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Through The Tiger Temple

Jul 23, 2011 5:01:16 PM - thesundayleader.lk

Photo and text By Abdul H. Azeez

Where our protagonist steps lightly around fully grown tigers, rides elephants and cools down with a tranquil bamboo raft ride in the continuation of his adventures in Thailand.

The road is dusty and a strange smell of dung permeates the air. The very stench of the striped pelts of tigers, I realized only later. Souvenir shops dotted the road to the entrance. A ticket here costs about Rs. 1,800.

The tiger temple, as the story goes, was a regular Theravada Buddhist temple back in the day. One day, a wounded tiger was found inside the complex and was cared for by the monks. The tiger left, then came back and decided to stay. It also brought some  friends along. And soon the temple was functioning as a refuge for tigers from the area. Somewhat implausibly, the temple also attracted boars, deer and other traditional tiger prey. And now it is a veritable zoo.

With one difference; visitors can get up close and personal with the tigers. You can pet them, take pictures with them and walk with them. Volunteers and workers will warn you to take precautions however, the tiger is still a wild beast and if you crouch down in front of it, you become the size of prey. It will then pounce on you and, if you are within the range of the chains that bind it to the ground, you are dead meat. Otherwise, you get a terrible fright, and the tiger gets a terribly sore neck.

The tigers aren’t drugged, but they are tame beasts. They frolic with the volunteers and the cubs are fed for and cared by the temple priests. Visitors sit behind the beasts and pat them on the rump while they get their pictures taken by temple workers. They can later walk the tigers to the feeding grounds.

The priests themselves are quite intriguing. Complex tattoos mark the visible parts of their skin. They are in whorls of colour and mystic designs and are drawn with bamboo needles. The tattoos are called Sak Yant (Sak means tattoo and Yant means sacred prayers), a cross between art and mysticism, they are supposed to render the wearer with magical powers of protection.

The Tiger Temple is also in Kanchanaburi Province, in the same location as the Bridge on the River Kwai. Visitors to the temple are only allowed in the afternoon. When the tigers have been fed and are sated enough not to make goggle eyes at the nearest piece of walking meat i.e., you.

In the morning before we visited the temple, we headed for a quiet boat ride on the river Kwai. We were transported on bamboo craft with a thatched roof that were pushed along by oars. Elephants bathe along the river and the water is shallow enough for penetrating sunlight to show silvery fish running along beside the boat. I trail my feet in the water and relax, thinking of the elephant I was riding not half an hour ago.

In the evening we take off to Hua Hin. A beachside district that was a favorite retreat of the Thai Royal Family. Thailand was never colonized, a source of pride for Thais, and their monarch is regarded with respect. The current king of Thailand is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Await more on Hua Hin and the teeming city of Bangkok in weeks to come.