Saturday, August 09, 2014

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi : The monk and his pet

A visit to the famed Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi in Thailand was on the top of my activity list for the Bangkok stopover. I have been extremely lucky to witness many tigers in the Indian wilderness as part of my photography trips. This trip promised to offer chances to actually touch a live tiger. Scanning the itineraries on offer, I found several iterations combining upto 4 attractions on the way. I zeroed down to a combination that would offer me maximum time at the tiger temple. After all, how often do you get a chance to pet full grown tigers.

The monk and his pet
Excitement was high as we got ready before dawn breaks. As we walked into the hotel lobby, I thanked God for the promise of a clear day. We were picked up from hotel at 6:30 am. There were four of us. A British lady joined us from another hotel. We were now 5 in a van that could carry 10+ people. Thus the trip turned out to be almost a private trip at the cost of a group tour. October is kind of shoulder season in Thailand with occasional rain. One day of my week long trip in October was spoiled by rain. Peak tourist season starts from November onwards after the rains. I generally prefer travelling in shoulder season, just days before peak season starts. This way you not only beat the mad rush of peak season, but also get very good bargains for everything from hotel to sightseeing.

As our van zipped through empty streets of Bangkok, we went past many city landmarks like the king’s palace, military HQ, UN office etc. Soon we were on an elevated expressway. The distance to Kanchanaburi is about 180km and travel time is around 3 hours. At around 10:30am we reached the first attraction en-route – the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery commemorating the allied soldiers of WW II. As we stepped out of the van, a young lady selling souvenirs approached us. As we politely said no, she acknowledged and went back. This is quite in contrast to what we get to see back home. The hawkers and sellers will push to the brink of becoming rude and then and while going away he will return you back some of the complements you had mouthed.

The next stop was the JEATH War Museum. JEATH stands for Japan, England, America and Australia, and Thailand. It is a small place with a replica thatched house used to house the prisoners during WW II that were used to construct the death railway. It also has some war memorabilia. Tourists are given the option to go to the next stopover – the bridge over river Kwae by a long tail speed boat. The cost of 200 THB did not appeal to us and hence we continued by the van. Being shoulder season, the bridge and the adjoining railway station was only sparsely crowded. We walked down the bridge soaking in some history. The original wooden bridge was destroyed during allied bombing. The current steel bridge was built alongside it. Some tourists wait for the train from Bangkok to arrive. The scheduled arrival is 1130 am, but the train often gets delayed by couple of hours. We decided not to waste time and headed for lunch at a floating houseboat nearby. Lunch was included in the package.

Post lunch, we drove for another 45 min through green countryside to reach the monastery which is also called the tiger temple. We were slightly ahead of scheduled opening hours of 1230 pm. Ticket cost of 600 THB was included in package cost. As the gates were opened, several tigers were taken out of their enclosures by volunteers and staff. Guests were allowed to proceed through a different alley. As we had reached the designated spot, tigers had also started arriving. Laces were pegged to the ground. It was obvious that they can easily get off those plugs if they try to. Guests were given safety briefing by an international volunteer. However tamed the tigers may look; they had wild instincts in their genes. Post safety briefing in English by some European volunteers, we were allowed some photo opportunities with the tigers under supervision of volunteers. The moment of touching and petting the first tiger got etched in our mind forever. As the crowds were very thin, barely 50 odd, we had good time to with several different tigers. There were around 12 tigers of different ages. The tigers and the monks share a special bond. For the monks, the big cat was no more than your house cat. As and when the monk sat by a tiger, it would invariably crawl onto his lap, and doze off. There has been allegation of tigers being drugged. It had already been proved wrong (Read here). There also has been controversis regarding animal rights violations. Mulnutrition is an issue became evident to me as well. Despite all these, number of tigers around the world is decresing while it is increasing here. 

Me walking a tiger with the monk was a moment to remember
My personal observation was that these tigers simply replicated the behavior of tigers in the wild. I have seen more than 30 tigers in different jungles of India. Tigers generally sleeps entire day and is active all through night. In the wild, tiger sighting occurs either early morning or late afternoon when they generally move. Thus tigers dozing off when taken out on a hot humid afternoon are quite normal. The comments of ‘drugged tigers’ are apparently made by uninformed tourists who expects a tiger to keep displaying antics all through the day. The monastery has around 125 tigers (as claimed). Only a few of the docile ones are taken out for tourist interaction. These tigers were born in the monastery and have become used to humans. But one should never forget the wild instincts in their genes. These tigers are fed on chicken. The monastery is using the gate fees to buy food and build an island home for the tigers so that they can be freed from cages. But this money collected did not appear enough, especially in the lean season I visited. They started with one tigers, but now have the problem of aplenty. Chicken fed tigers do not look as strong as those in wild. Rather than clamoring about ethics, drugging, money making, etc., effort should directed towards rehabilitating some of these tigers.

As the time went by, a sizeable crowd had arrived. It was around 2:30 pm when tigers were to be taken to the canyon waterfall. Tigers love water in summer. Guests were divided into small groups of 15-20 each and were offered to walk the tiger down to the canyon, each guest holding the lace for couple of minutes. That was another moment of significance. Twice that afternoon, for couple of minute each, a full grown tiger was my personal pet. I was elated as one of the revered monk joined for a minute for the walk. As we had arrived at the canyon, we waited for other tigers to arrive. At the canyon, tourists were provided another opportunity to get photographed with almost all the tigers on display. For the late comers, this was their only opportunity. For us it was one more opportunity. We did not realize how three and half hours flew past. The moments got etched in our mind for ever. It was hard to believe that we had touched so many tigers. The volunteers captured the moments for us in my camera. Not to take any chances with photos, I put the camera into manual mode with continuous shooting and set parameters that would give me acceptable result. In auto mode, half of the photos would have been shaky or out of focus or badly exposed.

A male tiger being lead to the canyon

As we left the place with fond memories, we could see some vehicles arriving. I pity for those late comers. This was bad planning. They may miss all chances to pet a tiger as 3:30 pm is the last time for visitors. If you include floating market with river Kwae and Tiger Temple, then this is most likely to happen. Therefore after a careful study of the packages on offer, I decided to opt only for River Kwae with Tiger Temple. On the way back we were dropped at the Gems Factory en-route. This is the same company which has an outlet at Phuket. We had nothing to buy from their stock of over priced stones. Buying stone was never on our agenda. Indians do not buy stones without consulting astrologers. The guide probably gets some incentive just by dropping off the guest. We could have avoided it, but the guide Kate had been nice and hence agreed for the stopover. The gem factory arranges the drop off to the hotel irrespective of whether you buy something or not. If you stop at Gems factory, then make sure not to leave anything in the vehicle you have been travelling all day. That vehicle will leave after dropping you at the factory and you will be dropped off at the hotel by another vehicle / taxi arranged by the Gems factory. I had a shocker of experience on this at Phuket when I left my spare camera bag on the vehcile that dropped us at the Gem Factory. That vehcile alongwith the guide left after dropping us  which I realised only after coming out. I called up the agency and the guide and were lucky to get my bag by evening with all content. Your guide will generally ensure that you have a smooth passage to your hotel. This being a long trip, almost 12 hrs with 400 km road travel, you will be tired to do anything else for the day. Enjoy Bangkok night recalling your trysts with the tigers.


kashmir tour packages said...

wow its a really good post . I enjoyed it a lot and it might be a memorable moment for you to touch a Tiger

Goa tour packages said...

amazing , It seems like I am living this moment ...

Bruce Wayne said...

Wow, this is amazing i have never seen anything like this a monk with a tiger looks amazing i now badly want to visit this place and see it myself in person.I hope there are online bus booking available.

Chandan Dudeja said...

Tiger temple is amazing is a place we saw a tiger face to face . i willing to visit to there.
Rajasthan tour package

sandys said...

This is a amazing post and thanks for giving the best information about tiger temple. and the most intresting things is we can see a tiger face to face who is wondering with people.Its very intresting and i must visit there once. Thank you.

Tourist attractions in Bhubaneswar

Akarsh Nambiar said...

Wow what a picture. Honestly Rupankar, I don’t think I have the guts to walk with a “TIGER”, Hats off to you. I can only imagine what an amazing experience it would have been for you. I have heard about this temple but I had no idea that photography was allowed. Great blog so keep sharing.