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The woman’s tiny, tan hand holds yours protectively. The dusty walls of Tiger Canyon slope down to where you stand… you, and thirty giant adult tigers.
“You hand him your camera, and we go,” the woman says firmly. “You follow me close.”
And you are off. The woman tugs you right up behind the first looming mountain of orange and black fur and places your hand firmly on the tiger’s back. “Pat STRONG,” she commands. You must show the tiger confidence, or he will whirl around. “Smile!” you hear, and look up in time for the man to snap three photos of you.
The woman’s hand is on yours again, and you are pulled past a German tourist couple to a rock with TWO giant tigers. “Sit here,” your guide says, patting the rock with the tigers. “Pat FIRM.” You put your hands out and stare in utter shock at what you’re doing. “Smile!” the man hollers. Click, click!
“Never show your back to a tiger, remember!” the woman says, and she leads you to pose with FIVE more monstrously gorgeous specimens. One flips around and snarls, and the woman leaps forward to yank you back to safety. The thick chains strain and rattle.
Much to your surprise, you WILL emerge, ten minutes later, with all limbs intact. You also will emerge with a hundred unbelievable photos on your camera, and a huge smile and handshake of gratitude to your Thai tiger handler guides.
WHAT AN EXPERIENCE. If you are anywhere in Thailand, the Tiger Temple is NOT to be missed. It is a smooth two hour drive from Bangkok, and you can get there on your own and pay the very worthwhile 500 Baht ($16) entrance fee, or book it as a package day tour, as we did.
So what in the name of all the creatures in Noah’s Ark IS this Tiger Temple? The first thing to remember is that it is an ACTUAL TEMPLE, run by monks in their saffron orange robes. This means that you must dress conservatively to visit. While you’re selecting your wardrobe, nix the bright colors like red, as you will be… how shall I put this… eaten.
Let us turn now to the official pamphlet for a further (utterly delightful) explanation of the Tiger Temple. “Since its opening in 1994, Wat Pa Luangta Bua gained a reputation as a wildlife sanctuary. It started with an injured jungle fowl given to the monk by the villagers. Then peacocks came, attracted by the calls of the, by then, rather large colony of jungle fowl. An injured wild boar stumbled in to the monastery and the monks cared for him until he could be released back into the forest. The next day he came back, followed by his family group of about ten animals. Now a countless number of wild boar find shelter in the monastery. Villagers also started to bring in unwanted pets. All these animals are roaming the grounds of the monastery freely.”
Wait, so there are a million OTHER animals sauntering, un-caged, around the Tiger Temple? Ooh yes. It is quite the feeling to walk down the path right next to a camel, four wild boars, a cattle herd, and three deer. But what about the TIGERS? Read on in the lovely pamphlet.
“The first tiger cub arrived in the monastery in February 1999. It was a female cub of Indochinese tiger subspecies, and her condition was very poor. When she was only a few months old her mother was killed by poachers near the Thai-Burma border. The cub was sold to a wealthy Bangkok resident who ordered her stuffed. A local was hired to do the job, which fortunately he did not finish. When she arrived to the monastery she was frail and terrified of the slightest sound. Under the loving care of the monks the cub recovered, but in July 1999 she fell seriously ill and died. People who knew about the incident did not want to see another cub mistreated again. However, it was not to be.”
Ahh!! So the Tiger Temple is not just a heartless tourist machine. It is a legitimate religious site and extremely important nature preserve. Keep reading.
“The monastery is situated in Kanchanaburi province– an area lying adjacent to Burma. The Western Forest Complex that stretches along the border is the largest protected area in Asia and believed to be the home of the largest surviving tiger population in the region. Unfortunately, while this area is protected, poaching still occurs rather frequently. A Thai poacher can get up to U.S. $5,800 for killing a tiger, several years’ salary for a farmer. Just a few weeks after the first cub died in the monastery, two healthy male cubs intercepted from the poachers were brought to the monks. A few weeks later the local villagers presented another two male cubs. And soon after, the border police patrol intercepted cubs held by poachers. The Abbot welcomed the animals and as he had no previous experience in looking after large carnivores, he had to learn on the job. As the years went by, the tigers grew up and to the Abbot’s surprise and delight, started to reproduce.”
Unbelievable. There now are hundreds of blue-uniformed Thai and Western workers helping the monks care for the animals, and several larger animal habitats are under construction thanks to the funds from the fascinated tourists pouring in each day.
A question posed in the pamphlet is perhaps on your mind, too. “Q: Why are the tigers so calm? Are they drugged? A: All our tigers have been hand-raised and imprinted to humans and therefore have no fear of people. The “fierce” behavior often associated with captive tigers is caused by placing wild animals in stressful conditions of the captive environment. Our tigers have been regularly handled from a very early age and thus become desensitized to being touched by people.”
Ahem. Please note… the second half of the question is not directly answered in the pamphlet. Several times, we saw monks feeding the eager tigers some pills from a white packet, but as we cannot read Thai, these could either be opiates, vitamins, or breath freshener.
Regardless, nearly every traveler in this wonderful country has raved about how AMAZING the Tiger Temple is, and I heartily join in.
What a fantastic day!