The week before I donated blood in Bangkok, I was looking for an interesting day trip to see something outside of the city. My hostel, an excellent hostel by the way, offered a day tour that would take me to the Floating Market, the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple. I wanted to see the market and bridge but I had no idea what kind of experience the Tiger Temple would be. Imagine my surprise when it was the best part of the tour.
The Tiger Temple is in Kanchanaburi, about 3 hours north west of Bangkok. It’s a monastery dedicated to helping abused and abandoned tigers.
Before we entered we were told there would be opportunities to have our pictures taken with tigers and to see tigers playing. We may also see other wildlife roaming freely around the complex. Definitely not your typical monastery. After making sure nobody in the tour group was wearing bright colors and the woman had on appropriate clothing, we head in towards tiger canyon.
That sounded interesting enough, after all, what could be better than a canyon full of tigers. In the canyon, there were 5 or 6 tigers all laying down in some state of relaxation or sleeping. As you held a trainer’s hand, they led you around the canyon letting you stop at each tiger to pet it and get your picture taken. All of the tigers were docile and never made a move of aggression to anyone. It was kind of surreal walking around grown tigers and petting them like a big house cat.
Even the monks were down there to view the tigers.
Once you have your pic taken with all the tigers, you leave the canyon and head towards an enclosed pool where younger tigers play freely. You are allowed to get in the pool and play with them yourself and even bathe and feed them afterward. It seemed like an awesome thing to do, so I signed up. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.
You’re led into the enclosure while surrounded by many Thai volunteers. Each visitor was guided by their own volunteer and another volunteer took pictures of the experience.
We were led to a pool on the edge of the pit. Here we went about knee deep into the water and were given big sticks with a ball on the end. We were told to wave it in the air and let the tiger try to catch the ball. In other words, play with them like a house cat. It was so much fun. The tigers would leap towards the ball, and if they missed, would splash into the water. If they caught the ball, they would hang on to the ball for dear life. It was tough pulling it away from them, the tigers were incredibly strong, but the tigers seemed to enjoy the interaction. Often times, a tiger would come kind of close and my guide would shriek and push the tiger away. I was apparently bad at the game because I let several tigers get too close and was constantly told to get deeper in the pool. We played in the water for about 15 minutes and I was able to interact with several of the tigers. It was incredibly fun.
After getting out of the pool, the group was led to the middle of the enclosure and we formed a circle. It was time for tiger soccer. A ball was kicked across the ring as the tigers tried to intercept the ball. Most of the time, the ball never made it across and a volunteer had to go grab the ball from a tiger to start the game back.
The fun was not quite over. After soccer was finished, we were led to the back of tiger enclosure while the tigers were brought out to get a bath. We were assigned our own tiger to shampoo and rinse off. While I don’t think the bath actually accomplished much, it was still pretty amazing getting to bathe a tiger.
Could there be more of this incredible experience? Oh yes, there was – hand feeding a tiger. This guy ate several pieces of chicken right out of my hand.
Now that the tiger experience was over, there was more to explore. The monks were raising several baby tigers on the grounds who were incredibly cute.
As you wandered the grounds, monks were interacting with many other tigers and would even let you take your picture with them.
The temple isn’t only home to tigers. Other forms of wildlife freely wander the property including deer and boars.
It wouldn’t be a visit to a temple without visiting an actual temple so the group headed to the temple. While it looked like many of the other temples I’ve seen in Thailand, it was a unique visit thanks to a monk and a human skeleton.
As the group stood in front of the skeleton, the monk came over to see if we had any questions. One person asked how long he had been a monk. It turns out, he was from Los Angeles and decided to become a monk ten months ago to straighten out his life. The attention then went to the skeleton and he was asked if it was a real skeleton. His short reply, “yes.” As we stood there silently, I finally asked the obvious question, “why is there a human skeleton in a temple.” He explained that monks struggle daily with all sorts of temptation, especially lust. They work this out of their minds by seeing the human body as it really is – flesh, blood and bones. The skeleton is there as a reminder.
While a bit macabre and creepy, it was an interesting conversation and a good way to end the visit to the tiger temple.
Before closing, I do need to say that after visiting, I did a little research on the temple and have found it is the subject of some controversy. People don’t feel it is right for the tigers to be displayed in this manner, they are wild creatures, and it’s even said that the tigers might be drugged. That seems to be a somewhat valid concern since it’s not normal for tigers to behave this way in the wild.
However, the temple says the tigers have been raised their whole life around humans. The monks only open the temple for three hours in the afternoon because that is when the tigers are the least active.
While it was odd to see grown tigers lay around while visitors milled around and petted them, I don’t think they were drugged. It seems that would be a massive and expensive undertaking to complete every single day. The younger tigers were definitely lively and playful and seemed to be used to human contact. The monks and volunteers seem to love the tigers and seem to take excellent care of all of them.
I would urge you to do your own research before visiting and decide for yourself whether it’s somewhere you’d want to visit. I do recommend a visit and I am glad I went. It is definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had while traveling.