Third time tigers

Today would be my third visit to the Tiger Temple after one touristy excursion and then a week working there in 2006. And things have changed. A lot.

Again, there may be repetition in this post compared to the earlier ones, but I will try to highlight the differences. First of all, a few points to note about anyone visiting – get there early. Virtually every trip from Kanchanaburi runs from 2pm to 4pm. If you do this, you will miss out on a lot. Get up there for 11am if you can. This may mean hiring your own transport or getting the public bus up, but it is worth it.

The public bus runs frequently from the main bus station and costs pennies, but drops you on the main road – a couple of kilometres walk away. Making your own way by moped is certainly an option if you have access to one. Cycling is a long way so bear in mind the distance and the heat.

The most common way is to get a converted flatbed with seats in the back and fill it. Drivers usually charge for the trip, not per passenger so the more you get (maybe a capacity of 10) the cheaper it is. These are the vehicles used for the organised tours.

After breakfast, we met Sam himself – the owner of the Rafthouse and two other places in the area. He’s Thai, fluent in English, and an incredibly nice and helpful chap. And a qualified pilot. With his own airfield out near the Tiger Temple. Cool. He called the taxi driver we’d used yesterday  and he gave us a good price for a return trip to the Temple. A few minutes later he was sat outside waiting for us and we hopped in with all our luggage.

The trip up was fun, watching the usual sights. The first thing I noticed that was different was the road running from the main “highway” to the Temple itself. Two years ago it was unpaved dusty gravel. Now it’s tarmac, with walls in some spots as well. Money is definitely being spent. At the Temple itself, parking is more organised, a couple more buildings are in place and the price had risen to 300 Baht for entry. You still have to sign a “these are tigers and might rip my throat out and I realise I can’t sue monks” declaration before entering.

Entering the Temple itself, the pathway up to the cages has changed a little. What used to be the female accommodation for volunteer staff now seems to be administration offices. To the left is the start of (I guess) the “wild” area where future tigers will play without human interaction. This wasn’t there last time I was here. Neither were the larger cages for the cubs with play areas. Or the waterfall. Or half of the tigers, come to it – they’ve had quite a few births since I was here in 2006.

One of the things you’ll miss if you go up late is being introduced to the smallest of the cubs. Leah got to cuddle one of these little beasts while I took photos. The largertigers were introduced and the tourists taken down in small groups to the Tiger Canyon area. The opportunity was given to “walk with the tigers” and have photos taken with your hand on the tiger’s back as it is led down by one of the monks.

More changes were visible at the Tiger Canyon. Guests are spoken to more frequently, there’s more organisation and more rules. Basically it seems more “touristy”, but this also means more organised. The tiger “teeth” on sale for 30 Baht last time are now 100 Baht and you can buy belts as well. Also, to have a photo with a tiger’s head in your lap is now 1000 Baht. Previously, this was done on spec – you got one if you wated long enough and were lucky. Still, there was a huge queue for these photos – the only ones where you can get more than one person in a picture. The other photos are still free, so don’t worry if you can’t afford to fork out £15. Water is still ice cold and free!

Fancy doing what I did for a morning? Mucking out, feeding the cubs and having breakfast with the monks? 4000 Thai Baht to you, guv’nor.

So, yes, it’s more regimented. It’s more of a “tourist attraction” than it was. But costs rise and there is definitely money being spent on the place. I can only assume that someone upstairs has started to look seriously at the money situation and these decisions have been based on getting the work done that has been the aim of the project since the start.

Oh, and no – they’re not drugged. As ever, I heard this… crap being whispered by various tourists. Here’s hoping this makes it onto Google: The tigers at the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, are not – and I repeat in big letters with italics NOT drugged, doped up, tripping or otherwise maltreated in any way. The only drugs they get are for medicinal purposes (vitamin supplements, antibiotics) aas and when required.

Yes, they look dozy when you visit. They’re used to people. They’ve just been fed. It’s the hottest time of the day when tigers, by their very nature, will sleep. Watch one of them being walked down to the canyon when it’s not in a good mood. Or how fast the staff move when one of them rolls over and could – just could – be about to “play” with a tourist.

They. Are. Not. Drugged.

Soapbox now goes away.

Our driver dropped us off at the bus station in good time to jump on one of the aircon buses for Bangkok. We had one transfer partway along the route where I panicked when I didn’t see my luggage being shifted between buses – all was fine, though, and we got to Bangkok South bus terminal in good time. There’s a new shopping mall at the terminal that we walked through (and had doughnuts in). The information staff were very helpful indeed, giving us various options for getting into the city.

We chickened out and opted for the taxi. Bus is cheap but would have taken ages.

In the evening we popped back to the cinema (so cheap!) and watched the surprisingly good Hancock. Will Smith does it again. I had my fears with the stories of reshoots weeks before it was released, but this is a great bit of cinema. No classic, but good fun.

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Back to Bangkok – a bit early

Things started to crumble organisationally-wise so I’ve headed back to Bangkok to try and sort them. I’ll get to them further down (along with further plans), but in the meantime, the last couple of days…

On Monday night we jumped on board one of the tourist buses after the work day finished and headed for Kanchanaburi. There we ended up in a backpacker’s joint called the Jolly Frog and had nice food and much beer. 85Baht for a steak can’t be complained about. The beer was Chaing and came in “towers” – a huge plastic structure that looks a bit like a blender but filled with beer, sloshing around a central core of ice to keep it chilled. It arrives with a handful of half-pint mugs and a free cap or t-shirt. 240Baht for 3 litres of get-drunk-juice. Nice.

We went through a few.

7-11 was visited and somewhat naughty snackfoods stocked up on. We felt like kids in a boarding school breaking the rules, but what the hey. Several days of nothing but cow pat guy gets to everyone after a while.

On Tuesday I finally managed to get bitten by a tiger. OK, it barely scratched me, but it drew blood (not enough to drip but it took enough layers off for blood to show). And it did so with its teeth. So I was bitten by a tiger and have a mild skin abrasion to show for it. Leo has a big hole in his jeans were another of the cubs took a nibble down near his shin.

I also got some fantastic photos of the cubs lost in the upper reaches of the canyon. One of the staff is mental – moreso than most – and teased them into following him up a steep incline. Two of them then did the stereotypical cat thing and realised they could no longer get down. While I was taking pictures, I kept hearing cries of “watch out!” and looking back down the slope to see a cub bounding at me before pouncing on my ankle and gnawing it through my jeans.

Now I know why they insisted on long trousers for working with the tigers. Especially useful as this happened three times.

I can’t thank the staff there enough for allowing me to spend what little time I did. Sure, a couple of hundred people a day walk through and touch the tigers, but only a handful a year get to wash them, feed them and share breakfast with the monks. It was very much an honour and a memory I will never lose.

Now to change the subject and on to my current problems…

First up, the Post Office managed to lose the only copy of the Power of Attorney my mother needs to sign to be able to handle the house sale (and other things) in my absence. The only way to replace it is to have me sign another copy… For which I need an address for the solicitor to send it to. The closest I have is Joy and Nacho in Bangkok, so it looks like I’ll be here until that piece of mail appears.

Secondly, 5 days after booking I was informed that the hotel I was staying at in Chaing Mai is fully booked and there were no alternatives. This from an agency that’s meant to get back to me within 48 hours with my booking status. I tried another which (after returning to Bangkok) I was told was also full, though at least that reply was well within half a day. I have, however, booked into the alternative offered to that one subject to my card being accepted. The downside is it doesn’t seem as nice a place as my original and it’s almost twice the price (but still very reasonable). Given that it’s Songkran next week, the hotels are busy so I guess it was expected. Essentially, Songkran is Thai new year, and it lasts 3 days – 13th to 15th of April. The 15th is when everyone heads home to celebrate and Bangkok empties! That’ll make for a fun time here when my flight lands as I’m heading to Bangkok on the Saturday.

Thirdly, Lou’s having problems with her New Zealand work permit. It was meant to be sorted ages ago, but the agency have lost her paperwork twice. They’ve now been faxed it for the third time by one of her colleagues back in Blighty but she’s been warned that registration can take up to four months… so she may have to go home to work. Whether this would mean ending her trip altogether, or flying back out I don’t know.

Fourthly, Student Loans have done their sums wrong and reckon I have to start paying them back each month. This is nigh on impossible to sort out from here as they will not communicate by email, only by phone or letter. How convenient. For them.

*sigh*

So, I’m back at Big John’s on Thonglor Soi 9 using the free wireless broadband and sorting things a lot quicker than I could at the temple. I’m also getting a little head cold and the lack of sleep wasn’t helping.

I’m enjoying Thailand quite a bit and I’m getting tempted to use up my whole 2 months’ visa allowance. Kho Samui is tempting as is Phuket, which has a small island called Koh Ping-Gan off its shore. Most will recognise it as the lair of Scaramanga – the Man With The Golden Gun from the Bond film of the same name.

Effectively, I have a month to play with (my visa expires on May 13th) so we shall see. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to having to organise another Vietnamese visa anyway. Time to start pricing up hostels and flights!

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Still taming tigers

I don’t think I’ll be posting too many updates this week. Internet time is at a premium (one PC for 8 volunteers), and each day’s fairly routine anyway.

I slept a little better last night, but it’s still soul-destroying when you wake to look at your watch and find it’s not even midnight yet.

We start at 7am, washing out the cubs’ cages and washing them down as well. They get all shampooed and stuff to make sure they’re clean and healthy. One has a tooth infection and gets some pills. Unlike a domestic cat, these beasts will actually eat them if they’re rammed into a chicken!

Then we set off for the temple for breakfast. Before entering the temple, the tigers have to have their feet washed in a “moat”. If you think it’s hard getting your moggy into a travel basket, you should try this… the smallest one is larger than any alsatian I’ve ever seen!

The cubs are tied up to posts around the edges of the temple floor in pairs (there are four of them) so they can stretch their legs and play while the monks bless the food and we all eat. It’s quite a routine, with the abbot and then the other monks each taking their share, then the remainder served up for the staff.

Each day, a family attends – I think by invitation – and they bring food with them too. This morning, they brought quite a variety including probably the most delicious mango I have ever tasted.

After this, we walk the tigers back to their cages and have free time till midday. I usually spend this having a wash, rinsing my clothes out and applying far too little suncream. Then, I pad down to the welcome area and chill out with a book and check my email.

At midday, the cubs are walked down to the canyon area, and they’re followed an hour or so later by the adults. We walk down with the visitors, taking their photos. The next 3-4 hours are spent herding tourists round the canyon, much as we were the previous week.

Most tourists are great. They get a real buzz, just as I did. There’s always a handful who seem to think the rules don’t apply to them and they’ll argue until they’re blue in the face, seeming to think they’re some kind of exception. Actually, yesterday everyone was great except two groups – one of 3 people, one of 2. Both were Greek. I hope this is a coincidence.

When the sun’s starting to get lower and the temeratures ease off slightly (around 4pm), we walk the remaining tourists and tigers back up and go for a wash before dinner. This (yay) is cow pat guy every night. Last night we got 2 helpings, which I needed as I’d missed lunch. Then one of the staff drove into town with one of the volunteers clinging to him and brought back oranges and biscuits!

Tonight I have a new housemate – Zack. He was here a couple of weeks ago and is just back from Chang Mai. As it happens, he grew up with Courtney, one of the other volunteers.

I’ll likely post again towards the end of the week unless something spectacular happens, like I get eaten or something.

Back to the Tiger Temple

Early start. 6:30am and as usual when I know I have to wake at an unusual time, I couldn’t sleep. The first thing I noticed on waking was that I’d pinched someone else’s pillow. Well, there was nobody in the bed next to me when I crashed late on the previous night, so I helped myself to the “spare” as one’s just not enough. Whoops.

A quick shower, and a glance at my email to find a wonderful letter from the Student Loan Service who’ve decided that against all mathematical proof that I am earning above the threshold limit and that I have to start paying them back. They only accept queries by phone and fax so I’m a bit stuffed. My mother’s going to have to call them and try and square it. Or I close my bank account and let them try and find me. My plan’s to pay it off when I sell the house anyway.

I digress.

Hailing a taxi wasn’t exactly difficult, the driver all fine with “Thon Buri – railway” until I had all my bags in the car – and then it was “Where you go?”

Oh dear.

I confess to falling into the bad tourist habit of just saying the same words he didn’t understand slower. Finally he called someone up.”No railway Thon Buri. Where you go?”

“Kanchanaburi.”

He looked puzzled. Then I remembered that the train station had been renamed some years ago. “Bangkok Noi?”

“Ah! Yes!”

Phew.

“Train – 7:45”, I showed him my schedule.

He laughed. Bad sign.

“Bangkok Noi? 8:00. Traffic.”

Argh.

“We try! Highway?”

This meant a higher fare as some sections of the express route are toll roads and the customer pays these if you’re in a taxi. On the other hand, it was my only chance and only about 40Baht in tolls anyway.

“Highway OK!”

The signs warned we were in an 80 limit. I glanced down. 125. Eek. Overtaking, undertaking, flashing cars out of the way. My watch said 7:38 as we crossed a bridge signposted Bangkok Noi. The next sign read “Railway Police 2”. Must be in the right area then.

Then it all ground to a halt. There’s a market right next to the station and traffic was clogged. Fortunately, I think the police on patrol give right of way to taxis when there’s a train waiting.

7:43 – “Bangkok Noi! Railway!”

I paid up, vitually doubling the fare with a tip and dived into the station.

“Kanchanaburi?”

“Yes – 100Baht, please.”

Half the taxi fare. Ticket in hand, I bounded onto the wooden-seated train.

And sat in the station for 15 minutes until it left.

Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts the Thais may have got from the Americans, but their rail network is historically British.

The train to Kanchanaburi is third class. Wooden seats and aircon consisting of ceiling mounted fans. The seats must be the type your parents always tell you they had at school. As for suspension… I only hope I can read these notes when I type them up! The “drinks trolley” is a young lady with a bucket of ice stuffed with canned drinks. Don’t even think of asking if they have wireless networking or anything.

As with anything else in Thailand, the health and safety would cause one of the red tape brigade back home to have an embolism. I think the basic rule is “if there’s possible danger and you ignore the blindingly obvious then get hurt as a result, it’s you’re own stupid fault.” The joys of a society where the first though when you trip up (or fall out of the open door of a moving train) isn’t one of who to sue first.

Dogs and people can be seen walking along the sleepers on the eastbound track as we pass, some scant feet from our train. “Crossings” consist of some wood or concrete laid around the tracks, some only wide enough for a bike to pass over. As for the stations, the quickest route to the right platform is to walk over the rails. Who needs bridges?

Also, you don’t want to do anything “sit down”-ey on a 3rd class train’s loo. It’s a solid lump of cast metal that, I assume, leads directly to a hole in the bottom of the train. There’s no water in the bottom of the bowl and I didn’t see a flush, though there was one of those ever-present hoses that the Thais seem to use in lieu of toilet brushes.

Eventally, I arrived in Kanchanaburi. Only I didn’t realise I had. There were no signs, and we just parked in between two other trains. I only guessed as more people got off here than anywhere else.

Very briefly, I was aboard the Orient Express. To reach the platform, we had to climb through the train that was nearest – and that was it! It’s quite small, really.

On the other side, one guy tried to charge me 600Baht one way to the temple. I politely refused and said I wanted to catch the bus. Another Thai with a cycle with large back seat then said he’d take me. Very helpful fellow, too.

As we turned left out of the station, I recognised where I was. I tapped him on the shoulder. “War Cemetery? Can we stop?”

We pulled in and he had a break as I took some photos of Dale’s grandad’s grave. Sorry. Dale – I couldn’t get flowers. I’ve actually not seen a flower shop since I got here. I will try before I head back to Bangkok and see what I can do.

Next stop, a bustling bus station. The driver dropped me right at the bus door and took 200Baht (plus 50Baht tip) off me. The bus staff were also friendly and helpful, getting my bags on for me. They also tapped me on the shoulder when I reached the required stop. And all for 25Baht. On the downside, they had a stereo system in the buss to rival any chav’s back home. *thump thump thump*

A 2km dust trail awaited me. I applied sun cream. I strapped on both backpacks and popped my camera over my shoulder. I walked 200 yards and a passing family in an open-backed pickup gave me a lift the rest of the way. Thank you, Denmark!

On arrival, I got a free lunch (which is good as I’d not eaten all day) and got taken straigh up to the Tiger Canyon to work. Taking photos of the tourists, and spending quite some time by the water taking the photos I couldn’t last week. I got some doozies, but enough about them later.

After their “playtime”, I walked one of the younger tigers back to her cage. On a leash. By myself. The rest of the animals were fed and we headed to the office for our own food. There’s a good bunch here – one Aussie, a Kiwi, two Cannucks, a Hollander, a Slovak and three Brits. Dinner finally arrived around 7pm (cow pat guy!) by which time it was pitch dark.

Torches were provided and we made our way through the jungle to our digs. Tonight I am on my own in “male house number 2”. I have 2 candles (one’s almost gone), a mat on a concrete floor, a blanket (the other’s being used as a pillow along with 2 t-shirts) and at least 4 flying things that made it in before I bolted the door.

I also have the laptop on which I’m typing and some battery left. However I do not have any of the photographs I took today. The memory card I bought last week fell over before I could copy them to my laptop. I plugged it in, it listed the files, I asked it to copy, it said it could find no files. All gone.

I am gutted.

Dale, I will definitely get back to the cemetery – it’s right by the station. I suppose I will get more tiger ones – I have a week, after all. Still, it’s annoying to say the least.

Wel, it’s 9pm and I can’t tell if the noises I can hear are inside or outside of this shack. One candle, as I mentioned is about dead. I’m going to read for a bit and try to sleep. I think it’ll take me a week to get used to this. If I last a week. In honesty, I think I may struggle with the accomodation. But I’ll try. I think one of the other lads is moving into this “house” with me tomorrow. Company may help, other than the 6-legged with wings variety.

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Kanchanaburi – Tiger Temple

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.

Woah.

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.

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