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)