Thailand has an overabundance of sights, activities and adventures that will take your breath away. I recently experienced what I think is by far, the most unforgettable adventure here in the Kingdom. 40 km northwest of Kanchanaburi, nestled into the forested foothills, is Wat Pha Luangta Bua, better known as the Tiger Temple. The temple gets its name from the roughly 105 Indo-Chinese tigers who currently call it home. Living under the care of monks and volunteers, this animal sanctuary is like no other place in the world. Only here do you have the ability to get up close and personal with some of the most amazing creatures on the planet.
In 1999 the temple received its first tiger cub. Since then it’s grown its pack through rescues in the wild as well as births at the temple. Once born the tigers cubs are paired with a monk, or a lucky volunteer, who helps hand raise the tiger. There’s got to be some secret connection between tigers, monks and Buddhism because while walking around the grounds these giants look as relaxed as regular house cats. Some people claim the tigers are heavily sedated or even drugged. After seeing their daily routines, listening to the temple director and volunteers share facts and tell stories about playing with them and playing with them myself, in my opinion I think these tigers are on no medication!
The tiger’s day starts early, around 7am. They are thoroughly worked out, washed then fed a hefty breakfast of whole chickens before the arrival of visitors at 12 noon. An entry fee of 600 Baht ($20) and a short waiver will get you into the temple. The anticipation is high waiting for the clock to strike 12, at which point a small group of 4 or 5 tigers are led by the front gate signaling the tigers are ready.
Walking up the foot-path the tigers quickly come into view lounging in the shade. After a moment of awe, the temple program director details ground rules and offers pointers on the best ways to safely pet the tigers ensuring you leave the temple with the same number of body parts you arrived with. He reminds guests that even as docile as the tigers seem, they are tigers…and instincts are instincts.
Accustomed to the paparazzi, the tigers happily allow you to get close, give them a pet and smile for the camera. For a small donation to the temple, 1,000 baht ($30), there are a few special programs in the afternoon which visitors can sign up for. Choices are between playing with and feeding tiger cubs or bathing and exercising in the pool with the juveniles. After hearing I could play with tigers in a pool, my mind was easily made up.
The photos-ops ended and it was time to head to the canyon. Walking down everyone is given the leash and allowed to walk with a tiger. Holding the leash and walking the tiger is not exactly like walking your dog around the block. With the leash in your hand you can feel the tremendous power on demand tugging at the other end. I knew if this tiger wanted to he could have had his way with me; however, I did take some comfort in the protection of the monk who walked beside me.
After walking the adult tigers into the canyon, where they spend the afternoon playing and posing for more photos, I split off and went to get ready for the bathing and exercising program. Walking through the high steel doors felt like being led into Jurassic Park. Off to the right were 4 tigers staring us down like prey. Following a quick splish-splash and a bath and a few handfuls of chicken it was time for the real action.
Armed with plastic bags tied to the end of a bamboo stick we were led to the pool. Inside the plastic bags area few small pieces of wood and rocks to rattle and make noise to draw the attention of the tigers. The goal is to get these tigers running, jumping and playing in the water for some exercise. To do this we stood shin deep in the water and shook the bags until the tigers thought they were their next meal and leaped to attack. This lasted about 30 minutes, and in my life I’ve never been so scared and excited at the same time! Having a 300 pound tiger leaping at you, paws out stretched and ready to attack, is an eerie feeling; especially when the only protection is a, pushing 5-foot tall, Thai lady who graciously steps between you and the tiger when it gets too close. Two thoughts kept running through my head. 1, how could I keep getting the attention of the tigers so they would leap towards me and my bag? 2, after having a tiger nearly land in my lap, why did I pay 1,000 baht to become tiger bait?
It goes without saying that regulations would never allow this type of experience to happen in most developed countries, making the Tiger Temple extraordinarily unique. As the session ended I thanked the volunteer for keeping me alive and could not stop thinking about what just happened nor get the smile off my face.
Without a doubt I recommend anyone visiting Thailand to take the time and make the trip here. If you fall in love with the tigers, as some do, you can talk to the director about becoming a volunteer full time for a month and living at the temple. You can also visit their website here to get more information. This is definitely an experience you will never forget!