As you may have already seen, last Thursday had my friends and I hanging out with some rather large kitties. This was actually just one part of our three-in-one sightseeing tour. The tour, which began at the unfortunate hour of 6:30 am took us to the floating market about one hour outside of Bangkok, where we had the opportunity to take a boat ride and gawk at tourists gawking at old ladies in big straw hats. We, ourselves, were given some rather large sombreros to wear, but this did not seem to result in anyone gawking in our general direction. After floating through the market and sampling the aquatic equivalent of street food, we were off to the province of Kanchanaburi, for our second scheduled activity. This was a visit to the River Kwai and more importantly to the bridge which spans across it. At first I felt a bit guilty about never having seen the movie, read the book, or even possessing any strong feelings towards this Bridge, but after seeing how no one in our group seemed to give a second’s thought to entering either of the two war museums which grace the main street, I quickly got over it. We were given an hour to wander up and down this narrow bridge, which is quite sturdy in the middle, but is beset with rotting wooden planks on either side, so that when two people are passing in opposite directions, it becomes a test of will (or stubbornness) to determine who will have to plank it. Adding to the confusion is a bright yellow train that travels up and down the length of the bridge. Inevitably, the train always wins the stare down and sends scores of tourist to teeter on the planks. Surviving that, it is on to activity #3. Maybe 30 minutes outside of Kanchanaburi we came to the highlight of the tour (and the reason most of us had signed up for this touristic trifecta), the Tiger Temple. There are varying stories about the origins of the Tiger Temple, the more fantastical one relating how wounded animals miraculously started to show up at the temple’s door. The more likely story, and actually the most commonly told, has someone finding orphaned tiger cubs and bringing them to the abbot of the monastery. The abbot, in accordance with the Buddhist teachings of showing kindness and compassion to all living creatures, accepted his new charges (although I would bet that there was some serious searching for any kind of loophole in the Buddhist holy book in the hope of keeping their monastery free of man-eating predators). Soon thereafter, more cubs were brought to the abbot for safekeeping. Those cubs eventually grew up, reproduced and now the Tiger Temple, as it eventually became known, is home to about a dozen tigers. The cats, all of whom grew up being hand fed by monks, now lack the necessary survival skills to be released into the wild so in order to make the best out of a bad situation, the Temple has turned itself into a tourist attraction. By charging its visitors, it is now able to raise the necessary funds to care for the tigers, as well as the pigs, horses, goats, buffaloes and peacocks which freely roam the grounds. In return, for about $8, guests can spend the day wandering through the monastery and most impressively, petting their famous residents. From the hours of 1:30pm to 3:45pm, the Tigers are brought into a canyon, away from the smaller, and probably in the tiger’s opinion, tastier animals. Here, a battalion of volunteers will happily lead you by the hand from cat to cat, while capturing the whole thing for you on your camera. As you are being led around, you quickly realize that the volunteers all know exactly two phrases in the English language: “Please sit” indicating that you should sit down next to the tiger and “Please touch” meaning that you should now pet the tiger, even if the tiger in question is vocalizing in a slightly disturbing manner or rolling around onto his back with his claws closer to your face than you prefer. Any incredulous looks will be met with a renewed call to “Please touch”. So you touch away and it is amazing. Even better, they let you go through as many times as you like. I went through a total of three times, the final time being immediately before the tigers are walked back to their enclosures. They definitely knew their play time was almost over and were at their most animated. The walk back is actually more of a tiger parade, with all remaining guests following behind the abbot, the volunteers and of course, a tiger all the way from the canyon up to the enclosures. It is here that you get one final photo op, this time holding a leash, walking an adult Bengal Tiger in the same manner that most people would walk a pet poodle. How's that for a Xmas card photo....The last remaining tiger is then put into his pen and you think "What a great day. It is time to go home now" (possibly with a bit more exuberant profanity thrown in), when all of sudden, you can't help but notice that all the volunteers have begun to ululate. They have also started tossing massive sacks of corn, bananas and some kind of kibble onto the middle of the road. You are suddenly in the midst of a barnyard extravaganza. There are animals excitedly running from every corner of the monastery. There is braying and oinking and honking and it is all heading in your direction. It is sensory overload with a ravenous appetite. It is chaotic and yet it is the only way I can imagine ending this thrilling day.
Anyone looking to do this tour should head down to Kho San Road, the famous backpacker street and look for Mama Travel. The tour, not counting admission to the Tiger temple, should cost about $15.