One of the good things about reading or researching on a country/place that you plan to visit is that you don’t miss on the best things that the place has to offer. My research on Thailand led me to what eventually turned out to be once in a lifetime experience - a visit to the ‘Tiger Temple’ at Kanchanaburi near Bangkok, Thailand, and playing with Tigers there.
The entire Thailand trip was built around this event. I had almost four and half days there to spend and the only thing I was really looking forward to was touching a tiger. I had spent so much of time and money back in India going on treks, wild-life camps and nature resorts to catch a glimpse a tiger in full flow that I had almost given up on seeing one. So when this opportunity was available I grabbed it and booked a day trip to the ‘Tiger Temple’.
This temple is located about 2.5 hours drive from Bangkok and I had a booked a Taxi and a guide for the whole trip. The guide was about 3 years younger to me and was once a volunteer to this temple too. It was very nice to hear her life’s journey, which was quite interesting and was an excellent way to spend those hours on the road. She herself was quite a traveler having spent few months in and around Europe. She had also travelled around Thailand a lot and that helped me get a good perspective of the country, its history and its current state of affairs. She had come back to her hometown to be with her ailing mother and thus completing a full circle in her life.
As we neared our destination she gave me a brief introduction on the temple. She also gave me a list of things that I am not supposed to do when I was in the company of the tigers. All set and done these animals were ‘wild animals’ and one can never be able to predict their behavior. So it was imperative to follow all the instructions bombarded on you. But the more I listened to her the more scared I was getting. From things like not standing or walking directly in front of the tiger to not showing one’s back to any tiger around I was asked to follow many instructions. Also, I was told it was considered sacred by the monks if you get hurt and blood is spilled by a tiger and in such a scenario you would have to stay in the temple for few days. That scared me even more as I saw it as a mechanism to make sure you don’t go out of the temple until you are recovered completely.
The temple in itself was never started as a Tiger temple. It was more of an abode to the Buddhists monks. But one day some villagers not knowing what to do with an injured tiger (after getting caught in a poachers trap) asked these monks to take care of it and they agreed. And so a journey began from 1 to 91 tigers now. Tigers were sent to this place from various places and soon the tigers started breeding there (which shows that the tigers must be quite happy as they apparently don’t breed unless they are happy!). I would term their facility to be better than any of the breeding program as I myself saw about 20 cubs. And this was without any effort in the direction of making these tigers breed…
On the way we (myself and my guide) stopped at a supermarket to buy some food for giving alms to the monks and that’s how my day started at the temple. I had left my hostel at around 5 AM and had reached the temple around 7.30AM. There were already a group of 10 people waiting for the monks. Once the formality of giving alms was done all of us were ushered in to the temple were we met the cubs. It was feeding time and all of us got a chance to feed the cubs, played with them and cuddled them. The whole experience was too exciting to be described in words. The first half an hour with these cubs were the scariest. Imagine someone who is scared of dogs playing with Tiger cubs! But things started improving once I gained more confidence in the volunteers there..:) (Because I had no confidence in the behavior of the tigers there..:))
By this time the monks had finished their prayers, we had breakfast with them. We were then led to a Tiger shelter where we bathed and washed few full grown tigers. I even fed one of them with Chicken. I was dead scared that the tiger would eat my hand but thankfully the hand is intact and I am typing my experience here..:)
We then moved inside a huge den that had a pond. Either the tigers should be outside the enclosed territory and we inside or the tigers inside and we outside…But in this case both we and the tigers were inside. Again, we were all asked to strictly follow the rules that were stated earlier else we were told we would be either thrown out by the volunteers or be eaten by the tigers. It was not funny in the beginning but later found the experience to be really awesome. It was great to play with them in the pool and the presence of volunteers there really helped, as they knew how to take care of these tigers when situation went out of hand. It was not just the tigers (which like all animals the play sometimes slowly turned into fights) but the people there who sometime in their over zeal didn’t follow the instructions endangering not only themselves but others around.
At the end of the trip we walked two fully grown tigers back to their den and had photographs taken with them. All along the way we were asked to never show our back to them and never go in front of them. Both the tigers marked their territory along the way and they apparently do that daily!
After a heavy lunch my guide took me to the “Bridge on the river kwai”. The bridge in itself was not too big or long but the circumstances under which it was built made it special and once again I got a very good history lesson from her. By the time I landed back at my hostel it was late evening. The rest of the trip comprised of visiting The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho - The oldest and largest temple (housing the reclining Buddha), Wat Arun - Temple of Dawn, the famous floating markets of Bangkok and of-course the beaches of Pattaya.
I had never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would play with tigers, feed them, pet them and walk them and be alive at the end of it to tell the tale. But here I am doing exactly that and it makes me feel really good and special that I could do all this. Overall it was such a great experience that the rest of my trip became a mere footnote in my post.
Some snaps can be found here...