Day Three in Bangkok. The swanky hotel has me booked for a full day tour that will begin at the War Cemetery, go on to the Jeath Museum, to River Kwai, the Death Bridge and finally end up at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi. I hop into a van at 6:15 am, with a mix of other tourists. We are paired with an excitable jumpy Thai tour guide. He has a high-pitched voice, and his effervescence is almost contagious. His flamboyance can only be matched by none other than the late Liberace. I certainly have an interesting day ahead of me.
For most of the day however, I’m hardly present, I’m not in the moment. I am busy thinking about tigers and feelings of trepidation have hung over me. Only because the day before, I watched a graphic youtube clip someone had posted on social media. It was set in Iran, and showed a lion in a cage with a man. The man was a trainer that had been with the lion since it was a cub. Now this grown cat had his hand in its’ mouth in a tight grip, and was in a tug-of-war with another man outside the cage, who was pummeling it’s face so that it could let go. The trainer dressed in white, was partly covered in his own blood, a large splotch of ruby red streaming down his chest. The men outside the cage ended up killing the lion, but not before it had gone for the jugular of its’ trainer, almost ripping out a chunk of his neck in the process. So all this was in my mind as I was headed for the Tiger Temple. I was wondering at the time if it was a sign for me to stay away. Could I outrun a tiger if anything happened perhaps? Finally, I decided to go ahead and encounter tame wild tigers, in the spirit of YOLO.
Liberace the tour guide, was racing ahead of me once we got to the temple. He had an umbrella shielding his head from the scorching 40°C heat. As we got to the canyon, I caught sight of the tigers. I wondered if my jewelry was okay, whether the shine and jingle of the long earrings and bracelets would be a distraction to the tigers. At the entrance, this lanky blond American gave us a pep talk..the do’s and don’ts of the place. He said my jewelry was okay, and added that if I wanted to, I would hold the biggest tiger’s head in my lap for a 1000 baht donation (22 euro equivalent). I gave this offer a pass.., after all I’d already spent a tidy sum for this tour; and readily chose to go for the ‘free’ shots with the tigers. That placed me smack ahead of the queue.
An overweight Thai girl, in her late teens grabbed my hand at the wrist, and tugged me along like we were mates headed for the playground. She pointed out where I could sit with the tigers to have a picture taken. Most of the tigers were dozing, but I took the posture of one ready to sprint if one of them decided to stretch, or yawn. I patted one, and click click, the assistants took pictures, I touch two and more shots were taken, two more, ‘click, click’, then lastly this massive tiger sitting with the monk. The tiger was alert and the monk seemed to be dousing it’s head with a bottle of water. The monk pointed out to me where to sit, right by the flicking tail end of the tiger. One more picture taken and that was it, the photo shoot with tigers was done. I was free to go. I took one more picture before I left, one full shot of the canyon with the tigers, workers, assistants and monks there.
In this vast piece of land in Kanchanaburi province, you spot other animals like water buffalo, cows, a bear, deer, wild fowl and wild boar. The tigers are the star attraction in this temple known in Thai as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua. It is the most expensive tourist attraction in Thailand, and the most controversial. Many claim that what was begun as a rescue centre for orphaned tigers has been commercialized, with tigers being bred for profit and display to tourists who have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up close and personal with these deadly big cats. Tigers, lions and other members of the big cat family have been known to attack their trainers, and maul even those that have raised them from birth, as the case with the Iranian trainer demonstrated above. The tigers of the temple are no ordinary tigers. They have been conditioned in some twisted Pavlovian way, to expect pain when they ‘cross the line;’ being smacked on the nose, or hit with a cane. However, it is never forgotten by the folk at Tiger Temple, whether they be monks, assistants or volunteers; that these animals are dangerous predators, creatures governed by instinct..that can potentially take someone out with a paw swipe. For the most part therefore; directions are given at the temple just to make people aware of wrong movements, running, falling or noise which can suddenly make them viewed as prey.
Care for the Wild International claimed that Tiger Temple is involved in the “clandestine exchange of tigers with the owner of a tiger farm in Laos, thus contravening the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and national laws of both Thailand and Laos.
The numbers of tigers in the wild are fast dwindling due to poaching for their skins as well as their body parts, bones and teeth for ‘medicinal’ purposes. In a world where there are more tigers in captivity than in the wild, the conservation efforts of the Tiger temple are commendable…for as long as there are poachers who place more value in a dead tiger than a live one, these tigers need to be protected.