Monks and Tigers in Kanchanaburi

A monk with the tiger

Another place on my “Relatively Unknown Thailand” list is the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi Province. Although this temple (real name Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno)  is barely mentioned in most guidebooks, it is fast becoming one of the major attractions of Kanchanaburi. The abbot, Phra Acharn Phusit, pictured above, has been caring for abandoned tigers ever since 1999. The mother of the first cub he took in had been killed by poachers.  By that time, Phra Acharn Phusit was already known locally as a Thai version of Dr. Doolittle for his caring of sick and and abandoned wildlife and pets. While most temple grounds have stray dogs, this temple has wandering buffalo, horses, wild goats and monkeys. The first tiger cub died from its injuries, but a few weeks later two more tiger cubs were rescued from poachers and brought to the temple. Word soon spread and more abandoned or injured tigers were brought to the temple. Today, the tigers outnumber the monks by about two to one.

I must admit I wasn’t too sure whether I would visit this temple or not during my holiday in Kanchanaburi. The idea of having my photo taken with a tiger doesn’t really excite me. You can do this at my local Crocodile Farm here in Samut Prakan. However, what caught my attention were the photographs in the press of monks taking tigers for a walk in a canyon. The temple first opened it doors in early 2004. They asked for a 100 baht donation to enter and a further small fee to have your photograph taken with the tigers. Just before I left for Kanchanaburi, I learned that the “donation” had been increased to 300 baht. I almost decided not to go. Partly because of this sudden increase in price (were the monks getting greedy?) and also because there had been some negative press reports of the temple becoming a tourist trap with more concern of making money than the welfare of the tigers. But, I felt, for the sake of readers of Thai-Blogs.com, I should investigate the real situation.

The temple is 38 kms north of Kanchanaburi city center. Take the 323 highway towards Sai Yok waterfall. Look out for the Bangchak petrol station on your left and the road next to it leading to Phasat Muang Singh. Drive a further 6 kms on highway 323 looking out for the billboard for this temple on the right. It is not too easy to spot if you are coming back from Sai Yok on your way to Kanchanaburi. Look our for a yellow sign that says “Tiger Temple”. From here take a dirt track about two kms to the temple car park. If you don’t have your own transport, then tour operators in town will take you there and back for 130 baht.

Arriving at the temple gates we found a small car park and a ticket office. A group of foreign tourists were busy signing pieces of paper which basically said that if you were half eaten by the tigers that you wouldn’t get upset and sue the temple. The ticket seller was keen to emphasize that no-one had ever been harmed by the tigers but they didn’t want to be held responsible as they were, after all, wild animals. We signed the form ourselves and paid, a little grudgingly, the 300 baht donation. My only consolation was that Thai people were paying the same price. We then passed through the front gate and started walking up a dirt track. It was actually a bit like Safari World where you drive through the park with wild animals on either side. But, here we were walking out in the open. We weren’t too sure what to expect or do so just decided to keep walking. We did glance around a few times wondering whether there would be any roaming tigers. I did read that the temple was now finding it hard to pay for the fresh meat for the tigers. Maybe this was there plan to have foreigners donate 300 baht and then to be eaten alive.

A bit further we reached a track which seemed to lead down to a canyon. Another smaller track led higher up to the left of the canyon. There weren’t really any helpful signs about where to go and as we spotted a monk and two lay people on top of the canyon we decided to follow them. But, as soon as we reached the top, the monk was no longer in sight and the path disappeared intoa thick bush. Obviously we had gone the wrong way. Not exactly lost, but no nearer to finding the tigers. Then we heard some shouts and laughter in the canyon below. We carefully moved to the edge and looked down. What we saw was a small trickling waterfall on the far left, a group of tigers in the middle and about a dozen foreign tourists standing behind a line on the far right. The tourists were being led by the hand to different tigers so that they could have their photograph taken. I couldn’t see any monks but just some guys dressed in blue shirts. It reminded me of the construction workers at building sites that are brought in for specific jobs. Our first impression was then, “What a rip-off. We could have done this at a zoo”.

We moved back from the edge before any of the blue-shirted guys spotted us. I was once nearly kicked out of  Disneyland and I had a feeling that I would be told off here too. I have this habit of going places where I shouldn’t be. (In fact, I did later get told off for trying to stand on a rock to get a better view to take a wide angle picture of the tourists and tigers.) Back down in the canyon we approached the group of tourists with some trepidation. Were they really going to charge us more to walk among the tigers? But, no, it wasn’t so. Our 300 baht donation now included as many opportunities as we liked to enter the tiger end of the canyon. What happened, is that you gave one of  the blue shirted guys (they had the words “Tiger Temple Thailand” on the back) your camera and another one would then lead you by the hand to a tiger. This was done in such a way that you were always behind the tiger. They told you where to sit and then, quite expertly, took pictures for you. They even took close-ups of the tigers so that you would get your money’s worth. This was then repeated with two or three different tigers.

It was then that I spotted the monk sitting off to one side. It was Phra Acharn Phusit. Obviously he was keeping an eye on his “children”. Every now and then he would get up and help arrange poses to make better pictures. At one stage, he lifted the head of one tiger to place it in the lap of one of the female tourists. He even posed a few times himself for the cameras. It was actually these kinds of pictures that I really wanted for myself. The image of a monk with a tiger. Seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum but here working together in harmony. I was disappointed that there was only one monk. Maybe the others were now bored of this daily routine of photo sessions for the tourists. At first I was a little annoyed with the blue shirted guys. It looked like that they were trying to commercialise everything by taking the “monk” factor out of the equation. If it wasn’t for the one lone monk and the setting of the canyon, this might as well have been in a zoo. At least in a zoo you would see many other animals and not just tigers. But, I later found out that these guys in blue shirts were volunteer workers.

In conclusion, I now have to say whether I think it is worth for you to visit. To be honest, I am little worried about the direction they are starting to take. What attracted my attention at the start was the idea of these monks taking tigers for walks in the temple grounds. It was unique. Asking for a 100 baht donation at the start was also fair. Then, at some stage, the novelty of having tourists coming to watch these afternoon walks started to wear off. Instead of monks walking the tigers down to the canyon, volunteers took over the task. The admission price, sorry I mean donation, was raised to 300 baht. What will happen next? Will the abbot only attend the photo sessions on some days? Will they start selling postcards, t-shirts and other tacky souvenirs? I hope not, as the place will lose its original charm.

Having said that, after talking to another monk later and reading their web site (www.tigertemple.org) I started to come to the conclusion that their cause is worthy of a donation. These tigers are indeed endangered and if it wasn’t for the sanctuary of the temple they would most likely now be dead. I also could see that it is costly for them to feed these tigers and other animals that roamed the temple grounds. After I left the canyon, I walked up towards the temple where I saw the cages where the tigers lived for the rest of the day and night. Not exactly ideal locations. This is exactly why the admission price was increased to 300 baht. The abbot has a dream of building an artificial island where the tigers could wander freely. I could see that the man has a good heart and I now felt better about my donation.

My only hope is that they don’t commercialize everything too much, that they will let more monks take the tigers for the afternoon walk down to the canyon and that, most importantly, the guys in the blue shirts would have the word “volunteer” printed on the back of their shirts. Yes, I am now suggesting for you to go and visit the tiger temple. Pay your donation happily and have your photo taken with a tiger. At least these tigers have a chance of a better future than the ones in a zoo.

UPDATE: We are now told that the entrance fee is 500 baht which includes basic photos of the tigers. If you want a special photo sitting with the tigers you now have to pay an extra 1,000 baht! Some visitors are also reporting they no longer see the monks with the tigers. (4th November 2008)

14 responses to “Monks and Tigers in Kanchanaburi

  1. Hi, thanks for the information. I have been to Kanchanaburi many times and decided not to visit this place due to rumours I had heard about the animals being drugged. I am going back there in a few weeks and my girlfriend’s daughter is mad about tigers and so it would be great to give her a unique opportunity to see them close up.

    I was browsing for more information about the rumours so that I could overcome my objections and your page has been an interesting resource.

    Thanks.

  2. Hello Richard, very good article you have here. I think that Tigers are one of the most amazing creatures to walk the Earth, and am dreaming of visiting Kanchanaburi’s Tiger Temple sometime. I do hope the temple maintains its uniqueness, like you said. I once heard that these Tigers were fed some sort of protein-replacement foodstuff (soy based perhaps? Not sure) since young, to avoid the need to feed them with fresh meat. I know it sounds bizarre, but I now know that it was just a rumour 🙂 Thank You.

  3. Fascinating!…My wife and I are avid motorbikers. We rented 2 motorbikes and rode from Singapore to Chiang Mai and return in December 2006. As we were in a group our intentions of side-tracking to Kanchanaburi for a visit to the Tiger Temple was shelved. We plan to revisit Thailand and this time make a concerted effort. From your article it gives me great pleasure knowing that the Tigers are cared for and the 300 baht is well worth it. Thank you.

  4. With regards to the notorious Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, following complaints from tourists and volunteers about tigers being mistreated there, Care for the Wild International (CWI) undertook an intensive two year investigation. The CWI report reveals evidence of illegal wildlife trade, animal cruelty, false conservation claims and visitor safety risks at the Temple.

    You can read CWI’s report at:
    http://www.careforthewild.com/projects.asp?detail=true&I_ID=580&mypage=Reports

    The press release – “Illegal tiger trade, cruelty and human health hazards at famous tourist destination”:
    http://www.careforthewild.com/files/tt_news_release%2020-06-08.pdf

    This issue has widespread media coverage:

    “Black market tigers linked to Thai Temple, Reports says”
    National Geographic News, 20 June 2008:
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080620-tiger-temple.html

    “Thai tiger temple a con job, says wildlife group”
    The Straits Times, 21 June 2008:
    http://travel.asiaone.com/Travel/News/Story/A1Story20080623-72311.html

    “UK wildlife group slams Tiger Temple”
    Bangkok Post, 27 June 2008:
    http://www.bangkokpost.com/270608_News/27Jun2008_news14.php

    “Danish tour operator boycotts well-known Thai tourist attraction”
    ScandAsia Denmark, 7 July 2008:
    http://www.scandasia.com/viewNews.php?coun_code=dk&news_id=4474

    Canada: CBC National News, 9 July 2008:
    http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2008/200807/20080709.html

    “Danes join boycott of tiger temple”
    The Nation, 11 July 2008
    http://nationmultimedia.com/2008/07/11/politics/politics_30077848.php

    “New report says Thai Temple misleads visitors, abuses tigers”
    Ethical Traveller, July 2008:
    http://www.ethicaltraveler.org/news_story.php?id=1101

    “Paradise Lost”
    The Star, 15 July 2008
    http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2008/7/15/lifefocus/15
    35960&sec=lifefocus

    Spiegel article (in German):
    http://www.spiegel.de/wissenschaft/natur/0,1518,562903,00.html

    Additionally, Animal Planet TV channel have now dropped their programme on the Temple.

  5. I was at the attraction today and had my photo (many ) taken with the tigers and tiger cubs. The facility is far from commercialised and worked by volunteerns,many from english speaking countries.The animals are all healthy , safe and enjoying life.This is surely better than being exposed to poachers .Drugged – no way, these cats ,like mine are simply content with life.
    To me this attraction is a must do for visitors to this area.

  6. I have been to the Tiger Temple 3 times.
    I have found it interesting and well run the whole ethos is to care and look after the tigers.
    It would seem that the only people who are against it are animal libbers who object to anything involving animals.

  7. Monks and Tigers in Kanchanaburi is indeed a tourist trap. You won’t see Thai people going in, of course not who else then farangs are going to pay 500 Baht as a donation (some donation??). The only thing you can do is take photos from some sleeping tigers. Do not go there, there are other more interesting places with tigers. Go where the Thai families go. And imagine 1000 visitors per day makes 1000*365*500=18.2 Mbaht. This tourist trap is a gold mine. Stupid farang.

  8. I can’t understand why some idiots only see the negative side of everything… Don’t you get it …? It cost money to feed large animals like tigers specially since these animals are meant to eat high protein foods… At the end of the day what harm is it to donate some money to save some tigers instead of blowing it on a Saturday night on booze??? If you’re open minded and care about saving an animals’ life visit this place donate money else shut up and do something constructive with your life instead of discouraging other people from doing a good deed.

  9. Recommend for joint this trip daily.

  10. Please go to my website and read the information there. Read what I have to say and then follow up the links. Make an informed opinion.

  11. http://www.careforthewild.com/files/TigerTemplereport08_final_v11.pdf

    The Tiger Temple has been investigated by Care For The Wild International over the past few years, and released a damning report on the abuse, cruelty, illegal trade of tigers and lack of conservation measures at the Tiger Temple.

    It includes photographic evidence of staff, and monks, including the Abbot, beating the tigers, as many other disturbing images.

    If you are an animal lover, or indeed a decent human being, I would not recommend visiting the tiger temple.

  12. Before anyones goes to visit the Tiger Temple they should have all the facts –

    please visit http://www.tigertempletruths.org to read about the abuses and illegal trading of tigers going on at the Tiger Temple

    Make an informed decision, learn the facts!

  13. “It would seem that the only people who are against it are animal libbers who object to anything involving animals.”

    In my case, I don’t object to anything involving animals and everything – in real conservation projects for example. After researching the pros and cons of the tiger temple, I found the cons far outweighed the pros (there weren’t many pros other than having nice photos to show the folks back home). Reading the Care for the Wild report and looking at the images/videos and testimonials on http://www.tigertempletruths.org it’s clear that there is more to the temple than what the tourists see.

  14. i like tigers they are the best.i saw a tiger before in the circes. i saw a whit one,onger,and a person was in there with them.