Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tiger's Tale

I booked the trip to the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple at the same place on Soi 11. The ladies were nice, they picked me up on time, the guides were wonderful, and it was easy. Later, I was glad I did because some other friends tried to go direct with a Bangkok taxi, and they never made it there. The taxi driver got lost. We left Bangkok at about 7am and ended up in a caravan with several other vans. We all had booked different tours, and the guides kept switching us from van to van, depending on where we were going.  I was amazed at how smoothly it all went, and I don’t think they lost anyone.
Our first stop was the cemetery honoring Dutch, Thai, and English soldiers who died in the Japanese POW camps by the river. I read some of the plaques, and watched some of the older men relive the moments for a bit. I was glad it was a short stop.

Next, we drove to the museum of the actual camp. It was a strange museum filled with photographs and mementoes of war.  I had not really planned to go in, but it was so interesting I ended up taking pictures of the soldiers, very young guys, hanging out in the camp. Even though I wasn’t even born, it was strangely nostalgic because of all the old movies I’d watched as a kid. My dad was a big World War II movie fan, along with John Wayne westerns; and I had probably seen scenes from these pictures as a child. There was also a very unusual letter from Hitler to the Japanese command. Again, I almost refused to read it, but the idea of actually reading something written by that bastard was too intriguing. The strangest thing was it was a letter like many other letters written by pompous men regarding the rules for other men, rule that usually those same men exempt themselves from following. I then took a walk to through the tourist trap town, walked over the railroad crossing, looked at some jewelry in the many gold shops, and waited for the next stop.

We were about one and half hours outside of Bangkok, and the countryside of Thailand was so much like some parts of Hawaii. I was reminded of how many times I had driven over the Pali on Kauai to Hanalei and felt like I was back in Southeast Asia, and it was not my imagining. Driving through Thailand was like being home, with Palm trees, papayas, mangos and lush greenery by the river. We drove on a dusty road down to a train station right out of the old English Empire days, out in the middle of nowhere. The train pulled up and we all got on an old train with wood seats and open air windows. It was a bit like the little tour train we have in Lahaina. My niece will laugh when I tell her the Thai train was very similar, but a lot more interesting! We had a good ride on the train, and I spent the time checking out my fellow passengers. We were going on an ancient track over very high mountain passes and very rickety rails. I thought these might be the people I spend my last days with. The old white guy with his gnarled hand resting on the knee of his very pretty, young Thai companion. The German couple; a fat loud little man and his old wife who was dressed like an Amsterdam whore in very short shorts and a tight top stretched over her layers of white fat. The interesting family with the adorable little boy with his Thai mother and his young white father. I tried to figure out the family dynamics. Was that his mother, with her pursed, disapproving lips who seemed to have no interest in amusing the baby boy?

The highlight of the trip, of course, was the actual bridge over the river that was built by prisoners in the harshest imaginable circumstances. My friend later reminded me of the actual tune they whistled in the movie, and I can hear it as I’m writing this. After the train ride ended, we drove through more bush and bramble to a restaurant on a boat for lunch. We walked down a long ramp to the boat on the river, took off our shoes, were served rice, fish, and vegetables; and ate on the barge out in the river watching river boats cruise by slowly and water taxis speed by with Thai men guide them with wooden tillers. It was an idyllic scene, and although it was a bit awkward being on my own with all these other strangers and couples, I managed to enjoy myself.

After all this, I was getting pretty tired and we still had a bit of a drive to the Tiger Temple, which was my main focus for this trip. I was a bit apprehensive because I had read some reviews online, and some negative stuff about how the tigers were drugged, and the monks and handlers abused them. To be really honest; I don’t know enough about how tigers in this situation should be handled to know what is abuse, and I didn’t have much qualms about them being drugged while I was around having my picture taken with them. I also had a very good friend who really wanted me to see live tigers on this trip, and I was determined to do this for him. 

We pulled into a very large dusty parking lot with many vans and several buildings, and then walked down a very long road into the monk’s compound. I was already very tired, and wished I had come here first, but I was able to push my energy up because it was a very unique experience. This was not an amusement park or a zoo. It was very primitive, and not like anywhere I’d been before. We walked to down the road to a kind of grotto surrounded my small hills. There were European and Thai handlers controlling entrance to the place where about 20-25 tigers lay in the dirt. A very abrupt English girl was telling everyone the rules; while this very silly English lady tried to go around the line and straight into the grotto. She was stopped and led back into line. I had a nice chat with one of the handlers about negative stuff on the internet. She tried to convince me that the tigers were not drugged, “they are just well fed, and don’t need to be aggressive in this setting.” I wasn’t buying that, but was fine with them not being aggressive while I was there. I was led by the hand to each tiger, and assured told where to sit and where I could pet the animal. I used my own judgment and basically kept my distance. I don’t care what they are given or what these handlers (who are mostly young kids) say; these are wild animals and will never be predictable. I posed with the tigers while another handler took pictures. It was very organized and there were probably 30-40 tourists all taking pictures at the same time in that grotto.The funniest thing was watching that same English lady with her red face posing in her safari hat while ignoring the handler and putting her face right up to the tiger to stroke the tiger’s head as if she was trying to enact some genetic fantasy of being a big game hunter in the wilds of Africa.

I walked up a steep hill to where the baby tigers were supposed to be, but they were being fed and were not available. Then I continued down the dirt road to a wood platform where a tiger was being held by a monk, and two very young handlers were placing people for pictures. I stood waiting patiently while many people had their pictures taken and walked away. I was standing there deciding if I wanted another picture when suddenly the tiger stood up and strained on the lease. I could tell the monk was surprised, and the tiger was growling and straining toward the road. The handlers were trying to figure out what was upsetting the tiger, when they saw a family from India with their very small children heading over on the road. The tiger was very agitated, and the handlers finally yelled over to the family to walk quietly away around the building with the children. They ignored the young people and kept walking toward us while I could see the monk was having a hard time holding the tiger. Finally the monk yelled to them, “the tiger wants to eat the children…take them away.” Finally the father looked as if he understood, and shooed his family away. The tiger was pacing on the platform, while I stood watching this like a scene in a movie. Finally, the young boy said that I could come have my picture taken and that the tiger was fine. They were both encouraging me to come have my picture taken; that the tiger was fine. “I don’t think so.” I looked at the monk who tightly held the leash on the tiger who had finally laid back down stretched out on the platform, probably dreaming of a snack on a child or two.  “I have to follow my heart.” I patted my hand to my heart and the monk laughed, nodding his head. 

The next enclosure was a narrow path through a maze with one very angry monk and a bunch of tourists squeezed together in front of a very large tiger, who kept getting up to move away from the crowd. Another French lady was following the tiger, reaching out to stroke his back and even patting his head. She completely dominated the event, and it was evident other tourists were getting irritated that they couldn’t take pictures themselves. I was at ease because I didn’t really care to have any more photo opportunities with these animals. It was amazing to watch this young girl following this tiger with no regard for her own safety, as if the tiger was a cartoon. The monk was getting angrier and angrier, but for some reason he did not know how to control the situation. She finally lay down on the ground with the tiger, and then this other silly lady did the same thing and pushed her away. I finally left them to their mad enactments, and walked until I found the temple. I walked through a herd of water buffaloes that were a bit intimidating, especially the large bull who snorted at me; but once I walked up the steps to the temple and saw the monks scrubbing the temple floor, I felt a peace. I sat there in this wild place in the middle of Thailand with two monks scrubbing the tile of the temple and the breeze blowing through the open pillars remembering to breath and “be here now”, and after about ten minutes it seemed as if the monks knew I was there and blessed me.

I got up and walked back down the road past the other enclosures to the exit, where I had a few minutes when I thought my bus had left. A guide found me and led me back to another bus back to Bangkok. On the way out of the park I saw a young biker with a jacket tagged from Thailand. I wanted to take a picture for my friend on the Big Island, but we were leaving and I was a bit shy. I’ve never met an unfriendly biker myself, but I’d had a long day and was really tired so I didn’t feel up to any new encounters. The coolest thing was, he had two small boys with him, and they all three got on this Harley and drove out of the park. I haven’t checked my pictures yet to see if I got the shot, but it will make a great poster if I did.

On the way back to Bangkok we stopped at a waterfall. It was a really Hawaiian scene, with Thai families spread out over the riverside on blankets surrounded by containers of food. There were children running around in and out of the water. It was a lovely, laughing riverside scene, and was so much like home. We walked up to a large rock waterfall which you could climb up to take pictures. It was very slippery and I was very tired, so I took pictures from the bridge. It really did remind me of home, and the good old times I’d had with my husband and friends at the waterfalls by Camp Maluhia in the West Maui mountains, the falls above Camp Keanae near Hana, and all the grottos and pools Kent and I went to in Hana and on Kauai. I got very nostalgic and a bit tearful. It’s funny how you can be all the way around the world and come to a place that seems just like home. 

We ended our very long tour arriving back at the hotel safe and sound at about 8pm.

No comments:

Post a Comment