Breakfast at the hotel was lovely and fresh fruit based. And if you think fruit in the UK is even remotely “fresh”, you’re sorely mistaken. Pineapple, watermelon, papaya… lovely.
The hotel hired us a “taxi” to get to the Tiger Temple. It’s not a short drive – about 40 minutes – and we ended up in benches in the back of a open-backed truck. Cool! The last 1.5km is along dusty dirt tracks and I’ll be walking those laden with two rucksacks next week. No taxis for me then!
The driver waved us to the entrance – it seemed he was waiting for us to go in and come back out – so we signed the little waivers and bought our tickets. Essentially saying that if the tigers (or any other animal) decided to take a nibble, it was our own problem. Well, what can you do? I signed Lou’s name on mine, but don’t tell her.
A guide took us through a serious looking wheeled metal gate and into a compound. It was very “oriental” – all jungle and trees overgrowing aging concrete structures. We passed deer (which didn’t flinch), cows, horses, boar, chickens… all as tame as if they’d been hand-reared which most have.
We’d arrived just in time. The tigers were being led out one at a time for the short alk from their cages to the canyon area. The eldest tiger was lying on the ground sunning himself as each of the others was walked (on a leach) past him. The youngsters (about 6-7 months old) went first, followed by the older ones.
Finally, as he was being walked down by the monk in charge, the head carer set out the rules. Walk up, give your camera to the volunteer, when told walk up behind the tiger and place a hand on his back while the volunteer takes your pictures. Do not touch the monk. Well, I wasn’t there to fondle Buddhists, no matter how nice the guy was. I joined the queue.
Before people could start stroking the oversized moggy, he paused and started sniffing leaves on a tree. He rubbed them with his face and started to walk forward, tail upright.
“He going to spray! Move! Move!” said the monk.
“Whuh?” said most of the tourists.
“That way,” said I to Louise. Who despite me shoving her only narrowly escaped a jet of cat scent. No little spurts or sprays for something the size of a tiger, oh, no. Jet I said, and jet I meant. I’d say a good half pint. And it minged.
As people started to move forward to have their pictures taken, our furry friend decided to regale us with a demonstration of how much tigers can poo as well. For those interested, it’s quite a lot. It’s also yellow and runny, but that could be the cooked chicken and dry catfood diet.
Ablutions overwith, he started to pad off again and Lou had her photos taken. I’m not polite or anything, she just pushed in front of me. Gratitude for you. Then my turn. Wow. You can fel the muscles under the skin as it walks, though the hair’s really coarse – I’d say more like an alsatian than a domestic short-haired moggy.
We were walked down to a canyon area where the other tigers were either stretched out sunning themselves or playing in a pool at the far end. The youngsters were all in the water, well away from the tourists. I’d guess they’re a little less predictable so it makes sense.
Once the tigers had started to snooze, people were taken in a handful at a time to sit with the animals. Hand held by a volunteer, camera held by another, we were walked around and sat with one hand on these beautiful creatures as photos were taken. As time went on, some people went back for more photos (“Please – people! Come again and again and again!” said the smiling monk – I like this guy) and others gave their cameras to other volunteers who took some great shots of the younger tigers from close up.
Gradually, the crowd thinned until there were maybe a dozen people left. One of the volunteers sat cross legged behind the oldest tiger and the monk just hoiked its head up and plonked it in her lap.
Then they started letting other people go in.
As ever, Lou managed to wangle her way in ahead of me. I think I was actually the last one to manage it before the tigers started to become too “unsnoozy”. It’s indescribeable. To be sat, cross-legged, unable to escape or defend yourself, while a creature that can tear you apart lies there, literally purring, with its heavy head in your lap. And your stroking it.
Bizarrely, one of the few emotions I didn’t feel – at all, all day – was fear. At no point did I think “what the hell are you doing heading towards them?!” I know they’re animals. I know they can turn. People’s pet dogs do it all the time, but with much less horrendous results than a 20 stone cat is capable of. Yet, somehow, this just didn’t seem to be even the remotest possibility with these beasts.
I had time for a quick word with one of the senior staff to confirm my appearance the following week. I will be allowed two meals a day, not just one, as I’m there to volunteer with the animals, not to meditate. This is a good thing. I was also told to bring snacks, which is preferable to being one. However, I will be sleeping on a very thin mat in the temple so I was told to bring a sleeping bag or similar. Easier said than done as mine’s wrapped up in my parents’ cellar.
Amy, bless her, bought me a sleeping bag “liner” before I left. Essentially a very thin blankie and intended for when the sheets where I’m staying really don’t look like something I’d want to lie on. It wraps up nice and small and I think will come in handy for that week. Thank you, Amy!
With a last gawp, we headed for our waiting “taxi” and headed back to the hotel. We had just enough time for lunch (well, almost – the Thais certainly don’t specialise in “fast” food by any definition) before our driver turned up to take us back to Bangkok. Well, to take me back. Lou was heading from there down to Hua Hin again.
When we got back to Bangkok, a minor problem. Sharon had taken the house/gate keys (“You won’t need them – the maid will be in”) and the maid was out. Nacho called her and she zoomed over by speedy scooter from her dinner to open up for us. Things were tidied up, washing sorted and goodbyes said – I won’t see Lou again until I reach New Zealand in… erm… a few months. Or thereabouts.
I headed for the hostel I’d booked into. Well, kind of. I booked in for April by mistake, but they let me in anyway (phew) and I got talking to two of the people in my dorm: Sanjana from Cambridge and Nick from Hawaii (formerly San Diego).
Nick had just spent a couple of weeks in Cambodia and not made it to Laos and Vietnam as he’d intended. He liked Cambodia too much! Sanjana was just in from Vietnam for a few days before heading home herself. I picked up a fair bit of information about two of my future destinations from these two – thank you both!
Sanjana was heading off for the ruins/boat trip tour we had done a couple of weeks earlier the next day. We all arranged to meet the next evening for dinner at the Bull’s Head and attempted to sleep on mattresses that I feel will set me up well for the temple next week.