Kanchanaburi Revisited – The Tiger Temple

Tiger Canyon

A web search on Kanchanaburi’s Tiger Temple will bring about lots of information about the tigers and temple but also discussion about whether the captive tigers are heavily sedated, or to put it more bluntly, whether the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi drugs its magnificent animals.

Tony the Tiger may have been into his early morning Kellogg’s Frostie’s but according to reports on the internet the cats I was going to see were more into Bob Hope and Bob Marley. Despite those ripe rumours I put my best foot carefully forward and with  a yellow and black striped bong in my pocket took a tour of the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi Province.

SongthaewWonderful Wi and myself booked a tour to the Tiger Temple at Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno (Tiger Temple) which is about 30 kilometres outside of Kanchanaburi town. The cost was 120 baht each for transportation and a further 500 baht entrance fee on arrival for foreigners and 300 baht for Thai nationals, both of which included a decent brochure which gave a good background history of the wildlife sanctuary.

The previous three days of our stay in Kanchanaburi had seen weather which followed a familiar pattern. During the day hot sunshine beat down and at night the heavens opened and rain lashed the near empty streets. Our morning had been the same as the first three with the sun burning bright but minutes before our afternoon pick up the skies darkened and rainfall looked imminent.

At just after 2pm a songthaew (example pictured above right) pulled up. The side rain flaps were raised and sat inside were two young European ladies with jackets on that said they had viewed the afternoon weather report. We were both clad in t-shirt and shorts. For thirty kilometres the two of us got absolutely drenched.

The Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi

BuffaloWat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno is a wildlife sanctuary and started out when an injured jungle wildfowl was given to the temple’s monks by local villagers. Soon after wild boar and deers were moved in. Horses, buffalo, cows and goats followed and today these species can all be seen roaming freely around the sanctuary grounds.

In 1999 an abandoned tiger cub found near the Thai-Burmese border was given to the monastery but the cub was in very poor health and soon after died. Weeks later two healthy male cubs were donated to the grounds having been retrieved from border poachers who had shot the young cubs mother and the Tiger Temple was born. Over the coming months border police handed over two more male tiger cubs followed by four female cubs and years later the fully grown tigers started to reproduce little ones of their own.

Tiger Canyon

We arrived and were greeted by the sight of about 150 – 200 people, mainly falang, waiting for the gates to open and enter the sanctuary. We walked about 1000 metres to the Tiger Canyon where the tigers are taken for their afternoon exercise and photo shoot. Exercise could be termed a loose word as the tigers were all on a two metre chain fixed to the ground but the camera flashbulbs probably helped them work up a sweat. They all looked lively enough to me, not drugged just a bit snoozy.

Volunteers and Thai workers

The Tiger Temple has many falang volunteers working there and they were very prominent in the push to relieve the tourists of their holiday baht. Our entrance fee allowed us into the cordoned off area where the tigers were ‘exercising’ and you could have your photo taken by one of the Thai workers, albeit with your own camera.

Photo shoot tigerA couple of the volunteers stood outside the ropes and in very good English let everyone know that group photographs of between two and five people could be taken for a charge of 1000 baht. A large queue soon grew but at that inflated price I wasn’t going to step in it.

The photo shoot ended suddenly when one of the English-speaking volunteers declared there would be no more pictures taken as the tigers had to be walked back through the canyon to their resting area. Perhaps the proteins, vitamins and iron from the tigers morning red meat brunch were starting to wear off. Like a flock of sheep (bad word with tigers about) we all sheepishly trudged off on the half kilometre trek to our next port of call. The Three Tiger Falls.

My real disappointment with the Tiger Temple was the free brochure presented on entry. The content was excellent and very well written. It was without doubt the best informative brochure I had ever come across in Thailand but it had certain content that smacked of commercialism and profit.

Two of the eight pages from the brochure were dedicated to asking for donations or subscriptions to a monthly magazine and added to the extortionate price for a group photo I thought it was all a bit too much. The temple and its wildlife sanctuary are a very worthy cause but the evidence that I saw pointed to the entrance fee making enough money to call for a more structured and less ‘in your face’ commercial campaign. Enough said, because overall my verdict on the tigers so far was that there was no sign of heavy sedation or any drugs involved at all.

Three Tiger Falls

Three Tiger Falls

The Tiger Falls was a man-made quarried pit which was home to three tigers housed in a more natural living habitat. What struck me about the Three Tiger Falls was the giant cats spent the whole time sleeping and were the least active beasts we saw all afternoon. They were enclosed with no public access and this led me to think that the drug rumours surrounding the sanctuary were very much a myth. The Tiger Temple brochure explains more.

Why are the tigers so calm? Are they drugged?

All of our tigers have been hand raised and imprinted to humans and therefore have no fear of people. The ‘fierce’ behaviour often associated with captive tigers is caused by placing wild animals in stressful conditions of the captive environment. Our tigers have been regularly handled from a very early age and thus become desensitized to being touched by people. This is why they are able to sleep while people sit next to them for photos.

After the Three Tiger Falls a short walk took us to another tiger photo shoot but this time it was played out in a very relaxed and commercial free way. Buddhist monks led out some of the younger tigers (not cubs) and excited tourists posed for pictures with the magnificent beasts, and plenty including myself took up the ‘chance’. The best part of the afternoon for me was seeing one of the monks bottle feed milk to a very alert and appreciative tiger.

This was where our two-hour tour finished and I felt a little more time would have been better value. On our five-minute walk to the exit gate we passed the Meditation Training Centre where the forest monastery offers accommodation for those wishing to learn meditation techniques. The Tiger Temple offers something for everyone.

Having dried out from our earlier drenching Wilai and myself boarded the songthaew for our return trip to Kanchanaburi. I left with the feeling that the afternoon had been an exciting experience but one I probably wouldn’t want to see again. Perhaps a case of ‘not bitten but twice shy’.

Within five minutes of hitting the Kanchanaburi highway the skies opened once again and at our dropping point next to the Bridge Over the River Kwai we squelched our way onto one of the river raft restaurants. Minutes later we glanced up to see a train start its journey over the bridge and take its passengers on a journey along the Death Railway. That made me realize realise our soaking skin was no discomfort at all. The sad and historic Death Railway is a route I had previously taken and one I will not forget.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

15 Responses

  1. Talen says:

    Great post Martyn. I’ve wanted to visit the tiger sanctuary but just haven’t gotten around to it yet. The tigers are absolutely beautiful and the photos are as well.

    I guess one of the things keeping me from going to see the tigers is the likelihood of too many tourists. At least it’s not like million years stone park where there are absolutely no tourists and the animals are over drugged into deep sleep.
    .-= Talen´s last blog ..Tien Market in Bangkok =-.

  2. Catherine says:

    Martyn, 250+ visitors at one go? That’s a lot. Our group was small. Maybe 50.

    When I was there the tigers were drugged. Some even had to have their heads held up for photos because they could not support their own necks (I have photos). Then after the photo shoot (with their eyes glassed over and half closed), their heads flopped down again.

    Comparing my two American Shorthairs with tigers… there is no way they would allow a stranger to pose all over them for photos. I chuckle at the thought 😀

    But they didn’t drug the baby tigers on my visit. The little ones were the highlight of my trip. They were so very sweet and playful.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Thai 101 Learners Series: A Few Facts about Farang =-.

  3. Mike says:

    Martyn very informative and a little thought provocing. As you know I am very much a wildlife fan so I have mixed feelings about the Tiger temple.

    If indeed the animals were orphaned cubs surely a better less commercial activity would be a captive breeding and release programme?

    That said wild tigers are always threatened by the idiots who want to kill them for their bones etc but I know they still exist on the Thai/Burma border.

    Personally I fancy the tigers do receive some “medication” however thats just speculation on my part.

    Would I visit the temple? Not sure about that although the photo opportunities are a draw. Since outside of a zoo I have only seen one tiger.

    It happened on holiday in India, I came face to face with a huge male tiger on a trail in a reserve I was visiting, very placid but I didn’t get out of the jeep to see if he was a man eater! In fact I was so excited I dropped the camera lens I was trying to change and he headed off into the bamboo! Hence no pictures.
    .-= Mike´s last blog ..Football Hooligans inThailand =-.

  4. Hoo Don says:

    Talen I have been to Million Years Stone Park a couple of times and the tiger there that is available for the photo shoot was in another world. The tigers here were quite active and I sensed the heavy Thai workers presence was a bit of a safety thing.

    Catherine you’ve got me thinking and I may edit the post. Perhaps 150 visitors would be nearer the mark, definitely 100 plus and certainly way over the 50 odd on your visit. At times the photo shoot area was very busy and my photos were taken at less crowded opportunities. The tigers on my visit were up on their feet at times and moving around, stretching the chain links to the limit. Those numbers are bothering me now, I think I will edit.

  5. Hoo Don says:

    Mike such a shame about the tiger in India. As far as medication goes then whilst writing the post I had to decide which angle to go for, get off the fence if you like. There was definitely no heavy sedation involved on the day of my visit but my photos do all show them lying down but they were fairly active most of the time. I understand about you being unsure about whether your visit would be morally right but by not going you aren’t going to stop the show and by going the money from you will at least be put to good use. A tough decision.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I’ve just knocked 100 off my estimate. Re ediditing…..I’m not sure if that is naughty or nice…..why didn’t I count each and every one, get names. I really am inexperienced at this blogging lark. I was stone cold sober as well. Ouch.

  7. Catherine says:

    Martyn, edits are understandable. I was not doubting how many people were there on your visit. The place I was at would have been really crowded with that number, so I was just wondering if I was there on a good day.

    Thinking about it… I don’t believe the tigers were chained up when I was there, they were all free to droop around.

    But a lot of complaints have been put forward since then, so maybe the temple has changed?

    On the subject of tigers and their nature… I’ve had tiger experiences before. Once, when I was younger (teens), I chanced a tiger photo op.

    I missed a tiger show, but found the tiger there on its own.

    The tiger trainer was in tears when he came back to find me sitting on a stump next to the chained tiger (the trainer was short-handed so had been taking the other back to it cage).

    I have that photo somewhere… and you can see the trainer’s hand in the corner of the photo… right before he wisked me off and away.

    He was in tears because it would have been his job if I was mauled.

    And I really do feel that no matter how long a tiger has been around people, they are not tame animals.

    Just look at Bengals. They are a blend between the common house cat and the wild Asian Leopard cat. And if they have too much of the wild leopard, they are useless as a pet.

    I went to see a Bengal litter in Bangkok and the female left from a litter of six was indeed too wild for me. Spitting, hissing, wild behaviour (and this, to her brother).

    But I have not given up on Bengals as they are the closest I’ll get to having a wild cat in my house!
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Thai 101 Learners Series: A Few Facts about Farang =-.

  8. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine thanks for taking the time to return and comment again. When I wrote this post and it got round to naming numbers I quickly visualised the scene and guessed but when I read your original comment I thought about it a little more and realised I was a touch off the mark. About 150 would now seem about right, definitely 100 plus.

    Back to the tigers. I have seen doped tigers before in Thailand at Nong Nooch and in Pattaya’s Million Years Stone Park and boy you could tell they had been to a rock concert or two. These didn’t appear in any way similar although……the two European ladies that joined us on the tour both had their photos taken at the Tiger Canyon and swore the cats were as drugged to hell but Wilai and myself didn’t see it that way. The later photo shoot reaffirmed our views especially when the monk bottle fed the tiger as it appeared wide awake as hell. Hand on my heart though I wouldn’t put any money on either way. One of the English bar owners in Kanchanaburi reckoned that a few of the falang volunteers occasionally visited his place and they all swore that the tigers weren’t doped. The truth is out there somewhere….

    A Bengal cat that hisses and spits….not my kind of pet. Perhaps it’s all in your name ‘Cat’ that gives you the urge to have a wild cat in your house. Me…maybe it’s the city boy in me but fast animals and reptiles have a tendency to scare me and Wilai is exactly the same. Best wishes from a UK that is starting to get colder by the day.

  9. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I’m not sure if you come back to old posts, but I just wanted to say that I went back to the Tiger Temple to get another sample. The photos are going up on my photo blog… and the post will be coming soon.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..Learn Thai with Psycho-Cybernetics =-.

  10. Hoo Don says:

    I do try and answer each comment time permitting of which I have very little at the moment, I’m currently head down and working all the hours whilst trying to write a post and keep up with reading my favourite blogs. I will definitely drop by your photo blog when you post, might help if you give me a nudge.

  11. Catherine says:

    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..A Thai Learning Thai =-.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine it took me a while to understand the nudge (working nights makes me like that) but I eventually got there. Thanks for the link.

  13. Would I visit the temple? Not sure about that although the photo opportunities are a draw. Since outside of a zoo I have only seen one tiger.

  14. Cable Problem says:

    Wow these tigers are so tame, it’s amazing. I think that we tend to have a very negative idea of tigers as vicious animals, but as this article shows, that isn’t necessarily true. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  15. Alaska Rainbow Lodge says:

    I’m not sure if that is an experience I would enjoy. It wouldn’t surprise me if these tigers are or have been sedated at some point. They’re tigers! I’m kind of with Mike in my feelings on the subject. I recognize that the tigers may not have a great environment waiting for them outside of the sanctuary walls, but I wish that their home and living situation was far less commercial. That is not how tigers were meant to live.

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