by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
“Let’s go visit the tigers.” I said, right after watching a show on television about a Buddhist Monk who adopted tiger babies and raised them. The felines spent their days playing around in a grotto open to visitors.
“Where is it and are you sure you want to see more tigers?” my husband Ted said.
We were living in Bangkok and had already visited a park where they raised tiger babies with pigs and dogs. “Yes I do. And we can sign up to bathe an elephant in the river at the same place.”
“Just where is this place?” He asked.
“Kanchanaburi. It’s the place where the Bridge over the River Kwai took place.” I answered, getting my travel book out.
“The movie?” he asked.
“No, where the Japanese made the prisoners build the bridge,” I answered.
The idea of visiting tigers running free and washing an elephant in the river appealed to him and it was settled.
We boarded a bus in Bangkok and went to the western edge of Thailand. Traveling in Asia is like stepping onto another planet. Even the trees look different with drooping limbs or strange flowers. Fruits are exotic and to me, weird. Buildings with pagoda roofs, gold covered carvings and hardwood dot the landscape. The people seem just as alien to me. They are all small, petite and polite. Every greeting is an honor when they put their hands together in a prayer-like way and bow their heads to you. Both men and women tend to dress alike with long legged swim trunks, tee-shirts and flip-flops.
Arriving, we checked into our motel and dropped off our bags. Standing outside reception, we waited for our ride to the tour. Soon, the small Toyota truck arrived and we climbed into the back to sit on the wooden seats along the sides. The canvas roof kept the sun from beating down on our heads.
We first traveled to see the remains of the real bridge, built by imported prisoners of war and local conscripted workers with a tremendous loss of lives when the Japanese held southern Asia. The bridge was destroyed by the
Allied army after it was used for two years between the large Japanese army in Burma and Thailand.
From there we drove to the elephant show. Some of our group took the elephant ride while we went with our mahout to wash the elephant in the river.
Sitting on an elephant’s neck is not easy, but I held onto its ear as we headed down into the warm water. The mahout handed me a can of soap to sprinkle on the head, then a common cleaning brush to use. On command, the elephant dunked his head and of course, me to rinse the soap off. His trunk full of water finished the job.
On to the tiger temple. Ted was wearing a printed shirt with red and blue flowers. At the gate, the gentleman warned Ted about red. Sometimes the tigers react to that color and they couldn’t take responsibility if it happened. We decided that it must be an urban myth and took our chances.
We walked through the gate and along a dirt road, passing large cages on our right and a large number of grazing animals on the left. Among the cows, water buffalo and goats, Asian chickens scratched for insects. Ducks roamed around, peacocks displayed, and it looked like a typical farmyard.
The temple had six adult tigers and several young cubs about the same age. During the day, they play in a natural rock bounded canyon, where they’re watched by four or five monks. They chase each other and romp around, until nap time. Tourists sit on wooden benches at the entrance to the canyon and when the tigers calm down, they are taken around, one by one, to pet them. One monk is in charge of taking pictures, the sale helps the temple with food costs.
We chose to go with the last group of tourists because, at four o’clock in the afternoon, monks round up the animals to return to their cages for the night. We waited while they led the visitors to pet the resting animals on the head. When it was my turn, I eagerly followed to stand before a majestic beast, far larger in life than they look on a television screen. I was amazed by the size of his feet and head. Without thinking, I scratched the cat under his chin. The little Monk leading me looked in horror as I deviated away from the customary protocol. I heard Ted yell “Smile!” and heard the click of the cameras. After Ted was led around, we sat and watched more play until it was time to round them up.
The tigers didn’t want to go and the monks brought out large spools, the kind that had at one time, held miles of electric lines. They had placed bells inside the spools so, when rolled, they made a loud noise. A few of the tigers followed some of the monks, the rest wanted to continue playing. One lone, young monk was charged with bringing up the last big tiger. He ran around trying to head off the beast, who led him a merry chase around the canyon. Finally he got the tiger to bound up the hill and join the parade of animals to the night time cages.
There we were; a crowd of tigers, tourists, monks, cows, deer, water buffalo, goats, ducks and various other birds, all heading toward the large cages. We watched as the cats filed into each of them and the door was locked. Our excursion was over. All we had left were pictures of our unbelievable day and memories of a magic visit.