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Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi

Our trip to the Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi began with a 7am wake up call from our tour guide, Tong. We were ideally supposed to be dressed and ready before 6:50am, however I plugged my phone into my laptop to charge and it changed the time back to English. Needless to say, we weren’t off to the best of starts.

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Tong was calm and told us to meet her at the entrance, we did so in record time, I even skipped the shower, as the photos will reveal.

We jumped into our private minibus and headed towards Tiger Temple, which technically isn’t a temple. Tong reasoned that we had time to make a quick stop at the River Kwai Bridge, for a quick photo and a brief history lesson, I’m glad she allowed some time for this as we didn’t get an opportunity to return.

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Turning up fashionably late we were ushered into the gates and told to stand behind a table where monks would walk past and we would offer them food, already prepared and placed in neat plastic bags. Whilst Monks are not permitted to actively ask for food, they are given food by locals across Thailand. This is essentially what we were doing.

Feeding the Tiger Cubs

After offering the food, we were taken up to the ‘temple’ to sit inside with the Monks, they were situated in the middle of the room and then a few feet away, all the way around the room, were baby tigers tied up to posts being fed through a milk bottle and playing with us. Make no mistake, these little fellows (and all other sizes of tiger in the Tiger Temple) have not been altered in any way to ensure your safety. Their claws are still razor sharp and so are their teeth. Whilst feeding one of the baby tigers myself I was scratched and bitten to pieces. The trainers say you must treat them like dogs, if they do something bad i.e bite or scratch, you just bop them on the nose really hard. It felt wrong punishing a tiger for biting or scratching, they aren’t supposed to be domesticated, we aren’t supposed to be playing with them. We were in the wrong. If a tiger cub bit or scratched me, I just distanced myself from it. It clearly didn’t want to play; why force it?

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Walking the Tiger Cubs

Next the trainers untied the tiger cubs and gave us each a lead to hold. At the end of it was a tiny deadly animal that we were told to walk, like a dog. This part was probably the least fun, especially as the tigers we got didn’t seem to want to walk. The trainers would have to make a loud noise behind them to scare them into movement. I was told to pick my tiger cub up, ‘It will be fine‘ the trainers said. Seconds later I was the proud owner of a minor flesh-wound. Sometimes you sort of felt the guides were trying to kid themselves that these tigers were friendly, approachable pets. They would often play bites and scratches down as playfulness, but to tell the truth it was more like instinct. These creatures weren’t meant to be domesticated and I definitely felt this throughout the day.

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Meeting the older Tigers

After walking the tiger cubs for a bit, we were relieved of the leads and led into what looked like a gladiator arena. I sort of felt this was it for me, this whole excursion was actually put on so the tigers would have someone to eat. Walking in we noticed some bigger (but not the biggest) tigers, all unrestrained and looking at us like we were walking McDonalds. The trainers snatched our cameras and told us to ‘play’. We were handed long poles with empty bottles and sheets of brightly coloured cloth attached to the end. We were motioned to make a lot of noise to grab the tigers attention and see if we could get them to jump for the end of the stick. You know how with a cat, you will wave a piece of string in it’s face and it will have fun for hours? What we were doing was sort of like that, but the cats had a run up to get the string and there were too many to watch at once. The whole thing was unorganised and spontaneous. The tigers often didn’t want to play and the whole point of the exercise was to get them to perform with a jump. The most enjoyable part of this section was watching them play with eachother. They would sneak up on one another, true predator style, and then have a tiny battle. Much like I did with my brother when I was young. It was truly spectacular.

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Washing the older Tigers

After the arena, we were ushered out and split into two smaller groups for the next two parts. First up for our group was washing the tigers we were just in the arena with. We were rushed about and given a few ground rules. The tigers were now chained but had enough freedom to get up and lunge for you whilst washing. Constantly watched by one of the trainers and with them constantly snapping away with the cameras they had removed from us in the previous section, we were each given a tiger and instructed on how to wash it. First, we put the sponge in the soapy bucket. Then we put the soapy sponge on the tiger and rotated. Wax on. Wax off. After about 5 minutes, we hosed the tiger down and then dried off with a chamois leather. Nope, the last part is a lie.

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Once the tigers were well and truly soaked, we were each given a plate full of chicken to hand feed them, they did a good job not to eat our hands, but could have been forgiven for nibbling a the wrong part. I do have sausage fingers after all.

Once the tiger wash was done, we were moved on to do the activity that the other group had just done. Meeting the new born tigers.

Meeting the new born Tigers

The point of the Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi is to offer a safe shelter to tigers that otherwise wouldn’t have survived. At least that’s what is claimed, and probably what the temple was originally for. However it is quite clearly a money spinner now, and has become a tourist attraction (an expensive one at that). One of the objectives the Tiger Temple has is to bring the tiger population back up. To do this, they need baby tigers. Fortunately for us and our fellow tourists we had a few 3 month old tiger cubs to meet.

We were lead into a big cage, 4 or 5 ‘kittens’ were running around the room with various toys and distractions spread around. We were told by an overly-enthusiastic volunteer at the temple to literally get stuck in. “Play with them, you’ll be fine” she said. We weren’t fine. The problem with these loveable little guys was, they had no fear. Like when a baby smacks you in the face, you don’t feel the need to smack it back, they didn’t mean to do it, they simply don’t know better. That was sort of the deal with the baby tigers. They were just starting out in life. Playful, cheeky and adventurous. We were all wearing shorts as it was a hot day, and all very wary around these infants. They would use your legs as a scratching pole, or try to climb you for fun. At one point I think I tried avoiding contact all together, I was fed up with getting scratched. The photo opportunities were awesome; had I not been afraid of being eaten whole by a 3 month old tiger, I would have got some better shots.

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A plate of chicken was brought in and we were urged to feed the baby tigers by holding it flat in our palms. These little guys couldn’t differentiate where the chicken ended and your hand started, we all suffered a bite or aggressive nibble of some sort. None quite as aggressive as Calum though.

The chicken was running low and Cal had one of last pieces in his hand, he was happily feeding it to one of the adorable baby tigers, when another noticed the bounty. Calum’s hand was caught between a rapid conflict of claws and teeth. At least that’s what he will tell you. In reality, a kitten scratched him.

Walking the adult Tigers

The final section of the experience involved the adult tigers of Tiger Temple, we gathered close to them for a hurried photo. In, *snap*, out. If the tiger moved you were warned away. These guys were unfortunately tied down with a chain, the volunteers reasoned that this wasn’t a real problem, because tigers are nocturnal and hunt at night, she explained that they sleep during the day. Still, I’m sure if they had the option to get up and move to shade when they felt like it, it would be appreciated.

Our small group got our individual photos and we were then told we would be taking these guys for a walk. This was more like it; not quite freedom, but at least some movement.

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For the most part, these mammoth creatures were well behaved on the walk. We had like 3 or 4 ‘green shirts’ (trainers) in close proximity watching our every move. There was something very surreal about walking a fully grown tiger. Constantly in the back of my mind was the knowledge that should this guy get fed up of me pulling on his chain, he could quite easily stop walking and take my face off.

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Watching the adult Tigers play

After each member of the group had a 2 – 3 minute walk with the tiger, we handed over the reigns and were taken down to a small cove area and each handed a bottle of water. The guides then explained that we were going to watch 15 adult tigers play, whilst we were ‘safely’ standing within a fenced off area right in the middle of the action.

We were led to the ‘safety area’, which was basically 4 small metal fences, placed in the shape of a box. I think the tigers knew that they weren’t supposed to walk too close to us, rather than couldn’t get too close. The fence was literally 4 or so feet high; so I suspect if one of those tigers really wanted to chow down on 9 or so sushi style humans, they would have absolutely no trouble jumping the fence.

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Getting over the fact that this could quite easily turn into a blood bath, yet somehow you felt safe, the tigers weren’t overly interested in us. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The ‘canyon’ that the tigers were playing in was mostly a small lake, with a big rock in the middle. The ‘green shirts’ were freely roaming with the tigers, as well as posted at the front of our safety pen. They had a beach-ball on a stick and the tigers seemed to love trying to get this. If you have ever dangled string in front of a cat, you see how transfixed they become. Much the same with these big cats. They would be goaded by the green shirts into jumping off of the rock, into the pool of water. This made for awesome photos — see above!

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So, were the tigers drugged?

There has been much speculation on why the tigers are so docile. Many have suggested claims of drug usage, some even claiming they had seen them being administered.

I can only speak through experience, what I saw and what was explained to me through my epic tour guide. What people sometimes don’t know, is that there are two programs that the tiger temple offers. The £150 (or so) morning package, which offers everything outlined in this blog post, and the afternoon session, where you pay almost nothing to get in, the only tigers available to you are the adults and they are all chained down, hot and tired.

The people who do the afternoon tour, see hardly any of what we did in the morning, the place is crowded, people are rushed in and out so fast they don’t have time to think. I believe it is these people who are claiming the tigers are drugged, simply because they are doing nothing entertaining, let alone acting aggressive.

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In my opinion the tigers aren’t drugged to be kept in line, they are fearful. Several times I saw the green shirts lightly tap them on the nose with a small stick to get them to turn around, I suspect that maybe, when the tourists aren’t there, they hit the tigers a little bit harder.

Overall it was an epic experience. One I’m glad we did, the downside being that this isn’t natural.

If anyone reading is interested in doing this, I highly recommend going with our tour guide, Tong. She has an awesome rating on TripAdvisor, and an even higher rating from us! Contact Tong at her website.

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This entry was posted on Friday, December 17th, 2010 at 6:19 am and is filed under Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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