I stood in line, restlessly shifting from left foot to right as little rivulets of sweat ran down the nape of my neck. The Bangkok heat was not meant for standing. Outdoors. To take a selfie with a tiger. A tiger that’s chained to the tree. What was I doing here again?! That thought ran through my mind in spurts but I kept reminding myself, the objective was to spend some time with my cousins, whom I was traveling with on a one-week Thai holiday, so if we were bonding over tigers, then hey, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.
I’m not usually a bus tour sort of traveler. I think early on in my travel life, I recognized my desire for doing things on my own without being carted around like cattle from one sight to another with 50 other tourists ooing and aahing at something. So it was kind of surprising when I found myself evaluating this 12 hour bus tour from Bangkok to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, then to the Bridge on the River Kwai, and finally to some Tiger Temple Sanctuary.
Short on time, it just made sense given all of us wanted to see something different that was offered in this all-encompassing tour. My interest lay in the story behind the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai, and yes it’s also a movie set in WWII.
But the real story was the Temple Sanctuary. As we trudged down from the parking lot where the bus dropped us, we walked into this canyon like space, rounded the corner and came upon this open air courtyard like scene, where multiple tigers seemed to be snoozing on the ground. Of course there were several lines where we had to wait our turn to walk into the courtyard which upon closer inspection was gated. I was slightly apprehensive, now that I was actually here. I would be petting a tiger up close and personal. What if it lunged at me or decided to just swallow me up. I watched as the tourists within the courtyard were petting the tigers and having their pics taken by bored administrators that kept leading each visitor from tiger to tiger. The visitor would keep a hand on the tigers back, smile for the camera (either a real camera or phone) and then be led by hand to the next tiger.
The sanctuary started out as a Buddhist temple in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi Province and was founded in 1994. The objective apparently was for it to be a sanctuary for wild animals, mostly comprising of tigers. One of my cousins refused to come inside, opting to wait out in the tour bus. Her reasoning was that she had read that the tigers were being mistreated and drugged, and that made sense to her because otherwise there was no way tigers would be so docile, letting people pet them without wanting to shred them to pieces.
I didn’t think much of this because I figured if this was open to the public, it must be okay. And hey I was in a Buddhist temple and I had heard some stories about how the tigers were trained by monks for eventual release into the wild. It all seemed legit and kind of cool. I was thinking spirituality and meditation. Er, not sure how that applied to the tigers but that’s what I was here to experience for myself! Right? Or so I told myself.
When it was my turn to walk into the courtyard, I was led by hand by another bored employee who took me to the first tiger. I noticed the animal was chained to the ground. It looked really docile as I apprehensively touched its back closer to its tail. The employee snapped multiple pics and then she held me by my hand and walked me to the next tiger. Again I noticed this one was also chained. It finally dawned on me they were all chained and mostly seemed to be snoozing. I think one or two of the tigers seemed to rouse and shake their heads but for the most part they all seemed to be sleeping. Were they drugged? The question popped into my head reluctantly. I mechanically smiled my way through the last few tiger pics, feeling awkward and stupid and unable to really admire these beautiful animals because I wasn’t sure what was going on. I didn’t find any satisfaction in petting a tiger and taking a photo or being led by my hand like an errant school kid who might run off at any moment and climb on top of the tiger and race into the horizon.
Walking out the courtyard I waiting for my cousin to join and found an employee who was standing around talking to the visitors. I approached him and pointedly asked him if these tigers were drugged. He was matter of fact and said no, not at all. He said they are given plenty of exercise during the day and in fact we could stay and watch the next round of activity where the tigers would be engaged in playful combat. I needed another admission ticket for that and well I couldn’t stay because my bus was leaving back for Bangkok.
Fast forward to May, 3 months after my trip. Back in the United States I had virtually forgotten about this bizarre day trip to the sanctuary, my cousin and I both having decided this had been a boring and disappointing excursion. In May, headlines splattered everywhere in the news about illegal tiger breeding at the sanctuary and how police had found tiger cub corpses as well as numerous body parts from other animals preserved in the freezers. There were reports about illegal breeding and wildlife smuggling. I was horrified. I had taken part in this activity, helped fund it even by paying the entrance fee.
Which brings me to the question of responsible tourism and the tourist. Being a seasoned traveler, I pride myself in knowing where to go and what to see. What I have to remember, is that just because something is open to the public doesn’t mean it’s necessarily legal and ethical, especially in countries where the boundaries between law and religion are blurred. I say this because I read reports that the police have long suspected something amiss at the temple and although there had been attempts to remove the living tigers, the monks and temple administrators resisted, causing the police to back off as it was after all a temple. I’m not here to tell you about what’s really going on at the temple, but rather to spread awareness that we should approach some of these activities responsibly, and if there is even a frission of doubt, perhaps our responsibility as a traveler is to avoid supporting it altogether.