Size matters. Especially if it involves an uncaged tiger’s head, within touching distance, ready to swivel in your direction without warning. I’m in the Tiger Canyon, my senses so heightened by the milieu and the moment that the world beyond its parameters is an inconsequential haze.
Certain things register. My Thai escort’s extreme caution, for one, as she orchestrates my tryst with the carnivores. Another is her grip on my wrist. Positioning me behind her chosen cat, she silently indicates the precise spot on its body deemed safe for me to stroke, then pulls back to record the moment on camera. Within seconds, her fingers have handcuffed me again. I’m inches from the felines without us ever coming face to face. A tête-à-tête here would acquire a whole new dimension. Neither the number of tigers nor the eerie, rough-textured feel of their coats overwhelms me as much as the idea of a pulse throbbing beneath those bold and beautiful stripes, of a fanged roar poised on a hairline trigger.
It’s not a scenario I’ve psyched myself up for. The images playing in my head have involved vignettes from a television documentary featuring monks playing with full-grown felines and shots of toddlers hugging the carnivores as though they were purring tabbies called Matilda, Cleo, Tom or Sylvester. Such fairytale folly is inevitable when an utterly compelling story accompanies the location: the tiger sanctuary at the Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yanasampanno, a remote forest monastery northwest of Bangkok.
Run by Theravada Buddhist monks in Kanchanaburi Province’s Saiyok District near Thailand’s border with Myanmar, the ‘Tiger Temple’ began when its abbot consented to adopt an ailing female tiger cub brought to him by local villagers. Phra Acharn Phusit Chan Khantitharo thus set a trend, eventually turning the monastery into a refuge for distressed cubs. Domesticated from infancy, the cats were unfit to be released into the wild. Given their rising population and the cost of their upkeep, the temple authorities had little choice but to throw the grounds open to the public in 2000.
With that move and some global publicity, an obscure little corner of a foreign field was dramatically transformed into one of Thailand’s premier tourist attractions. By November 2008, the entrance fee had soared to 500 baht, approximately Rs 700. Judging by the number of visitors a day, peaking to almost 900 in season, cost, apparently, was no deterrent if the thrills offered — including the opportunity of being photographed cuddling a grown tiger for an additional fee of 1,000 baht — were spectacular enough. Concerns about personal safety were put to rest by the abbot’s alleged reassurance that the cats, raised in the monastery’s peaceful environs, were used to human company.
As I arrive at the sanctuary, the thrill of anticipation overrides fear — even after staff at the ticket counter nonchalantly have me sign a piece of paper to absolve the temple authorities of all liability in the eventuality of a ‘mishap’.
Up the dusty trail flanked by wooded areas where bison graze, peacocks call and wild boar and deer seek refuge from the midday heat lies my imagined Garden of Eden: the Tiger Canyon where the carnivores play.
Reality, though, is a roped-off area encircled by a wall of sheer rock, with a tentative waterfall whispering into a pool at the far end. Up close, the tigers’ famous recreational ground seems stripped of mystique. Until a sight makes me freeze: a magnificent gold and black striped coat. I count more than half a dozen as their owners laze around in attitudes suggestive of postprandial somnolence. Ears twitch. One uninhibited yawn chases another. The feline stars of Kanchanaburi’s world-famous temple-sanctuary are ‘on’. Where Beauty is the Beast, the moment is pure magic.
From the local handlers in bright yellow tees hovering protectively around the cats, my gaze wanders to a bespectacled figure seated by a rock within the enclosure. With a shock, I recognise the shepherd minding his unusual flock: the monastery’s media-savvy abbot who refers to the animals as “...my son, my daughter, my father...”
His devotion to them is understandable. Diagnosed with leukaemia three decades back, the monk had reportedly been given just two more years to live. Today, he looks robust, enjoying what he believes is a divine reprieve for chalking up merit through his work with the tigers. His benevolent smile betrays no hint of the burdens he bears. The target of wildlife activists and some of the temple’s former volunteers, he stands accused of several misdeeds, including illegal trafficking in tigers with a dealer in Laos and sanctioning various forms of ill treatment to keep the animals in line for their daily show. Unaware of these allegations at the time of my visit, I have nothing but admiration for the monastery’s ambitious project-in-progress — the Tiger Island, a 12-acre moat — encircled reserve under construction that promises to allow the cats to roam free and is meant to serve as a holding area for newborn cubs. The increasing need for funds — and tiger shows — seems self-explanatory.
Besides, my immediate priority at the sanctuary is to get past the stern-looking young volunteer standing sentinel at the canyon’s entrance. “One at a time,” the redhead warns, flicking me a glance as the queue of tourists moves ahead. Matter-of-factly, she proceeds to strip me of my hat, scarf, sunshades, waist pouch and camera, making it clear that she knows her wards well enough to heed their particular aversions, however cute may be the names they answer to: not Matilda, Cleo, Tom or Sylvester certainly, but Herfa, Techo, Weiha and Payu, among others, chosen for that afternoon’s show from a total of 34. Then I’m in.
Back in the real world, I discover how short my tryst with the tigers has actually been. And the felines’ working day isn’t over yet. Even as I join other tourists on the benches outside, a young brunette is being ushered into the enclosure by her assigned handler. A privileged visitor, apparently, entitled as much to some exclusive shots with the tigers for the additional fee as to the abbot’s active participation in the drama.
Snatches of the waiver I had signed at the ticket counter suddenly flit through my mind, eerily echoed by the message on a sign posted outside the enclosure: “...must exercise caution... carelessness may result in personal injury... I agree not to hold the temple responsible....”
I swat the memory away, missing the first Kodak moment. With the escort standing by, camera ready to capture the second one, the monk helps the woman position herself before cajoling the designated tiger into placing its huge head in her lap. The visitor giggles nervously. The tiger yawns. The shutter clicks. The show must go on.
The Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yanasampannois monastery is about 200km northwest of Bangkok.