Markets and Bridges and Tigers, Oh My!

Trip Start Sep 21, 2008
Trip End Jun 19, 2009

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I had hosted many Global Freeloaders at my home in Chicago, and their travel stories always opened up new thoughts about places I might want to travel.  One couple - Kevin and Sian told me an intriguing story about visiting a tiger temple in Thailand where they got to pet and feed tigers.  I always vowed to go visit it if I did an around the world trip.  I found out that the tiger temple was conveniently located just a few hours from Bangkok, and we could visit it on a day trip that also included a trip to the floating markets and the Bridge over River Kwai.  Sold!
Our trip started at 7am, but being on Thai time, the packed minivan arrived to pick us up at 7:30.  We had about an hour drive to our first stop - the Dumnoen Saduak Floating Market.  We jumped on a James Bond longboat that took us up a wide canal to a drop off point on the edge of the floating market.  On the way we saw women rowing their boats full of fruit and vegetables on the way to the market, and boats filled with tourists on their way to the same.  We got our first fleeting glimpse of the market as well, but our big boat wouldn't fit on the narrow canals, so we made our way around to a drop off point just at the edge of the market.
We had almost two hours to explore the markets, and we enjoyed every minute of it.  It could best be described as organized chaos as tourist boats intermixed with local boats filled with fruit and vegetables and souvenirs.  As they floated by each other, the local boats did their best to promote their wares.  Transactions happened, goods changed hands, and both floated on their merry way again.  Other boats were parked along the side of the market and sold as people passed by on the sidewalk.  Some sold food - pad thai made to order, fried bananas, dried fish - you name it! 
We bought some fried bananas and marveled at the clever handoff system they had devised.  Bag the bananas, put them in a basket on a stick and pass the stick across the boat to the waiting hands on the sidewalk.  The customer dropped the money in the basket and back it came to the waiting hands of the vendor!  We wandered and watched and took photo after photo, entranced by the life, the colors and the textures of the market.
For a while, we just sat at the intersection of two canals and watched.  For the locals, it was a social function.  Women sat in clusters in their little boats and chatted and joked, unconcerned whether they sold a thing.  Others promoted their wares hard, determined to convince you that their bananas were better than any other banana boat!  Our time at the market ended way too soon.  We could have sat there for hours watching and taking photos of the vibrant floating market culture.
We headed out of the markets for a half hour drive to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai.  I know more about the River Kwai than I care to after many losing battles for the TV remote with my brother-in-law, Bob.  Usually he won (it was his house after all), so we ended up watching his favorite war movie "Bridge Over River Kwai."  So this leg of the journey is dedicated to you, Bob!
We arrived in Kanchanaburi, which was bustling with tourists - many of them old timers or World War II buffs coming to reminisce at the River Kwai.  We were dropped off at the entrance and had an hour to explore the museum, the river, and the new River Kwai bridge a quick walk beyond the museum.  The museum was filled with artifacts from the war, and displays of cement men enacting scenes.  (We found a little humor in the anatomical correctness of the scantily clothed statues.).  I had forgotten a lot of the story of the Bridge, which was built and rebuilt by the Japanese using prisoners of war - this museum had a local slant and focused on the Thai and Burmese prisoners.  They were treated badly, and many died or starved to death while the bridge was being built.  The ones that survived were thinned out even further when the allied troupes flew over and bombed the bridge to destroy the Japanese supply line.  The museum also contained a walkway that was adjacent to all that was left of the original wooden bridge.  It was nothing more than a few pylons and railroad ties rotting away.  We walked out on the walkway and saw the new bridge just a little ways away.  It was filled with tourists and a bright yellow tourist train that took visitors to the other side.
Running out of time on our short visit, we quickly headed over to the new bridge and walked along about a third of it.  As I looked down to the rushing waters below and the open trestles that could easily fit a human between them, I was amazed that we didn't see someone fall in the water while we were there!  We also watched the train as it took the short journey across the bridge, slowing for tourists to clear the tracks as it went.
Our last activity for the visit to River Kwai was to try to find a memento for Bob.  We walked through the stalls and found lots of overpriced books and ugly t-shirts and decided a postcard would have to do!
The River Kwai was done, and it was on to the Tiger Temple.  It was about an hour drive to the temple, and as we headed that direction my heart sank as the rains began.  All I could think of was we came all this way to see the tigers and it would be closed because of rain.  Fortunately, the rains let up as we arrived and the monks are in a quest for the all mighty tourist dollar, so the temple was open and happily accepting tourists when we arrived!
The tiger temple, Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno, was created in 1994 by a famous meditation guru.  Since it opened, it gained a reputation as a wildelife sanctuary - an effort that started when an injured jungle bird was given to the monk, then a wild boar appeared in the monastery and was cared for by the monks before being released back in the wild.  The first tiger cub arrived in February 1999 - the brochure describes a young female cub in poor condition after she was injected with formaldehyde to be stuffed for a wealth Bangkok resident and somehow survived.  After that, more tigers started to arrive - many of them cubs whose mother was a victim of poaching. 
We paid our 500 baht each (not included in the tour, and by the way the most expensive sight we visited in all of Thailand), and started our trek back to Tiger Canyon.  We were a little dismayed when we payed our entry fee to learn that we only had about an hour to enjoy the tigers before the park closed, and we had missed the baby tiger feeding.  But at least we were there!
It was about a 10 minute walk to tiger canyon, and there were all kinds of animals roaming the enclosure - cows, horses, deer, peacocks, chickens.  We arrived in the canyon to what could best be described as a circus sideshow.  There were two long lines of people waiting their turn.  Then, flanked by 2 or 3 tiger handlers each, they were walked from chained tiger to chained tiger to have their picture taken with them.  One handler held the tourist's arm and guided him/her to the proper position by the tiger while another handler took the picture.  Each tiger also had a handler (or four) at its side to watch for bad behavior (from the tiger not the tourist).  Ocassionally you would hear a yell and see handlers scurry to stop a playful tiger from batting the legs of the tourists or worse yet get a tourist leg in their mouth!  The tigers ranged in age from a few months to quite old, and each tourist got photos across the age range, and a group photo with three tigers chained to a rock.  It certainly wasn't the peaceful place that Kevin and Sian experienced some 5 years ago - times and dollars change things I guess!
We stood in the line and watched time tick by.  I was thinking to myself, "we might never get to see the tigers before the park closes."  So we decided to step out of our budget-minded-backpacker mode and make a special donation to the monks - 1,000 Baht - to get special treatment and a photo with a tiger lying on us!  At first we were told we couldn't because the tiger used for that particular photo was awake.  But a few minutes later we were sent to the tiger - our three guides in tow - for our special photo.  We had decided ahead of time that I would hold the tigers head, so we arrived behind the tiger and I was instructed how to carefully maneuver into a seated position, then seconds later PLOP -- down came the tiger's head dropping heavily into my lap.  I smiled for a few photos, then Paul dropped in behind the tiger as well, then it was all done.  We were ushered back out of the enclosure, and I was thinking, "What a rip off", but then they informed us that we each got to go back in separately for individual photos with the other tigers - and we didn't have to wait in line.  Okay, so it wasn't so bad after all!
Despite all the guidelines and restrictions it was a fun experience getting photos taken with the tigers.  I laughed at Paul as he had his photos taken, often from a bit of a distance and sometimes hesitant to touch the tigers.  (He later informed me that he touched all of them except the one that was laying belly up and the nearest thing he could have pet was his testicles).  I on the other hand did as much petting as possible with each tiger, but missed the opportunity to pet the baby tiger because he was a bit too playful.  When it was all done, we got to choose some special souvenirs from a treasure box to remember our experience and thank us for the special donation.
We stayed and watched and took photos as other people interacted with the tigers until they announced that they were feeding the baby tigers in another area of the compound.  That was all I needed to hear and we quickly walked where they directed us to go.  We arrived to see two unruly baby tigers - about 2-3 months old.  The handlers told us we could photograph them, but they were too unruly to pet or feed.  However, after a few minutes the handlers grabbed their leashes and took them on a walk to another area with a crowd of tourists following closely behind. 
They were taken to a walkway directly above a tiger enclosure where three other young tigers were lying, and one of the babies jumped up and peered over the walk and called to the other tigers (they were siblings).  At that point we were able to pet and get close to the baby tiger, then the two were tied together and we all sat and watched for at least 20 minutes as they played and pounced on each other just a few feet away.
As we watched, we were shut into the walkway as a monk walked the big tigers from the canyon to their enclosure with a big cluster of tourists following behind.  We couldn't be in two places at once, but it would have been great to get photos of that!  Then the baby tigers were walked back toward their enclosure and stopped near a tree where the monk came to see them, and eventually to bottle-feed them.  There was a new photo opportunity with the baby tiger and people formed a random line to get the photo.  We were in line, but the milk was gone and the tiger got playful again, so that opportunity ended soon after it began and the baby tigers were lead back to their enclosure.
The last activity at the Tiger Temple was feeding time for the other animals.  A big truck rolled out and dropped off a load of burlap bags filled with turnips (or something like them).  Out of nowhere from every direction cows and buffalo and deer and horses and chickens and peacocks appeared and started eating.  There were a lot of mouths to feed!
And that ended our day at the tiger temple as they announced it was closing and we took the walk back to our van.  We learned on the way back that you can go there for a week for meditation and to learn to care for the tigers, for a price of course!  We jumped in the van for the 2.5 hour trip back to Bangkok.  It was a good day in Kanchanaburi!
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