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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tiger Temple

It was first mentioned to me long after I had ever been to Thailand the first time. But the description, or at least the image that my mind painted after the few scant words that I heard about it, captivated me and I made a note that if I were to ever go back to Thailand I should visit Tiger Temple.
Some friends of mine in Korea told me that there was this Buddhist temple in Thailand where the fiercest of animals, tigers were kept as pets and they roamed the temple grounds where the Buddhist monks, as their homage to all living beings, watched after them. It was a powerful image of a bald, shaved happy monk sitting side by side this spectacular jungle beast both colors of orange from the fur of the tiger and from the robe of the monk shining in the sun, the monk reaching over to pet the sleeping tiger, and the sound of chanting while the tiger sits coolly down smelling nothing blood-enticing, only incense smoke. There are a few things more inspiring as a way of life that calms the ferocity of human instinct, but picture a way of life that also calms the ferocity of base animal instincts with all its growling and blood-craving; this is something sacred, and awe-inspiring.

So for my stay in Thailand, this was my one main goal as far as tourism goes. And I guess I didn't know what to expect, for I had pictured it being far remote and one would have to slash through a jungle mountain trail to get to this perhaps, half hidden location. But I was wrong for when I got to the city of Kanchanaburi, or even before in Bangkok, I could see that this location was aptly advertised and that it was definitely a tourist vehicle. But I went regardless. The image changed somewhat to mystical monks meditating alongside serene tigers to people being able to pose and take photos of the tigers.

The day I was to go, a truck picked me up and I piled in the back along with other tourists from various places. One was an Italian family who was composed of a father, mother, and son. The boy wanted to know if I was a cowboy when he found out I was from America. There were two Swedish girls who were on some type of scuba diving trip and both were animal activists, and then either an Australian couple or a British one, I couldn't tell for they were very quiet, and then this one guy who seemed Spanish, but I am not sure about him either. And we were whisked away towards this mystical Tiger Temple that I am sure that we all had heard about. Everyone had their cameras ready.

When we got there our taxi truck driver looked at my red t-shirt and made some comment, and next took off this blue button-up shirt that he was wearing and handed it to me. He told me it was necessary that I had to wear this. I not knowing the cause, didn't argue but put on the shirt of this man. He stood grinning with his missing teeth and his undershirt with holes in it. I guessed that it had something to do with the tigers and so complied and put it on.

The Tiger Temple was a more of a zoo, or a tourist park than the mystical image I had in my head. Buses were parked everywhere, postcards and t-shirts were being sold, and ice cream was being consumed. The price to get into the park was a steep one for Thailand, but I don't think it was a rip off.

A considerable walk and we were in Tiger Canyon where all the petting tigers were assembled. And this was the main tourist punch. The main draw to the Tiger Temple was clearly not just the tigers themselves, but more or so the picture that you would have posing with the tiger. That was the main allure and the main reason people probably ventured to this obscure region away from the River Kwai. And that would be the main motivation afterwards, “Look here. I am posing with this tiger.” SNAP. Goes the camera and you are off back to the tourist truck or bus.

Tourists crowded the area, along with workers and volunteers. Their job was to lead you around to the various tigers that were chained to the ground as they lay bathing in the sun half asleep, some fully asleep. You were led by hand around behind these sleeping predators and told that this was the only way to approach them for to get near them in front of their faces you risked agitating the tiger. Seeing the tigers like this and all the other tourists and workers bumbling about the place, it sort of robbed you of the moment, definitely of the image I had in my head. I saw plenty of tigers, but I barely saw a Buddhist monk.

After this Tiger Canyon we were led to other areas. One place was a pit where the tigers were at play. They even allowed people in the pit with these more lively felines. But once one of the tigers started to get a little too playful, they had this stick with a redshirt on it and the tiger would turn its attention to the shirt dummy, chasing it quite savagely with claws and teeth swiping it. It was supposed to ward the tigers away. And at that, I fully understood the implication that wearing my red T-shirt would have been, and was glad that my driver had been so kind.

There were loads of other animals about the place. Like pigs, cattle, ox, chickens, goats, and these animals just ran about freely. There were some fat sun bears in a cage.
Though, these oxen or a type of water buffalo ran the scene. In many ways they were more dangerous than the tigers. I almost got knocked down by one when this feeding truck came up with various vegetables and workers started to hurl these to the oxen, which nearly caused a stampede.

Nope, the tigers that we petted were much more sedate. The workers at this place swear that the tigers are not drugged, but many people come away with the impression that they are drugged. And research on the net doesn't really confirm one over the other. (As all internet research tends to.) But there have been no proof of them being drugged. But still many people think that these big cats are ill treated. And I am first to admit that I don't know what to believe. It is true that big cats sleep up to 16 hours of the day, and that is during the middle of the day, the exact time that we were petting them. But it does seem like a huge liability risk to allow so many people to come in with normal tigers allowing them to walk about them. They are in chains, but just a quick swipe with their paw and that's something gruesome. How is it that tigers are trained so well, when most people can't even train their dogs to behave so well? And it is obvious that the place runs on tourism and for the commercial aspect. This is quite the controversy. At what point is it cruel to animals to use them for financial gain? Are they not saving these tigers from the poachers? They fed the animals and take care of them, what more does a tiger want? Freedom? Is that just a concept that is in a human head? There are so many questions that this poses.

We left the place, but not before a massive herd of those oxen go running past the gate. On the main road. And there was no stopping them. It reminded me of the Running of the Bulls. And apparently these other animals could do anything they really wanted to. Meanwhile, our truck waited forever for one of the tourists that rode with us to come out. While we waited for ages, I noticed all the other tourists walked about the place and many of them looked interesting. One guy with a mohawk and black steel boots had on a T-shirt that read “Fuck You” in big bold letters. He was arguing with his girlfriend or some lady, I do belief. And everything bespoke this certain douchey attitude with him. Why on earth would you wear such a shirt to a temple in Asia where respect goes a long way? Sometimes, I think people are the most untameable creatures on this earth.  


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