Thursday, November 06, 2008

Tiger Temple - Forest Monastery near Kanchanaburi

Okay, so at the very outset let me state that I was the skeptical one. My husband (once having seen the pictures, video and articles about this place) insisted that we go to the Tiger Temple and have it become the highlight of our trip to Thailand. Being that he was so gung-ho about it, we made sure to include it into our itinerary.
Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno is quite a mouthful to say. Calling it Tiger Temple might be easier said than done.
My impression of a Tiger refuge and this place were world's apart.

Tiger temple is not the easiest to get to...not if you don't have your own means of transportation, or are traveling with a tour company that includes this as part of their tour. For people who prefer the bus or train, the options are limited. You can arrive by train or bus from Bangkok into the town of Kanchanaburi, and then take bus 8203 for Sai Yok and ask the driver to stop at the temple. The bus takes about 45 minutes to reach the temple and costs 25 Baht; this isn't the actual temple though. From the bus stop, follow the dirt road (1.5) km all the way to the front gate. The walk takes about 30-40 minutes. Factor in the heat and humidity...and you'll soon realize, this isn't the easiest..but it could be the most cost effective.

As I mentioned earlier, we hired a taxi for the entire day, so getting there was hassle free. Even otherwise, renting a taxi from the town of Kanchanaburi would cost about 200-250 Baht and take about 30 minutes or so. 
After paying 300 Baht per person as an entrance/donation fee, buying a T-shirt (another 300 Baht; see tip below) and signing waiver forms, I say to myself, this better be worth it...after all I am signing my life away here!!
The grounds look more like a reservation than a temple. We find a trail that leads us through rocky gravel and un-even ground to our first viewing of Tiger Cubs!! For someone who hasn't seen tigers live and in the flesh before, what differentiates a cub from its parent...hmmm...I wouldn't know. I was freaking out more because I had the thought ...could tigers (like dogs) sense my inner freaking out-self?? There was an Australian volunteer who re-assured me that they were babies, harmless, ultra cute, they love their bellies getting rubbed etc... all I saw were teeth and claws!! After my initial stomach churning moments, I summoned enough courage to step up and take a couple pictures with the 'babies' (yeah right, if you say so). The volunteered literally took my hand and ran it over their furry backs and bellies all the time assuring me, that this made them feel good....yeah but how did it make ME feel?? I sat gingerly next to the cubs leaning into (or out of) the picture frame to get it done! (Breathe)

Step 2 was the giant was a short hike to the canyons where the tigers are brought out in the mid-afternoon. If I thought the cubs were big...these guys (or gals) were huge, enormous, and gorgeous - yes, but gigantic!!! I now understood what the volunteer meant when she called them babies earlier. Those were small compared to what lay in front of me. My am I going to do this? I had already paid for my there was no backing out. The waiver I signed said nothing about any cancellation fee…moreover I don't read Thai! So, it was settled...I was in...I was going to do it. I decided to stand in line along with 40 other visitors to get myself photographed with the big beauties.

Here is where my impressions changed, my skepticism (about this place) deepened, my fear replaced with sadness…after watching the sorry plight of these magnificent beasts. Tigers are supposed to be raw, feral, wild, impassioned creatures that tread the jungle, define territories, fend their young, hunt prey etc. That was not at all what I witnessed before me. Instead what I saw were stationary, utterly docile, passive, limp, flaccid mammals that never budged or moved an inch over the 2 hours that we stood in line. They never once purred or growled or yawned or made any sound or action. Wait…I probably saw one (of the 12 -13 tigers) flick a tail. That was about it. Why?

With so many tourists, visitors, children, volunteers…the place was buzzing with activity. Yes, agreed it was a hot summer afternoon, down in the canyons temperatures can soar even higher, the animals are nocturnal, yet, these beasts lay impervious to any sound, sight or smell…unyielding to any human activity around them. So many cameras flashing, people commenting, sometimes even laying on tiger bellies and yet, not one moved, not one awakened even momentarily, not even one opened an eyelid to scrutinize the surroundings. Why was it so strange? Were these mammals drugged, I had to ask myself. How else could their behavior be explained?
I didn’t know who to ask to get an answer. All I saw were numerous yellow shirted volunteers holding people’s hands, leading them to these animals, specifying where and how to sit to get photographed. It felt like a monotonous habitual routine for them - time tested and tedious. I did see one monk on the premises, keeping a watchful eye. He would intervene when any visitor paid a special (extra!!) price to have close-up pictures taken with the tigers head on their lap, or their head on the tiger’s belly etc.
After a point, I literally tuned out; the scare of facing a fierce wild beast exited my system. I felt pain for these animals and their exploitation through so called donations from the people. I didn’t notice any signs of malnutrition or abuse. Neither did I notice any signs of a sanctuary being built for which all donations were being raised. The animals did look healthy…just that, they were lifeless. I had decided then and there - the next time I see tigers it will be in the wild, in their natural habitat, and definitely from inside a covered safari vehicle.

Tip to foreign tourists - you must be dressed in knee length pants, skirts or shorts and must have sleeved shirts or t-shirts on. Sleeveless tops are prohibited inside the premises. My sleeveless top forced me to spend 300Baht on a Tiger Temple T-shirt available for purchase at the ticket office. I brought it back as a souvenir of the place.

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