The Tiger Temple
A casual acquaintance in Bangkok told us Sam’s Place was a good place to stay in Kanchanaburi. It was on the River Kwai. Some of the rooms were on a big floating deck, but we chose to stay in a row of concrete rooms, with trees and shrubs outside. Staying right on the river would have been very noisy, due to riverboat taxis that cruised by at high speeds, powered by engines that were not graced with mufflers, and the floating discotheques, that spent the night passing to and fro, blaring music with the usual Asian disregard for anyone who might want to sleep.
We had heard about the Tiger Temple, since it is a typical tourist jaunt. I was always leery of such outings, because I’m not a typical tourist, but the idea of getting close to a tiger was very intriguing. Apparently, the monks at this temple adopted tigers who, for whatever reason, cannot be rehabilitated into the wild. Most had been found as cubs and kept in human company as they were growing up. At Sam’s Place, there was a leaflet describing the temple, and when we inquired further, the smiling young woman at reception told us we could go on a trip the following day for a reasonable price. So we signed up.
The next morning we were picked up at Sam’s by a truck taxi loaded with westerners. Before we set off, the smiling receptionist gave us a little lecture, assuring us that Lek, our driver, was very experienced with the tigers, and “also particularly with monkey.” I wondered if that was intended to make us feel safer. I couldn’t imagine that Lek or any other human individual would be able to stop an uncaged tiger.
Eight of us on the wooden benches that lined each side in the back of the truck, and we stopped at another hotel (called A Nice Place) for two more westerners, who sat in the front. A canvas cover kept us dry in case we hit a tropical downpour, but the back was open, so I sat by the tailgate, admiring the green landscapes we passed through. One of the other passengers was a young Scot from Glasgow, who was far friendlier than most Europeans, perhaps because he was traveling alone. Looking at my yellow shirt, he said with a grin, “I’ve heard that tigers are very attracted to yellow, they’ll go straight for anything that’s yellow!”
I grinned back. “Well, since you are clearly a chivalrous young man, you will no doubt swap my yellow shirt for your blue one!”
Everyone laughed. The woman on my right, who sounded German and looked anxious, said, “It’s true that a tourist was seriously mauled by one of the tigers, isn’t it?”
“That’s what they said at the tourist information kiosk,” replied the Scottish guy. “But apparently they’ve got it all set up now so it’s really safe.”
“Safe by Thai standards or western standards?” asked the German woman.
I laughed. “Thai standards, of course, we’re in Thailand! If you’re really nervous, then stay away from them. They can smell fear, you know.” I was only half joking – I had been around enough big animals to know that they quickly pick up on the emotions of nearby humans.
We drove for about an hour, until we arrived at a single concrete building inside some gates, where we signed a waiver, paid 150 baht, and received a little booklet with a poem about compassion, written in Thai. The bad English translation made me wish, even more than usual, that I could decipher the strange rounded characters of the Thai script. Several photos, some of them very blurry, showed the bespectacled abbot of the monastery sitting and walking with tigers.
Lek led us amongst well spaced trees with bare earth in between, where we met two stags in velvet, their blunt horns all shiny. They were tame enough that they almost let us touch them. A few black and white pigs were snuffling around in the dirt. We passed through a metal gate in a wall, and on to a place where a large irregular pit had formed in the earth, looking like a natural feature of the landscape. No vegetation grew here. We wound our way down into the pit along a path in the red soil, and turned a corner. My heart jumped. Five tigers lay around on the ground in front of us.
The terrain here had formed high walls around a flattened spot. The only way out was where we had just entered. A line had been drawn in the bare earth, and several westerners already stood behind it. Three Thai men in plain long pants and T-shirts hung around looking important, while a fourth man, a monk in yellow robes, attended to a tiger who lay on its side on a flat rock. He was periodically feeding it small white pills that he placed, one by one, on the rock. Every time he did so, the animal lazily turned its huge head on one side to lick up the pill with an enormous red tongue. What was it ingesting?
Three other tigers lounged placidly in a group near the flat rock, and one more was sprawled on its side, further back against the red cliff wall. They all looked well fed and sleepy, and each one had a piece of rope tied around its neck. We were about twenty yards away. Thais tend to be small people, and the animals dwarfed the men standing near them. It was clear that if any of the animals decided to attack, they would cover the ground between us in a few strides, and anyone who tried to prevent them would be casually knocked aside. I was confident that it was not part of my destiny to be mauled by a tiger, but one or two of the other tourists were fiddling nervously with their cameras, and standing well back from the line.
We waited, and soon one of the Thai men, in business-like and self-important mode, as they tend to be when they are involved in any official task, came up to the closest tourist, took her by the arm with one hand and took her camera from her with the other. The camera was passed to another Thai man who took photos of her as she was led to the closest tiger, who was lying on the ground; she was briefly allowed to touch it, and then hurried on to the one that lay on the rock. The huge animals paid no attention as she laid her hand on them and turned to smile inanely at the cameraman. In this fashion we were walked out one by one, and walked back. None of the tigers even appeared to notice us.
Although the Thais were trying to hurry us up, the process took a while, since there were sixteen of us. I admired the tigers while we waited. They are so beautifully marked, the dull orange hide seared with black lines that end in perfect points, with one white line on each erect ear. When my turn came, the small Thai man grasped my upper arm firmly, and I had to resist the impulse to shake him off. “Camera?” he asked, and I shook my head. This wasn’t a photo moment for me, it was an experience. We stopped at the first animal lying on the ground, and I squatted beside it, feeling small. I stroked its rough short hair, looking at its enormous feet, just the tips of the black claws showing, and its white throat stretched out. Its eyes were closed and it only twitched one ear as I touched its back. My guide led me on to the second tiger. I sat beside it on the rock, my hand on its huge flank, saying, “You are a very handsome animal and I’m honored to be so close to you. Not that my presence seems to be of any interest to you, I suppose you get a string of tourists admiring you every day. Does it get boring?” Its white belly gleamed with dull cleanliness, like the perfectly curved long white whiskers around its mouth. The end of its long striped tail flicked lazily.
I could happily have sat there for half an hour, but the man was tugging at my arm, and I could only ignore him for a couple of minutes. I walked back reluctantly to the waiting group of onlookers. Liz went next, and as she sat down on the rock, the huge beast who was lying over by the wall lazily got up, starting to walk towards us. Immediately one of the Thai men ran to grab it by the tail. The monk joined him, and together they pushed the huge animal back down, smacking and slapping it, until it rolled onto its side with its head laid out on the ground. Such harsh treatment seemed a little unwarranted but apparently the magnificent animals didn’t mind being handled roughly. Twice while we were waiting, one of the handsome comatose beasts rolled over on its side, yawning hugely to reveal its array of massive white teeth, with a huge canine on either side, its pink tongue lolling between them; then the monk or one of the other men hurried over to smack it on the side of the head until it lay upright again with its head on its paws.
One woman didn’t want to go near them, but the rest of us all took our turn. Then the men hustled us out of the area. Just before we turned the corner, I looked back; the monk had put another little white pill on the rock and the tiger was licking it up.
Lek led us to some other concrete buildings, where three monkeys were in separate cages. One sat on a bar scratching itself, staring off in the distance all the time I stood there, only glancing briefly at me with its sad black eyes. The other two were climbing up, down and around their cages, swinging by one arm and propelling themselves across their small space. Their movements, so fluid and relaxed, were a pleasure to watch. The keeper brought one of the active ones out for us to pet, and Liz sat with it on her lap for a little while. I wasn’t interested in being close to them, partly because the monkey keeper was hovering nervously and I suspected he was afraid it would bite. I had heard that monkeys are known for biting people without any warning at all.
Lek was calling us, and everyone else was wandering back towards the entrance. As we walked back through the large compound, we saw the monk leading one of the tigers by its rope. He carried a stick in his free hand, and whenever the tiger slowed down, he walloped it.
“They don’t treat them very gently,” said Liz in a disapproving tone.
I shrugged. “They’re not gentle animals. I don’t think you can afford always to be sweet and gentle with an animal that could kill you so easily. You’d have to establish that you are in charge, and keep it that way. It doesn’t mean that they don’t treat them with compassion.”
Liz looked doubtful, and I changed the subject, not wanting to get into an argument. “The leaflet says that the open pit is the ‘exercise area’ but the tigers didn’t seem at all energetic. I wonder if they are kept drugged the whole time. What do you think those pills were?”
“Some kind of drug?”
“Yes, but what kind? Opium?”
“I suppose opium poppies grow well here. They tigers certainly looked relaxed and well fed.”
“Yes, I guess that’s the fate of the pigs we’re seeing.” I nodded to a couple who were rooting nearby. Liz’s eyebrows came together in a scandalized expression.
“You don’t think they feed the pigs to the tigers, do you? This is a monastery, they’re Buddhists!”
“What, you think the tigers are going to be vegetarian too? They have to feed the tigers some kind of meat. They would have to slaughter some of the pigs anyway, because these pigs are going have lots of babies, and if they don’t cull them, they would overrun the place. I’ve raised pigs, I know what I’m talking about.”
Liz turned away. She didn’t want to deal with that kind of reality, and she didn’t have to.