Tigers and Temples in Thailand

Helen Oon mingles with monks and tigers and finds the experience surreal

By Helen Oon on 27 May 2011 in Travel Articles

From my  room on the 35th floor of the Peninsula Bangkok, I am mesmerised by the splendid sight of the glittering Chao Phraya River, sparkling like millions of diamonds in the evening light.

From the floor to ceiling picture window, I feel like a bird soaring over the river where this grand hotel perched commanding an amazing view of the ‘River of Kings’. Bum boats and pleasure yachts all decked out in fairy lights, ply the rivers like floating processions of illuminated shapes.

This 370km waterway meanders gracefully from the north to the central region of the country, entering Bangkok where it meets the Gulf of Thailand.

Settlement flourishes here and people build temples to worship their gods on strategic positions along the river. One of the most beautiful temples on the river bank is the Temple of Dawn with its stunning collection of majestic pagodas, all studded in colourful mosaics made of Chinese porcelain.  

Across the river the Grand Palace has a collection of temples and halls. At night their golden facades are lit up with silhouettes of the wonderful Thai temple architecture.  Although no longer used by the royal family as residence, it is still used for royal weddings and funerals.

While the major international hotels are on the east bank of the river, the Peninsula Bangkok nestles on the west bank in an exclusive enclave of its own. Built in a W-shape, it has a beautiful landscaped garden and riverside terrace for guests to enjoy the waterfront vista. The ingenious design ensures every guest room has a river view. The interior is old world classic charm complemented by modern comfort with Asian chic. The services are impeccable and personal. While it is tempting to luxuriate in the comfort of this great destination hotel all day, I must venture out and embark on a journey that I have been longing to do – to visit the famous Tiger Temple.

Ever since I had a close encounter with tigers in the wild on a safari in India, I have been forever smitten with these magnificent creatures which sadly are fast becoming an endangered species.  So at the crack of dawn at 5am,  I set out on a two-hour journey to Kanchanaburi to visit Tiger Temple in a forest monastery. This is part of the morning programme that visitors can participate and the temple charges a hefty fee of 5000 Baht (about £112/$185) for the privilege of mingling with the monks and tigers. It is worth every penny.

The afternoon regular tour for the masses is only 500 Baht (about £12/$18) but with only the opportunity to see the tigers and pose with them for photographs.

The ritual starts with alms-giving of food parcels to the monks.  In the morning mist, a group of eight monks seem to materialise from the hazy sunshine, their saffron robes draped round their bodies to keep away the morning chill. Led by the chief Abbot, they collect the parcels from our small group of five visitors for that morning.

We follow them to the Compassion Pavilion which is used as a temple of the monastery. Here in all its splendour sits the Golden Jubilee Buddha, made of 80kg of gold, personally donated by the King of Thailand on his 50th anniversary to the throne. Tigers ranging from very young six-week old tiger cubs to one or two-year olds are assembled for the morning prayers together with staff and visitors.

The monks sit on a raised area of the temple while the rest of us sit on the lower section. While the monks were chanting their mantra in unison, the tigers sit prostrated on their four paws in respect without causing any mayhem. It is said the Abbot believes that the tigers and the other animals that are brought to the temple sanctuary were monks and friends in their previous lives. It is their karma to live in the monastery in this life.  After the morning prayers we join the monks and staff for breakfast.

Tiger Thrill

After the humans have breakfasted, it is the turn of the tigers to be fed.  We bottle feed the tigers, supervised closely by the staff. We are discouraged from petting the tigers on the head, for in tiger speak, it means trying to dominate them, nor are we allowed to cuddle them.  Though hand raised and used to human contact there is always the danger of the wild instinct in them surfacing and may swing a paw at you. It could be out of playfulness but with paws the size of boxing gloves and the might of a heavyweight boxer, it is not worth taking the chance.

My first tiger is a greedy young cub of about six months who gulps the milk in seconds and asking for more. With his paws resting on me, he swigs his second bottle with relish. The next tiger I feed is about a year old but the size of two Saint Bernard dogs! Its rippling muscles exude power and strength and I can’t help thinking how privileged I am that he allows me to stroke and pet him.  Then it’s walkies time as each of us is given a tiger to take out for exercise.  Priceless.

We walk them to an enclosure with a pond and artificial waterfall for them to play.  We are each given a broomstick with a plastic bag and rags tied to the end to tease and play with the tigers. It is such a hoot playing with the tigers as they try to snatch the plastic bags from the stick just as my own cat does when I play with him.

Playtime over, it’s time for a bath. “Excuse me, you want me to bathe this beast the size of a motorbike?” I queried nervously when my lady minder asks me to lead this huge tiger to a hose pipe.  “Yes”, she says, “ I will hose him down while you shampoo him. Try not to splash water on his face. He does not like that.”  

Shampooing a tiger is surreal. Thankfully my tiger seems to enjoy the spa treatment as I wash him and give him a bit of back massage. I swear I heard a purr coming from his throat.  While he is left to dry, I hand feed a smaller tiger with cooked chicken. He laps the morsels of meat from my palm with his rough tongue scraping my hand like sandpaper. The tigers are only fed cooked chicken and they are never given raw meat to prevent them from regressing into their wild instinct if they taste blood.

Fed and watered, we lead the tigers on leashes to the canyon where they play in a pool surrounded by rocks.  This time my tiger is a fully grown one with such a powerful muscular body that it makes Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a weedy schoolboy. He decides to step on my foot as he takes his first step just to show who is boss. It is like being stepped on by a fully grown man. In the canyon, about ten tigers are let loose to swim and frolic in the pool. For our safety, we are ushered into an enclosure with wire fence while we watch the tiger at play. It’s a kind of reverse situation where humans are being caged while tigers are loose.  There are many staff and volunteers around to control the tigers and to play with them with rags on sticks or rubber balls. 

Tiger Temple  started life as an animal sanctuary when villagers first  gave the monks an injured jungle fowl to take care.  Soon other jungle fowls and peacocks  came to settle in the forest around the monastery. One day an injured wild boar was rescued by the monks and released back into the forest when it recovered. The next day the wild  boar returned with his family of ten.  Now a large colony settled in the compound. Villagers started to bring unwanted pets, four species of deer moved in, followed by buffaloes, cows, horses and wild goats.  The menagerie grew while the animals roamed freely in the monastery grounds.

The first tiger cub was brought to the monastery in February 1999. It was a female Indochinese tiger cub whose mother had been killed by poachers near the Thai-Burma border. It was rescued from being killed and stuffed when it was sold to a wealthy Bangkok resident. Sadly the cub did not survive but a few weeks later two more cubs were brought in followed by more tiger cubs intercepted by police from poachers. The Abbot accepted the animals as a gesture of compassion though he has no knowledge of looking after tigers. He has to learn on the hoof and perhaps guided by divine intervention, he is able to communicate with the tigers and tame them. Today there are about 80 tigers in the monastery.  There are plans to build a ‘Tiger Island’ which will enable tigers to be released in a more natural forest environment where they belong without fear of being killed by poachers.


Fact Panel

We flew with the low-cost airline AirAsia X from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur with connection to Bangkok on AirAsia regional flights.

Thai Airways International and British Airways fly direct from London to Bangkok.

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