11th October, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
There's nothing like getting close to nature, so close, in fact, that it could quite easily bite your arm off or give you a playful slap on the face that you'll remember for the rest of your years on earth. So far during the SE Asia part of our year-long trip, our biggest worry was being bitten by something so small you can't see it until it's made patterns all over your back from a feeding frenzy (hello Mr dengue fever- and malaria-carrying Mosquito!), but today we had to be careful of much bigger bites, namely those from tigers.
We visited the 'Tiger Temple' as it is known in an area north of Kanchanaburi called Saiyok. Normally, we would read the Lonely Planet and base our decisions on that book's recommendations. That's how we usually choose our accommodation and get an idea of what trips are available, but this was a place that the book recommended against going to. Why so? Well, some silly reason about the potential for getting mauled by one of the tigers - as another tourist had been in the past - because the tigers aren't behind cages. Spoil-sports, eh?!
The story goes that a monk took in a couple of tiger cubs who had narrowly escaped being killed and subsequently stuffed and continued to look after them. This happened again, and before long they had 8 tigers at the monastery as people heard about the monks looking after them. It's very common for people to hand disowned pets to the monks, knowing that they would be looked after. We've seen this in all the temples we'd visited so far with so many dogs wandering around; strangely, though, there were no dogs at this site. Must be something to do with the over-sized versions of the dog's favourite adversary, the cat. A chihuahu would make a good appetizer for these big cats, while a Jack Russell would just about do for dinner.
Despite the Lonely Planet's warning, I never felt in any immediate danger here. The cats had chains attached to their collars, and there weren't just a couple of little frail old monks trying to keep them under control! There was a team of people who were very good at directing people where to walk, where to pose for the cameras (and they took the photos with our cameras, too, just to ensure that nobody stepped back to frame it just right and on to another tiger's tail!) and who generally appeared to be looking out for anything untoward. Perhaps it was not always this way? Even so, as we posed for our photos, I stroked the tiger in front of me and paid special attention to any sudden movements in the hind quarters.
At no point did anyone ever walk in front of a tiger, other than the 'handlers', and even if they had I think that the tigers are so used to having people around that they wouldn't feel the urge to leap up and tear off a random limb. But then again, Siegfried and Roy probably thought that Monticore, the Bengal Tiger, was quite happy performing on stage in Las Vegas until he bored of being a performer one evening, and instead decided to chomp on Roy's over-tanned neck, dragging him off stage.
The Tiger Temple isn't just doing this for kicks. Things just turned out that way when people kept bringing them more tigers to look after, and so now they are trying to get a bit more organised. They have big plans to develop the area so that the tigers can roam more freely, and visitors will no longer be able to interact so closely. These tigers won't go back in to the wild, though. This is the whole problem, they are tigers who have been kept as pets or worked in a circus or whatever, basically not being treated as tigers, and therefore pretty useless at doing what should come naturally to them in the wild. They had a couple of cubs there who were just 2 months old. I don't think I've ever seen cubs this small at any zoo, but even being as small as they were - about the size of a normal adult domestic cat - they had already develped a good set of lungs on them. These animals sure could make some noise, and watching them pace around inside their cage it was easy to see that these were no domestic animals - they definitely had an edge to them.
In the evening, Manda and I decided to try out a Korean barbecue at the restaurant opposite our hotel. We had seen people eating the barbecue meal before and it looked quite interesting. In the middle of the table was a large round hole, like an ice bucket holder, only ice would not last long here at all - into this hole they placed a bucket containing glowing coals, and on top of that a sort of sombrero shaped lid. Around the outside - the brim, if you like - went the water which was also brought to the table in a kettle, and this would be used for boiling noodles and other vegetables; the middle section, which had a series of slits revealing the red hot glow beneath, was used for cooking meat. Perhaps an image would help here:
The idea is that you help yourself to the ingredients from the buffet and take it back to your table, then just keep adding more stuff to the cooker as you want it. Pretty soon we discovered that when you are cooking the food, anything on your plate gets left, going partially cold, while you concentrate on making sure the next round comes out OK and is not overdone. Far from being a fun way of dining, it actually became a real hassle! I found I was getting stressed out having to constantly watch the food and try to eat at the same time. Eventually, we got to a stage where we had run out of ingredients in our raw dish from the buffet, and had taken off the last lot of cooked food to eat. As I ate what was on my plate, I could see the centre section of the cooker getting blacker as what remained burnt fast to the surface. It obviously needed something else to cook. Gimme a break, I wanna eat now!
A waiter came over and saw that, unlike the table behind us, we hadn't quite mastered the art of simultaneously eating and creating an intricate construction of food for the next round. We had, however, mastered the art of making our cooking surface so black that it would take days to soak and clean off (either that or the kitchen staff would use it as a frisbee, or even a sombrero, now there's an idea). The waiter swapped our lid for a clean one then, having transferred our food to the new cooker, grabbed a piece of meat from the buffet. He then motioned dabbing the lid with this meat, to grease up the surface. Hang on a minute ... this wasn't meat. This wasn't what we assumed was squid or something, it was pure fat. And there we had been cooking a couple of pieces earlier, hoping that cooking it might reveal its flavour and therefore origin (it didn't, and Manda quickly spat out the tasteless mass). After that, we managed to cook our food pretty well and didn't ruin a second set of kitchenware for the restaurant. I dunno, silly foreigners, eh?