Tiger Temple
 

Help the tigers

We have a selection of photographs for your enjoyment at
www.
buddhaphotos.co.uk

If you want to donate to help the tigers, see the
temple's website
at www.tigertemple. org/Eng/Donation.
htm
... or donate
online at
www.walking
withtigers.
org/walking.php

 

You know what life's like. One day, you have everything under control. The next, you have a tiger by the tail.

This was different. I had the tiger by the head. Or, more accurately, his head was in my lap and a monk was telling me: “That's right. Stroke him. Let him know you will not hurt him.”

This was not the usual stopover in Bangkok: it was altogether more fascinating and exciting – and available just a couple of hours west of the city.

The visit to the tiger rescue centre at a forest monastery was part of a few days that took in the dark tragedies of the past and the rich life of today along the River Kwai and the Death Railway route where 99,044 of the 254,711 servicemen and Asian labourers died.

June and I, en route to Australia, flew into the City of Angels and checked into the Grand China Princess, a friendly hubbub of a skyscraper hotel on the edge of Chinatown. It has a fabulous revolving restaurant – Japanese cuisine, good vegetarian selection – on the top floor. And a double room at £22 a night makes it a bargain.

Normally, we would use public transport in Thailand but we arrived in Bangkok tired from the previous few months and chose a luxury option … staying on a raft on the River Kwai with the service including a pick-up from the China Princess.

So, at 6am the next day, we were on the road to Kanchanaburi on Thailand's western border with Burma (aka Myanmar) … by midday, we were doing a quick round of the Bridge Over The River Kwai sites – the Don Rak war cemetery in the middle of town, the museum next to it and the bridge itself. For some people that would be long enough but for us it was just a recce for our planned return after a few days R&R on the raft.

By early afternoon we were on a longtail boat gliding up the River Kwai – stunningly beautiful in its moods from dawn mists to the deep hues of sunset - and into the mountains and jungles until we reached the River Kwai Jungle Rafts.

The rafts - with their cabins, open-air restaurant and even a small folk theatre - stretched into the arc of a river bend, the jungle tangle above them hiding a Mon settlement that staffs and runs the services available. The trailing flowers glowed, the welcoming smiles invited us on board and the sparkle of the river spoke a language of tranquillity.

We spent three nights and four days based there, fascinated by the mists and colours of the river, the riverbanks and the people – and, after so much planning, ending up at Tiger Temple, Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, famous worldwide for its rescue work ... “The monastery is not only for man, but for all animals who seek the peacefulness”.

This is where the monks take in tigers, some orphaned by hunters, some rescued from people abusing them. They calm the cats and, with kindness, get them to accept people. They hope that the new generation of tigers – offspring of the rescue tigers – can be trained for the wild to help stem the loss of the IndoChinese tiger population – but the rescue tigers will never be able to go back to the wild.

Pai, our Mon guide who had organised the transport, dropped us off at the monastery entrance with an arrangement for him to return for us later and we made our way into the grounds.

Although the land was given for the purpose of building a wat, and a Buddhist abbot and his temple donated millions of bahts towards the project, there is a high cost of feeding and caring for the tigers – plus hundreds of other animals that use the monastery's 275 acres as a welcome sanctuary. The monks have come up with an answer: they welcome visitors and the money raised, including 300 bahts (about £4) entrance fee, feeds the animals. Guess which nationalities top the list of visitors … Brits and Aussies.

We wandered through the grounds, found the temple and there met Phra Acharn Sam, a monk who helps with the temple and the tigers. He was having his last meal of the day with some novices and he pointed us in the right direction to meet the Abbot, Phra Acharn Phusit.

When the Abbot came, he was not alone. He had a fully-grown tiger walking by his side like a well-trained dog. A dozen tourists were waiting, too, so the meeting was not exactly what we had expected.

The Abbot slipped a chain on the tiger, left him lightly secured to a tree like you might leave your dog for five minutes outside the newsagents, and supervised the local village helpers letting out the four three-month-old cubs and getting ready most of the other tigers for their exercise.

While everything was being prepared, the cubs did their best to get into any kind of mischief they could …

As Abbot Phusam and others walked off with the tigers towards Tiger Canyon , he invited visitors to walk with him and his tiger one at a time. A helper took photos with visitors' cameras.

Fifteen minutes later, this strange procession arrived in Tiger Canyon and the tigers were given their favourite places to lounge in the sun; Abbot Phusam talked to them; the visitors waited, amazed at being close to the tigers and seeing the monks and helpers even closer.

Then came the surprise for almost everyone … if anyone wanted to get up close and personal with these eight grown tigers, they could for no more than a small donation to the fund for the tigers' food and a little kindness to the tigers.

And, one by one, we were introduced to the lounging tigers and the village helpers used our own cameras with considerable skill to capture these priceless encounters … incredible moments of contact with creatures whose image is one of a terrible hunter.

Unfortunately, it is the tiger that is being hunted to extinction and the stories of cruelty to tigers are awful. Their numbers are dropping throughout South East Asia despite their protected species status.

At Tiger Temple , the monks have been building a 12-acre moated island to house the cubs under training. It has a new block for the tigers when they are not roaming – and, over the top, a floor to accommodate visitors and academics studying them. The facility, after years of building, is due to open later this year.

We walked round it with Phra Acharn Sam, looking down on Tiger Canyon at one end and following it round to the point where the tigers live now. By the time we got there, Abbot Phusam had led the procession back … it was time to put the tigers in their night cages.

As the light faded, the other animals came for their nightly feed – hundreds of them, especially wild boars who have made it their sanctuary after the monks nursed an injured boar back to health.

Our new friend Pai had arrived in the canyon before we were ready to leave, and he was as thrilled to meet the tigers as we were … later it was dark, long after other visitors had left, before the three of us met one of the rafts' managers who had been despatched to collect us. It was too late to get back by river, so we joined his round of business collections and then went in the back way, down the mountain trail too steep for anything but a four-wheel-drive and a very strong nerve.

Next day came the next fascinating foray into local life and death. That stretch of border has always been a killing ground for Thais and Burmese – it is where they have fought over the centuries and, as they say, it is marked with the bones of their finest young people.

But the people of the area also honour the Second World War deaths of Allied soldiers, Asian labourers and even Japanese soldiers from the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

That day, we saw Hellfire Pass , where Allied prisoners worked around the clock to cut their way through solid rock for the railway pass. They did it by hand, chiselling and with compressor drills that one held and turned and the other hit with a hammer. The Japanese put dynamite in the drill holes and blew the rock apart.

That part of the railway started on April 25 1943, the day the bridge over the River Kwai was completed, and the next month the devastatingly brutal “Speedo” period, where prisoners and Asian labourers were forced to work harder and longer, began. By the middle of May, the first prisoners were dying of cholera … August, the rainy season with its diseases and difficulties, was the worst month for deaths but Hellfire Pass work went on until it was finished the following month. It got its name from the flames and glow of lights at night as men worked until they dropped. And for the cruelty that left 300 men dead.

June, Pai and I walked down the old track, each sleeper said to represent a life lost, as the peaceful mist lingered in the valley below and the sun struggled through the trees. As we looked ahead at the last bend, the disused Hellfire Pass stood timelessly in view … the same shapes we had seen in the sketches made when the prisoners hacked and blasted their way through.

In the rock sides, the marks of the chisels were still there … a broken compressor drill sticks out of the rock as it was left more than 60 years ago … the plaques remembering the medical heroes who saved lives as they could … and the crosses and poppies, the blood red symbols of remembrance from another continent and another war.

By the time we had seen it all, including the black marble memorial, groups of tourists were being brought in … Australians, Thais, Europeans and Americans, Japanese, dozens of nationalities, were making their awed way through the pass.

It was not until the next day that we went on the railway. The old railway was sold to the Thai government at the end of the war and closed because of fighting in border areas. Later, part of the route was closed forever by a huge reservoir.

But, in 1957, some of the route was reopened. We joined the train for 90 minutes on the way back to Kanchanaburi, leaning out of the doors for views of the train crossing the trestle bridge and to see the River Kwai far beneath.

The coach ride back to Bangkok was something we skipped. The ever-helpful and kindly river raft people dropped us off at the River Kwai Hotel and we booked in for a couple of nights … enough time to revisit and photograph the cemeteries and the bridge.

We spent much of a day at the Don Rak war cemetery, which has nearly 7,000 graves – a spacious parade of the dead, their headstones in neat lines radiating out from the cemetery's large cross. British, Australian, Dutch … some identified only as an Allied soldier … some as no more than a soldier of the Second World War.

They were there in moving simplicity: W J Pinckney, air gunner RAF, age 21, ‘He sleeps in a hero's grave, the son I loved so dear' … J Buurman, Dutch infantry soldier … R G Jeffrey, the Cambridge Regiment, age 22, ‘RIP until the dawn breaks and the shadows pass away' … An Allied soldier, ‘Known Unto God' … T W Rolls, 2/3 Australian Machine Gun Battalion, age 25, ‘Ever remembered' …

As Thai cemetery staff worked on, weeding and watering; the visitors never stopped coming in to see the graves, to read the inscriptions.

Next to the cemetery is an incredibly good museum: the story of the time, the stories of the men who lived through it, the stories of the men who did not survive.

A few miles away, the famous bridge still stands – or, at least, the concrete and steel bridge still stands, looking very much like the Second World War photographs despite the many times it was bombed and the six decades since. The first bridge, made of wood for use while the other bridge was being constructed, has long gone.

On our second visit to the bridge, we arrived at dawn … a quiet time before the city came to life and we explored the structure and the surrounding area, photographing, remembering.

It is a working railway, a working bridge, but in Thai style anyone can use it as a footpath despite gaps under foot and the risk of falls into the broad river below. As we walked it, others started going about their days – Thais using it to get from their homes to their work, an elderly serene man who just walked it, hands behind his back and going nowhere except the bridge.

The whole area is open, the riverbanks as well as the railway line, shrines alongside girls selling River Kwai books and a restaurant looking along the river and up at the steel of the bridge.

Pictures of prisoners bartering for food and others starving when the worst of the times gripped them can be seen in another museum, sprawling along the riverbank and full of fascinating exhibits ranging from a Japanese wartime train – made in England – to propaganda posters and weapons.

And just down the road, quiet but well-cared-for, is the Japanese cemetery. The memories were there – the Japanese lost one in 13 of their men - but the visitors, apart from us, seemed to stay away.

 

Trip details

Tiger Temple
Although it is only an hour from Kanchanaburi, it would be easier to buy a place on a tour, though they appeared to give you less time there. You need to be there no later than 12.30pm and you can stay until between 5pm and 6pm to see the other animals come for their food. Tiger Temple 's own website is at www.tigertemple.org and it is worth looking also at www.walkingwithtigers.org for different information, including how to volunteer to help at Tiger Temple .

 

River Kwai River Rafts
You could spoil yourself with this … see http://www.riverkwaifloatel.com/

or email Ms Wanaporn at info@riverkwaifloatel.com . If you want to spend less, you can get a travel agent or a boat in Kanchanaburi and try some of the other raft operations on the Kwai (prices will probably vary widely).

River Kwai Hotel
Very comfortable upmarket hotel in the centre of town. Prices around £15 a night for a double room include an excellent buffet breakfast. It has a good Chinese restaurant. Very slow website at www.riverkwai.co.th (email rkhotel@hotmail.com ) … or Google the name for pictures and prices at the time you want to go. We just walked in off the street.

If you want to be nearer the bridge or to spend less, there are lots of smaller places in a more tourist-based area near the river. Some looked good. There are more restaurants to western tastes in that area and other facilities like travel agents and internet cafes. Check your guide book.

 

Tigers in South East Asia
You can read our IndoChinese tigers briefing at www.laos.co.uk/Tigers.html and it is worth following the ‘Phet' link for a case study of the tensions between conservation and poverty.

 

Transport

If you do not want to book into the river rafts and take its transport, your hotel will be able to arrange transport from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi … but a cheaper, and probably more interesting alternative is to get a bus from the southern bus terminal to Kanchanaburi (air-con buses take two hours, ordinary take three, slight fare difference but this is a very cheap way to travel). The River Kwai Hotel is within walking distance of the Kanchanaburi terminal but it is worth getting a taxi if you have heavy bags; if you want to stay in the tourist area, you need a taxi to get there. You can get around Kanchanaburi by taxi, sawngthaew, minibus and walking and it is easy to get a trip out to Tiger Temple and Hellfire Pass. On the way back from Kanchanaburi, if you are going straight to the airport, tell the bus crew - they'll let you off at a taxi point nearest to the airport (rather than go into Bangkok again).

 
 
'Stroke him. Let him know you will not
hurt him'
 
 
 
TOP
Laos.co.uk front
Buddhaphotos.co.uk
Vegn.info front
Tigers & temple
New home for tigers
Tiger section front page
Tiger Temple website
Walking with Tigers
Tigers in SE Asia
'Our amazing week at Tiger Temple'
Laos front
Vegn front
Buddhaphotos
 
Search & Rescue

Web laos.co.uk
vegn.info buddhaphotos