Animal-lovers, take note. If you're looking to see exotic wildlife on your Thailand trip, there are no shortage of opportunities on the tourist circuit. But if zoos seem to simulated and the odds of a jungle-trek encounter seem uncertain (and dangerous!), a new middle ground exists. In the growing trend of tourist-friendly wildlife sanctuaries, visitors can witness Thailand's most exotic creatures in a safe, unexploitative manner. Even the tiger, the most dangerous and regal of Thailand's wildlife, can be observed and admired in this setting. Kanchanaburi's Wat Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, widely known as the "tiger temple," allow tourists to act out their childhood Jungle Book fantasies by getting up-close and huggy with a tame pack of Indo-Chinese tigers.
This temple was converted into a tiger sanctuary in 1999, as a home for tigers who have been rescued from poachers in the jungles west of Kanchanaburi. Around the Thai-Burmese borders, these beautiful animals are coveted by hunters, which can leave orphaned cubs fending for themselves in the jungle. Managed by a team of monks and volunteers (both Thai and western), the Tiger temple provides a protected habitat for these coveted animals. The Abbot Pra Acharn Phusit Khantitharo, who founded the sanctuary, is in constant interaction with the tigers.
The grounds themselves are a dusty 30-minute drive from downtown Kanchanaburi. With the admission fee of 300 baht (and a waiver to be signed at the gate; a standard procedure when tiger-touching is involved) visitors are led through the wide, sparse grounds. While visitors may be stumped in a search for a real temple (the word seems to be synonymous with "sanctuary" in this case), there's no shortage of awe-inducing tigers.
The tigers are taken to a quarry each day to enjoy the sun, stretch their legs, and bathe in the small pool. It is here that tourists can watch the tigers interact with each other. Separated only by a thin rope, volunteer will guide visitors close to the tigers and invite them to pet the animals and pose for photos. The presence of the volunteers is valuable, as tourists can get nervous in such proximity to the tigers. The temple staff with explain that the tigers are raised from infancy by the monks, and so they adapt to the presence of humans and the daily routine of being approached by temple visitors. It is true that in this unique environment, the tigers seem genuinely unfazed by human company. These nocturnal animals are restful in the quarry, often sleepy or sleeping, while the head monk sits with them. The tigers will often be slow to acknowledge the people around them, even as they're being approached and touched.
Tourists are forever in dispute about the tigers' tame demeanor, which seems so contrary to their natural instincts. The temple staff will assure visitors over and over that the tigers are pacified by the calming influence of the Buddhist monks, instilled in them since they were cubs. Still, animal-conscious visitors will argue that the tigers must be sedated by more than just meditative power, and are in fact fed drugs which render them sluggish and passive.
Despite these speculations, it is clear from the temple environment that the animals are well-fed and healthy. Visitors to the temple receive a souvenir booklet which profiles each of the 17 tigers and cubs in the tiger temple family, explaining the animal's birthday, the origins of its name, and a lovingly-written description of its personality. The temple staff maintain the ultimate goal of expanding the temple grounds and facilities into a 12-acre area where tigers can live in a safe version of their own habitat, free from cages. Details of the "New Home for Tigers" project can be found on the temple's website, http://www.tigertemple.org/Eng/index.php, a site which also cites quotations from the Abbot on his compassion and respect for animals.
In addition to tigers, this temple hosts a family of boars, goats, birds and other creatures. The monks exercise a policy to feed all hungry beings who approach them, animal or human. Volunteering opportunities are available for English-speakers with a background in biology or animal care and a respect for the Buddhist ethics exercised at the temple. Please contact the temple for more information.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.