The Inevitable Angst of being an Educated Traveler

I was flat on my stomach when I felt the teeth come down on my bare ankle, the warm breath of the tiger on my skin. I was taking a close-up photo of an adorable tiger cub, and an adolescent tiger had taken my wiggling foot as an invitation to play.  Luckily, his bite was no worse than a pup’s, but for a second I felt like prey.


After three weeks in Thailand, we reached Bangkok, arriving at night on the train from Hua Hin, a 4 hour ride through the a countryside filled with scenes that would inspire hundreds of watercolors. A single farmer hand-tilling a field.  A man standing in his underwear, waist deep in a lake, casting a net across the water. Children bicycle in the road along the tracks, racing the train, laughing. Numerous cooks man carts preparing foods that look delicious even from a passing train window… noodles, grilled meats, sweets, fruit, and soups served in tightly-tied plastic bags.

morning joh / river kwai, thailand

The next day we’re picked up at 4pm by a bubbly tour guide named Kung and her driver Mai. We’re heading out for a private “VIP” tour of the Tiger Temple,1 where Buddhist monks raise Indochinese tigers with the goal of repopulating them into the wild. The tour promises the ability to interact with the tigers, feeding the cubs and helping to exercise the adults.

Two hours later we make a brief stop at the famous bridge over the Khwae Yai river. 2 This bridge is part of a 250-mile railway line built by the Japanese from Thailand into Burma as part of their planned attack on India.  (Yes, the Japanese planned to conquer India as well!) The Japanese forced asian slave laborers and POWs to build the railway at a horrific cost in human lives.  90,000 slave laborers and 12,399 POWs died during the construction.

Monks walk across the bridge, giving blessings in exchange for food.  Thai monks begin their days by gathering the food they will need for the day, and then spend the rest of the day in prayer.  Tourists walked across the bridge, which was practically designed for pedestrian and train traffic, with a small standing platform every ten meters to allow a train to pass.

Almost as soon as we arrived a train pulled into the station.  After taking on passengers, the train slowly crossed the bridge and disappearing into the jungle on the far side.

bridge on the river kwai / kanchanaburi, thailand

monks across the river kwai / kanchanaburi, thailand

river kwai station / kanchanaburi, thailand

train crossing river kwai / kanchanaburi, thailand

We purchase some food from street vendors to give to the monks at the Tiger Temple, then we hit the road again.  A half hour later we’re passing a huge gate in the shape of a tiger’s jaws, more appropriate for the entrance to a amusement park ride than a place of holy contemplation.

Once inside, our van parks and we’re seated at a table, upon which the food we purchased is arrayed.  We have trays containing packaged dried noodles as well as small plastic bags containing soup & other small bags with small cakes that looked like tiramisu. Other visitors are at adjoining tables. In the morning, only ‘VIP’ visitors are allowed to visit the temple, and there are probably 25 of us in all.

A dozen monks are milling about waiting, and eventually the abbot arrives and leads them down the line of tables.  Each  monk carries a small metal begging bowl, and we dutifully place a few packets of food in each monk’s bowl, bowing with palms together in the traditional thai sign of respect, the wâi. But there is a lot of food, and there are so few monks walking by, so we start to shovel the food into the monk’s bowls.  As each bowl is designed to hold only one day’s worth of food for a monk, the monks are just as quickly dumping the contents of their bowls into a cloth sack carried by an attendant.

The entire process is a little awkward, and embarrassing, sort of like a middle school Sadie Hawkins dance.

feeding the abott / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

monk chorus line / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

monk with food / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

Afterwards we walk into the temple grounds, passing deer, pigs, and a large aviary containing an assortment of magnificent hornbills. We eventually come to a large pagoda, and we gather at the base of the steps leading upwards.  An english-speaking volunteer explains some rules of behavior around the tigers, and our group is allowed to enter the temple.

The temple is a large square open-sided pagoda, perhaps a hundred meters to a side. The back is walled and contains the statues normally seen in Buddhist temples, as well as paintings of the abbot walking and caring for tigers. In front sits the abbot, and to either site monks sit with their food bowls in front of them.

breakfast and prayer / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

The abbot is preaching (in Thai) about new year’s resolutions, about fresh starts, but we’re not listening.  We don’t speak Thai. Our attention is focussed on the adorable little tiger kittens that are sleeping and walking around on the hardwood central floor of the temple.  And on the slightly larger adolescents surrounding the floor, and on the yearlings chained to the railing that defines the temple on three sides. They’re beautiful. They’re magnificent.

I’m given a bottle, and a tiger cub is put into my arms. It nurses while I melt. It’s cuddly and cute, but it’s clearly not a cat.  Even at a few months old, it weighs more than any house cat.  Its body is muscular, heavy with potential. Its eyes are soft, wide, a little confused.  The eyes of a child.

kitten /  / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

nap time /  / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

Next we get to bottle-feed and play with the older cats. They’re larger, the size of a medium-sized dog. They are playful adolescents, more self-assured than the kittens, but still a little awkward. I get the feeling that they could hurt us without intending to, just a pounce, a swipe of a claw, a playful bite. They wrestle with one another, playing hard, practicing for adulthood, but when offered a bottle, they drink from it hungrily.

curious tiger cub / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

wrestling / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

bobby & the tiger / wat pha luang ta bua, thailand

man cub / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

(There is a tiger cub in that last photo!)

The rest of the afternoon is spent in a variety of activities.  We have a photo-op walking the tigers, first the adolescents and then a fully-grown adult.  The fully-grown indochinese tiger is enormous.  It is easily larger than any two of us combined. The temple attendants carefully watch to ensure that we stay behind the cat’s head. They’re understandably nervous. Less than a year ago a tiger attacked one woman who was having her photo taken.

We help wash and feed the adolescents. We soap them down, rinse them, and then feed them cooked chicken.  I hold a chicken thigh by one end and feel the crunch of the young tiger’s jaws biting easily through the bone.

walking the cat / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

the walk / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

feeding kitty / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

Next we’re allowed to help exercise the tigers.  All of the temple volunteers bring out long bamboo poles with balloons and plastic bags tied to the ends, often with twigs and nuts in the bags to act as rattles. Each of us takes one of these and we enter the tiger enclosure together. The tigers are playing together in a moat, clearly energetic and wrestling with one another in the water.

When they see us they immediately come towards us. There are 10 large cats and they lope toward us at high speed. I stop breathing.

Then one of the temple volunteers shakes her stick, and the tigers turn into a bunch of enormous house cats. They dart towards one stick, then another. A tiger rushes behind me, brushing against my legs, its weight pushing me forward. Tigers leap high into the air to catch the balloons, land heavily at our feet, and turn to pounce again. Sometimes a tiger catches our toy, its claws catching the plastic bag and dragging it to the ground where the tiger chews at it, pinning it down with both claws. When this happens it’s nearly impossible to get your stick back unless someone else’s rattle distracts the tiger.

pounce / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

pounce / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand

The scene is chaotic, with tigers running between our legs and leaping into the air. I imagine a tiger leaping through the air, missing a balloon, and landing on me, but their leaps tend to be straight up rather than sideways. All of us are laughing, and we play with the tigers until all of the humans are exhausted and our toys shredded. When we leave we’re buzzing with energy, everyone saying to their companions “did that just happen?“. It is the highlight of our visit.

The trip to the Tiger Temple was wonderful.

Then I sit down to write this article.

When I google “Tiger Temple” the first thing I find is an article by Turner Barr discouraging tourists from visiting the temple. As part of his “Around the World in 80 Jobs” project, Turner volunteered to work at the Tiger Temple for 30 days.  He left after 18.

And Turner isn’t the only one questioning the temple’s activities. The temple has been linked to the trade in tiger parts, the harvesting of tiger organs and skin primarily for the Chinese market.

I gave them my money. And this entire post is about how wonderful it is to go there. Ugh.

I try to be realistic in my idealism. I understand that conservation efforts require good public relations, that to save something you need the public to love it.3 That is what I hoped the Tiger Temple was all about. But from the moment we passed by the enormous tiger jaw gate, I felt more like we were in a place of exploitation. The temple may have started out as a place for tiger conservation, but clearly things have gone wrong. Growth, expansion, and money now seem to be the mission of the temple.

Because I was on vacation, because I wanted to have fun, I suppressed my doubts.

The thing that hit me hardest, and the thing that I feel worst about, are those tiny cubs. I knew that when I held them that it was wrong, that in a proper I would be looking at them from a distance, sucking from their mothers in a natural setting.  I wouldn’t be feeding them myself, smelling their musk.

I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but what I was in those eyes wasn’t the wonder of a young child, it was the confusion of a child who had lost its mother.

Part of me wishes I had known this before booking the trip. I had known, I would not have gone. Part of me is happy for my ignorance. I’m not even sure if I should be writing this post, or including any photos of the tigers.

After thinking about this for days, I decided that my job here is to share my travel experiences with you. Good experiences and bad. It means sharing things that I am uncomfortable with, things that I’m ashamed of, and activities that you might consider shameful. In the end, we will become better travelers, and I hope, better humans.


Follow-up

All 146 big cats will be removed from Kanchanaburi’s Tiger Temple after Songkran, wildlife officials vowed yesterday …

After 20 years of operation which were punctuated by reports of abuse and criminality, Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua’s abbot and staff have refused to cooperate with investigations that followed a former veterinarian’s accusations over several missing tigers he suggested were sold last year.
Tiger Wars: Renewed vow to seize temple’s big cats

caged / wat pha luang ta bua, kanchanaburi, thailand


  1. More properly a Theravāda buddhist temple known as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, but everyone calls it the ‘Tiger Temple’.

  2. Khwae Yai (แควใหญ่), which translates to”big tributary”, is often mispronounced by english speakers as ‘Kwai’.

  3. Environmentalists will recognize this as the lesson of Glen Canyon.

4 thoughts on “The Inevitable Angst of being an Educated Traveler

  1. I agree. There appears to be more than one tiger temple my experience was much the same but the temple you describe and show is not the one I was at.

  2. I applaude your courage for feeling and conveying the truth.

    I recall the wonderment I experienced traveling through South America for 6 months in 1977.
    And wonderment can be watching the herring flock and frolic out my window …

    It is the miracle of friendship of the heart that we can celebrate each day, here or ?

    Your reflections have been a gift for all of us fortunate to have received. Welcome to all homes, my heart too.

    Love Lisa aka Auntie C Fearless

  3. Great article.

    A whole host of complex thoughts arises, including how this relates to domestication of livestock, etc. Our squirminess with it is the contrast between the appearance of loving companionship between us and tiger cubs clashes with the synthetic weirdness and health issues for the tiger. Another thought that crossed my mind is that certain types of high-risk and socially questionable activities and NGOs seem to appear primarily in monarchies, such as Thailand, Monaco, Morocco, etc.

    Tigers are dangerous animals. At least 373,000 people died due to tiger attacks between 1800 and 2009, the majority of these attacks occurring in South and Southeast Asia. Of course, it’s much lower now, but about 80 people are killed in India by tigers every year. See http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-25755104.

    I appreciate being able to have had this experience. When faced with moral challenges like this one, I try to take a “systems perspective,” considering everything, does it help or hurt? Pro: it demystifies tigers, creating perhaps more appropriate environmental and safety regulations. It originally started when a monk saved a baby tiger. The vast majority of tigers there are domestically bred. Con: hmm. I’m not sure there are any systemic cons. Wild tigers still exist. Their relationship with humans will always be tenuous, because each of us—tigers and humans—are predatory, competing for prey.

    Experiences like this, including your explorations of the negative aspects, create a broader understanding of reality. We should not shy from experiences because our feelings might be hurt. From an overall systemic point of view, I think the world may be a better place because this temple is there, and especially the world is a better place because you wrote a balanced article about it.

  4. No matter how much I love animals, I still struggle with my selfish desire to interact with them as if they were human babies… I feel your angst and I am glad you shared this experience …

What do you think?