I first heard of the Tiger Temple over 10 years ago on a TV documentary but it’s taken me this long to get around to going there. The documentary showed the temple in a good light, a few conservationists argued against it, but their argument was that tigers should be kept naturally not as pets, nothing about cruelty. The abbot of the temple countered by saying what was important was Tiger happiness and saving tigers, and with tigers virtually extinct I found his pragmatism pretty sensible so I had no qualms about visitng.
Persuading a friend to go we set off on a day trip from Bangkok picking up an early bus at Sai Tai Mai (Bangkok’s southern bus Terminal) and arrived at Kanchanaburi bus station a few hours later. Next it was on the local bus which ran past the temple which is quite a way towards Sanglaburi. Before we boarded I asked the conductor to drop us off at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua to see the tigers and was quite surprised neither her nor the driver had heard of it, neither had the driver of the neighbouring bus but fortunately the conductor of that bus had and gave the instructions to stop nearthe temple opposite which they had heard of. Apparently the Tiger Temple’s world fame stops short of Kanchanaburi bus stations. I have since asked a couple of Thai friends about the temple and they are equally unaware of its existence.
We jumped off the bus outside the temple and trekked up the rather long dirt road to the entrance, paid our entrance fees, weaved round the tourist shop and headed in. We had got there pretty early so I was surprised to see such a large crowd in there, most seemed to be from buses out of either Kanchanaburi or Bangkok.
The tigers were still in their cages when we arrived but due out in a little while. The cages looked a bit grim a row of bland concrete cells without any kind of stimulus or toys inside. Strangely too the mothers had been separated from their cubs who were in a separate cage outside being stroked by tourists. There was also a leopard in there which was apparently wild so I guess never saw the light of day.
After wandering around for a while we noticed a crowd was gathering and apparently the tigers were going to be walked to some kind of outdoor canyon. We joined the thronging masses and sure enough one by one some of the tigers were lead out of their cages by handlers, with crowds lining either side of the path, a kind of royal parade without the tigers stopping and shaking hands as they strolled by.
I wondered to myself if the tigers that were left in their cages were always left in their cages or was there a daily rota. When the last few tigers were lead down the crowds were invited to follow them and rather surreally place their hands on the tiger’s rear as they walked along, being photographed doing it by the handler. A few people were warned not to walk beside of, or in front of the tigers as it was dangerous, but behind they couldn’t see you and didn’t seem to mind the bottom groping. Really living in Thailand I shouldn’t be too surprised that there’s people in the world who would fly to another country specifically to grope a tiger’s bum.
We arrived at the “canyon” which was a concrete area radiated down upon by a sweltering midday sun. The tigers where chained to the ground on a short chain and quickly fell asleep. The large crowd queued to get into the enclosure, about 12-15 people were allowed in at one go and lead by a handlers from tiger to tiger, they were invited to lay hands on each tiger and have their photo taken. Being in amongst 10 sleeping tigers is quite an experience, whether cynic or not and I have to admit at that point I threw myself in with all the tourist zeal and wasn’t the only one.
You could think the experience of being amongst so many tigers was a spiritual one, but it quickly emerged the crowd were there for only one reason and that was to walk away with that snap of them to amaze people with back home. The atmosphere was more like a sale in a supermarket as people vied for the best photo opportunities. Despite being among the tiger for fifteen minutes I don’t think I have come out any more knowledgeable about tigers, other than what one’s fur feels like to touch, which is maybe not how one should leave something that calls itself a conservation project. I was also quite surprised to see parents letting some quite young children hold the tigers.
Going around and touching the tigers was free after you had paid your admission to get into the temple but there was one additional VIP perk. For an additional 1000 baht you could have your photo taken with the tiger’s head in your lap. I did wonder what the sleepy tiger felt about having his head shoved in a row of punter laps in succession but it seemed to just sleep through it.
Paying the 1000 baht was a ritual in itself as a sign requesting donations was placed beside the pay point. Several podgy middle-aged European men with hugely expensive plastic Minolta cameras they clearly didn’t now how to use tried to as visibly as possible overpay the 1000 baht waving a second 1000 baht note around their heads for drawn out seconds before landing them at the front of the table screaming inside their heads “look at me everyone, I’m paying double”.
After the canyon experience some of the buses began to leave and we thought maybe the place would be quieter but we soon realised there was a second shift when another load of tourist arrived and the tigers would have to go through it again.
Around 4 in the afternoon we took the long trek back to the main road to wait for a bus back to Kanchanaburi, it took an hour and half to arrive and it was standing room only.
Before visiting the Tiger Temple I had been under the impression it was an, if unusual, conservation project and at least the monks were treating the tigers well. After my visit I wasn’t too sure that was what I had seen and began researching the temple a bit. There are quite a few write ups out there by people who have visited the temple on forums both positive and negative. Among the negative claims were those of ill-treatment, the monks taking donations for a safari park like area that still hasn’t appeared, some tigers never leaving the barren cages, the tigers being drugged, tigers removed from parents for domestication and animal trafficking.
Some of the claims I had possibly witnessedon my visit, wild tigers never leaving the rather poor cages, cubs separated from mother and no canyon despite there website’s last updated a couple of years ago keeping tally of substantial donations for it. As for the drugs claims, the cats were certainly sleepy, but they were also nocturnal creatures in direct sunlight, in a bake house and cats tend to get sleepy in this environment.
I had a small experience of slight brutality when the tigers were being walked from their cages to the canyon and a tiger that decided to take a diversion was dragged back in line by a couple of handlers, it was shouted at by the handler and struck firmly but not excessively violently by a handler a few times with his hand. Another handler had a thick bamboo cane in his hand as but I did not see it used.
One forum post by a former volunteer which was particularly critical struck me, arguing he had seen a lot of brutality while there and tigers hit with these sticks when the tourists were not around. A quick surf also found an expose website which claims not only cruelty but trafficking and backs it up with reports from wildlife groups. It claims, unlike as the temple’s publicity says, many of the tigers are not animal rescues but illegally trafficked animals and that the temple is breeding animals for sale.
On the other hand there are lots of western volunteers there and probably several dozen over the year, many of these with a real interest in conservation, I would imagine any really outlandish treatment of the animals would have been exposed by now. Many years ago I visited the Crocodile Farm and there were tigers there, I think they are gone now, but these animals lived in truly atrocious conditions, the temple tigers do have a better life than these.
Not being a expert on the subject I find it hard to make an authoritative judgement and call one side right or wrong, but from my own experience I did not exactly find it the tiger temple the heaven it’s billed as for tigers. With tiger experiences equalling big bucks these days and the recent opening of several tiger zoos and parks in the land I don’t think this kind of business is going to disappear.
I hope a place in Thailand opens up that offers a much more well informed and better treatment of the animals, but Sri Racha Tiger Zoo seems beset by the same criticisms as the temple. I haven’t been to Safari World Night Tiger Safari so it would be worth trying to find out if this is a better option. If I was a tourist planning to visit the temple I would at least research the place and try and make an informed opinion before deciding to go. Erm………. Unlike me.
Thanks to my fellow traveller Miles Trethewey for supplying 4 of the pics