The Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi is a very controversal attraction. Some people feel that tigers should never be kept in captivity, let along at a Buddist temple in such large quanitity (147 tigers at last count). There has been claims of drugging of the tigers so they are more docile, along with other pretty damning accusations. I am a very curious and somewhat rebelious person, so I simply had to see it with my own eyes. To put my personality into perspective, I also visited the San Diego Sea World right after the release of the documentary Blackfish, which raised some eyebrows among my friends. I guess I am just that kind of a guy.
Note: Due to the popularity of the Tiger Temple, there are other “Tiger *” popping up all over Thailand. My experience was with the actual temple in Kanchanaburi where the monks still have their daily religious practice.
Our day started at 4:30am, our guide Jay from Tour with Tong met me and Jessica at the lobby of our hotel. We left at the crack of dawn because we booked the VIP Tiger Temple + Elephant tour, and the VIP Tiger Temple tour is only offered early in the morning. Jay spoke perfect English and seems to know everybody we encountered, he was also very good with camera and not shy about posing us and snapping away. The drive from Bangkok to the Tiger Temple was around 2 hours, along the way Jay gave us some general info about the area and we caught a bit more sleep during the ride.
Since the Tiger Temple is still a Buddist temple with practicing monks, we were asked to make offerings to the monks. With a quick crash course from Jay, the temple staffs and volunteers (lots of Australians and Europeans, btw), we made our offerings to the head abbot and monks, and was led inside the gate of the Tiger Temple.
I was expecting to see large buildings, zoo-like cages and for some reason, glass enclosures like a museum. Instead, we walked through a farm land with scattered single floor buildings. The Australian staff explained that the smaller building is where all the female volunteers are staying, and the male volunteers are staying at the larger building further up the hill.
There were animals roaming all over, I felt like I stepped into a petting zoo.
Once we arrived to the main building, we were introduced to a feisty tiger cub and 3 teenagers around one year old. This was also when we realized that there are only me, Jessica and one other guest on the morning VIP tour today (normally there would be around 20 people). This translates to lots of hands-on tiger time and photo ops. We were told that it has been years since they had such a light VIP tour, we were very lucky! Our first activity was bottle feeding the tiger cub, he took to it very eagerly.
This little boy was super feisty and would play with people non-stop! Jay observed that whenever there are more than one in a litter, the cubs tend to be more clam around people; where if there is only one cub in a litter, that cub tends to be feistier and not quite understand boundary as well.
After us guests had a chance to finish bottle feeding the tiger cub and teens, the monks started having their breakfast and the abbot gives the morning talk. The abbot was not happy about certain things that happened at the temple recently so it translated into an hour long session, this gave us and the volunteers a lot of time to interact with the tiger cub and teens on the side. I was honestly tigered-out by the time the abbot wrapped up the talk.
After the head abbot finished his morning talk and breakfast, we got to walk the tiger teens back to their enclosure on a leash.
We were told to stay behind the tiger’s shoulder at all times and to let the tiger lead and follow him wherever he goes. At one point our tiger even decided to climb a tree. I imagine this feels similar to how walking a house cat on leash would feel, except on a slightly larger scale.
After a 15 minutes walk, we arrived at the young tigers’ enclosure and was told that we will be playing with a few 1 – 2 year old tigers using various rags & bottles tied to the end of a stick. Again, just like playing with a house cat, except on a slightly larger scale. So there we were, pressed up with our back against the wall trying to make our rag & bottle dance to entice the young tigers to pounce on them instead of us, all the while taking care not to send the tigers too close to our neighbors. This was a bit hairy because all the lions were free roaming! After a good 15 minutes or so, the tigers seemed to have lost interest, so the staffs sent in a few fresh ones so we could continue our shoulders and arms exercise of the day. Tigered-out!
Up to this point we have been interacting with young tigers, it is time to step things up. As part of the VIP Tour, we were led to a concrete facility to help feed and bath an adult tiger! Granted he was chained to the ground with a short chain but there were still a lot of staffs next to us, just in case.
Some people have asked if the the temple feed the tigers some of the semi-wild animals running around, but since it is a Buddist temple that does not promote killing, they feed the tigers boiled chicken. So there I was, hand deep in a chicken’s butt and presenting it to Mr. Tiger.
After the other guest and I each fed a boiled chicken to the adult tiger, it was apparently a good time for a bath. Being still a bit jet lagged, I was blessed by a general feeling of indifference; so without a second thought I stepped up and started scrubbing the tiger, careful to stay behind his shoulder. Again, during this process there were a lot of staffs next to me, which actually made me a bit uneasy, why did we need so many people? Did something happen before?
Once the hand feeding and bathing were done, we walked another full grown adult tiger back to his enclosure. The adult tiger was a lot more calm and each of us 3 guests took turn walking him. We each had multiple rounds of photo-ops and were told that we were lucky due to the unusually low number of VIP guests today, we had a lot of hands-on time with the adult tiger.
The Tiger Temple made the news world-wide mid-2015 because one of the tigers attacked the head abbot. While the abbot was walking an adult tiger, something spooked the tiger causing the abbot to drop the leash and the freaked out tiger took a swipe at the abbot. The abbot ended up with a broken arm and a large scar running down the right side of his face. The abbot and the temple never blamed the tiger, it was an accident and it was just the tiger’s nature. The people and organizations that wanted to shut down the temple’s operation had a field day, now they have an additional platform to pitch on. I will get back to the temple’s view of preserving the tiger’s nature later on.
The last stop (thankfully, I was seriously tigered-out) was the adult tigers enclosure. We were given an opportunity to take a photo with a fully grown tiger resting his head on you, although the staff did explain that this is one of the only thing they may have to force the tiger to do and we have the option to opt-out if we are uncomfortable with the idea. Seeing how the adult tigers were just lounging around while the staffs had to nudge them to get up, all 3 of us felt bad and opted out on the photo-op, we had enough photos of us with tigers.
Next, things got real. We were told to stay inside a small enclosure within the enclosure, and they let all 5 adult tigers previously chained to the ground loose.
One of the staffs picked up a toy similar to what we used earlier, went into the pond and riled up the 5 tigers and played with them. He was teasing them to jump and pushing them off rock jokingly. There were dicy moments where the tiger lost the toy and people tossed him a piece of foam board to defend himself with. It was a Gladiator moment, I was 50/50 on him making it out alive. He totally deserved to wear that large tiger tattoo across his chest.
One interesting observation is that only Thai staffs are outside working with these loose large tigers. I am guessing they either have worked with the big cats longer or their insurance is cheaper than their oversea counter parts. (joking, of course.)
Once the tigers were done playing, the show was concluded and they took apart the enclosure and put the tigers on leash to walk back to their living enclosure. During this process one of the tigers slipped out of the enclosure and a few staffs jogged after it, hope it didn’t get to any of the other animals around the temple.
It is hard to write an unbias review of my experience at the Tiger Temple, because everybody there were extremely nice and it was an amazing experience interacting with the tigers. But I will try.
Before the visit, I chalked the Tiger Temple up as a popular Thailand tourists trap and profit comes first. After experiencing it first hand, I can feel that the temple geuinely cares about the tigers and all the other animals on their ground. From talking to the volunteers from all over the world, many of them using their summer vacations from work to volunteer there for free, they are passionate and truely believe that they are doing a good thing. These volunteers were looking a bit gritty and were definitely put to work, so it was not one of those voluteerism-in-name.
As to the profit, the full day VIP Tiger Temple + Elephant Camp tour through Tour with Tong was around $235 USD per person, very pricey in Thailand standard. From looking online, if we were to book our own VIP Tiger Temple tour it would be $138 USD per person. Initially I thought the temple must be in raking in a nice profit, but seeing how many tigers (147!!) and other animals they have, what they feed the tigers, how many staffs the temple employes… I think the entrance price reflects the operational cost of the temple. The temple was just like any other temple, the buildings and dorms were not fancy, the cars were old… nobody was living in luxury there. Remember how I mentioned that the abbot was flying off the handle for an hour while during the morning session? It was about an ex-temple staff that was stealing from the temple. It almost feels a little petty because we tend to think of monks as people beyond these worldly things, but it does illustrate the point that this temple is not swimming in excess money.
In terms of how the Tiger Temple came to horde 147 tigers, my first thought was that they need tiger cubs readily available since they are the main tourist draws. The staff went on to explain that the monks do not believe in going against nature, so when a female tiger comes into heat, the temple just let nature take it’s course. While the exaplination makes sense, I see tigers eating boiled chicken and walking on leash… so I believe having a constant supply of cubs for tourists still plays a part.
In terms of living quality, from what I can see the tigers get more exercise (who wouldn’t want to walk a tiger?) than other tigers in the zoo and they are well cared for. There were a lot of staffs and volunteers and they all seemed to enjoy having the tigers around and were very familiar with what they do. All the tigers looked healthy, alert when there is something to be excited about, and definitely not drugged. I went in knowing it is one of their accusations and I paid attention to any lethagetic tiger… no, they were just humaned-out.
That leads me to my next point, the tigers are forced to interact with tourists like me on a daily basis. In the morning they see around 20 people, in the afternoon there could be an upward to 2000 people on a busy day. Since I did not take part in an afternoon tour, I cannot comment on how it was run, but I could only imagine.
Ultimately, would I recommend visiting the Tiger Temple of Thailand? Yes, go visit if you could do the morning VIP Tour.
From what I can see, they do their best to treat the tigers right and the tigers seems content. My only issue with the temple is their tiger population control. If they continue to “allow nature takes it’s course,” I cannot imagine how it could be sustainable. Beyond my concern over their population crisis, I feel that the way the tigers were taken care of there was adaquet; there are animals in way worse situation than our tiger friends (eg: commercial chicken coup, sow stalls, fishes in aquarium, birds in cages). I, for one won’t be calling the kettle black.
Then again, I was that guy that visited Sea World.