn’t lost on me. It was just as Merlin had said in the assemblies: the bats at Khao Chong Pran are an integral part of the monastery and the surrounding town, and their impact is undoubtedly felt much farther afield. Asian wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaerephon plicatus), just one of the species that call the cave home, consume vast amounts of insects each night, especially plant hoppers that damage rice crops.

Although I’ve admitted to being absorbed by the bats, the performances and the school visits, in particular, were special to witness. Merlin’s passion for bats and his ability to inspire that in others reignited my own interest in bats, which began when I heard him on the podcast Ologies in 2019. Observing these moments – being part of some, if game demonstrations count – brought up a slew of emotions, not the least of which were gratitude and hope. Gratitude for the opportunity to be where I was, and hope that even one student in those assemblies would find Merlin’s love of bats as impactful as I had.

Teresa Nichta photographing wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats emerging from Khao Chong Pran Cave.
Kicking off the bat celebration as the bats of Khao Chong Pran decorate the skies.
Daniel Hargreaves and Merlin show gratitude after the bat dancers' performance.
Merlin with an excited group of students during his 2019 trip to Thailand.

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Michael Lazari Karapetian

Michael Lazari Karapetian has over twenty years of investment management experience. He has a degree in business management, is a certified NBA agent, and gained early experience as a money manager for the Bank of America where he established model portfolios for high-net-worth clients. In 2003 he founded Lazari Capital Management, Inc. and Lazari Asset Management, Inc.  He is President and CIO of both and manages over a half a billion in assets. In his personal time he champions philanthropic causes. He serves on the board of Moravian College and has a strong affinity for wildlife, both funding and volunteering on behalf of endangered species.