Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tiger Temple- Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Earlier this year, I once again found myself assigned to a Bangkok trip. Since my visit to the Buddha I hadn't done much there except indulge in lots of yummy food, massages and shopping for DVDs at MBK department store. So, when I found myself there again I was determined to get out and see something worth seeing. Luckily, a couple of my colleagues were also wishing to do the same thing. After looking through some of the possible tours available, we settled on a day trip to go see the famous Tiger Temple.

We boarded our minibus for the 2 hour trip. Our itinerary was firstly a stop on the famous Bridge on the River Kwai, getting to have lunch after the long bus trip before continuing on to the temple. Being super tired after our long shift the previous day, and having to get up super early at 6am to make the trip, we mostly slept the whole way until the first stop. I was glad I'd brought my iPod so I could listen to some music as I alternately dozed and then gazed out of the window at the sights going by.

One that caught my eye was this giant random duck. I'm sure it actually had some significance, but don't ask me what!!!

Finally we reached the first stop, the Kanchanaburi War Memorial and the Death Railway Museum. I generally like museums & historical attractions, even the morbid ones, so I knew it wouldn't be boring. As an Australian this place has a bit of significance as there were Diggers put to work on the railways and buried there. The museum was interesting; it had some full size replicas of the actual Bridge, along with reconstructions of camp life including the train carriages that the prisoners travelled in and a whole room covered only in photos of all the known people who died during the construction of the railway. We had a quick snack then headed outside to look around the cemetery before getting back onto the bus and going to the river for lunch. The cemetery is divided into sections by country, some people might say it's racisit or divisive but it just makes it easier for people to find who they're looking for.

You'd be amazed how many people in areas like this don't even show the common courtesy to not walk on the markers. Even in regular cemeteries I see people walk over graves all the time. It's just a bit disrespectful..
The tour guide explained that the Thai people felt a lot of guilt about what went on, because they kind of had to go along with what they were told to do by the occupying forces or have the same thing happen to their own country. There were actually a lot of Thais killed also which is something I didn't really know about before I went to the museum.
Next stop was the famous 'Bridge over the River Kwai'- most known from the Oscar winning film starring Alec Guiness. I'd actually watched this movie on a flight back from leave so was glad I had before going there. Of course the film isn't entirely accurate- a lot of artistic license was taken- but it gives an idea of the type of work these men were made to do.

This little boy was patiently sitting in the hot sun, selling woven grasshoppers made from reeds. They were really cool. I knew he was probably working for a 'boss', giving money and not getting a lot himself, but I figured at least he makes some money if I do and won't get in trouble for not selling anything.

(My colleague asked permission for his photo; he happily agreed & we gave him some extra money in turn)
The other thing I learnt in the museum exhibit was that the bridge sustained heavy damage in the air raids at the end of the occupation. The original structure is the round arches and the replacement is the squared-off sections. The bridgs is still in operation today as part of Thai Railways and you can take a train along a section of the original railway if you are going on a particular route. There are refuge sections along the bridge that you can step into as the train passes.

After we'd had enough of the bridge and the hot sun, we went to out group lunch. It was in a cute little pavilion by the river, with views of the bridge. While we were sitting there, a train went by and I imagined the guys in the movie waiting and watching to set off their explosives and destroy a train!
Lunch started with a yummy chicken & veggie soup. I used to be a chicken (no pun intended, honest!) about trying foods overseas, especially in Asia, but since I moved o/s I decided to just risk it and try new stuff. Been pretty lucky so far with only the odd upset tummy and no serious gastro (yet- fingers crossed!)
Next was a crispy fried chicken!!! It was really good...
Then a meat dish with cashews and vegetables. It could even have been chicken again. Maybe they figure most tourists are comfortable with it. (The usual response to foreign food being "It tastes like chicken" might also have had some influence on this- why waste good exotic food on tourists who mostly don't appreciate it)
Our tummies full, we reboarded the bus and after another 30min or so drive we arrived at Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua (Tiger Temple). We duly signed out consent forms, which basically said that if the tigers decided they no longer wanted chicken and ate us instead, that we wouldn't hold the temple responsible. Also that we wouldn't do anything stupid like run around pulling their tails or making sudden movements. Since it IS a temple, anyone with 'skimpy' clothing (sleeveless tops or anything baring above the knees) had to don a sarong or wrap before being allowed entrance. After a fairly unimpressive walk through some treed areas, spotting some cow/bison/buffalo looking animals, we arrived at the main attraction. Calmly lazing around in front of us, in a flat area dotted with trees, were some humongous gorgeous tigers.

It was pretty stunning to see them so close. The temple guides gave us strict instructions... don't move suddenly, don't made loud noises, walk behind not in front of them and NEVER walk between two tigers. He explained that sometimes that might give them to urge to play a sudden game of tug-of-war, and you do not want to be that person!!
As you can see from the photos, they were chained, but easily able to get up and move around a little distance. The guide explained that they are only chained for a few hours each day, and only after they have eaten as they can still be in a 'bitey' kind of mood and they want to keep them controllable when visitors get so close.
I'd read negatice comments online from other visitors that the tigers were allegedly drugged to keep them docile; I saw no sign of that. Their eyes were shiny and bright, they often looked around with interest, played with each other and looked generally alert, if a little bit lazy. One lady made this comment out loud, in earshot of one of the monks, and also said it was cruel to keep them. I felt like asking her if she had ever owned a cat. I've owned many, and these tigers behaved exactly the same way as my cat does after a big meal. They lay around, snoozing, occasionally looking around if they hear something and generally lounging.

At one point I was walking around and behind one of the tigers- I stepped on a twig which snapped and the tiger immediately sprang awake and turned to look at me with big piercing eyes. That was definitely an undie-changing moment (lol) and I stood stock still. After a stare down which I wimpily lost, he decided I was no theat to him and proceeded to roll over on his back to rub in the dirt.

Standard after-lunch pose.

Next up was the visit to the baby tigers. Our visit was timed well because the latest litter of cubs were old enough to play with visitors and the mother was chilled enough not to freak out about it. I'd been told it was an extra 500 baht to get photos with them, but sadly when we got there it was actually 1000 and I didn't have any more money on me. The other crewmember who wanted to go hadn't brought her camera with her so I loaned her mine on the condition that she let me keep copies of the cub photos.
Seriously, how cute are they?

My, what big paws you have for such a tiny baby!!!

Meanwhile I got a nice consolation prixe of petting a slightly older (but still a baby) tiger. It was so cute but kept trying to bite me when I was giving it the bottle. Had to give the bottle back to the guide, hehe.

I really love this picture of the monk with the tiger. The monk had the most epic tattoos as well but I didn't take a picture of those as it's a bit sensitive.
Later on, this jolly monk invited us to come sit with him for a picture with one of the more docile cubs, he liked meeting everyone and finding out our names. Sadly I forgot to write his down :(

This little deer/antelope managed to sniff out my emergency banana from about fifty feet away... the staff told me that bananas are expensive and a rare treat. Apparently this little guy is obssessed with them and will love to have mine. They told me he will eat the skin and all- and he did!!

Another attraction was the 'quarry walk' where the tigers are taken off their chains and onto leads, and walk down to the tiger quarry with the visitors following. If you're brave enough you can even take the lead for a few seconds, making sure to keep one hand on the tiger as you approach so it knows you are there. I did, and it was so fun, but it was more like being dragged than walking as the tigers seemed to love going to the quarry and wanted to get there fast. After the quarry was a stop at a temple on the grounds, and then back to the bus.

Interesting sign in the temple. Dudes can have at it, but the ladies are not permitted to even set a toe in the monk area.

After a long drive back to the hotel (which consisted of getting stuck in traffic and luckily for us, sleeping) we arrived late with about 30 minutes until our scheduled wake-up call. It was going to be a looooooong flight back. Happily for us, we had our fun memories of the tiger temple to keep us occupied and photos to entertain the other crew while trying to stay awake on the return trip. I enjoyed the tiger temple and if you want the chance to see these beautiful animals close up, it's definitely worth a visit.

Bunnies! Some kind of rabbit-shaped dumpling/cake in the supermarket for Chinese New Year.

Mmmmm, fresh juice!!!! :)

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