Don’t you find cats a wee bit creepy? Wherever I go, cats who live their nine lives lounging about under the sun genuinely don’t seem to care. Not when you stare at them (they stare right back at you), or when you take pictures of them (they stare even more), or even when signs of danger come their way. They lithely pick themselves up from their natural states of languor and gracefully walk away. Sometimes they even look back at you, tapered eyes as if saying “Yes?”.
There was this one place we heard of though, that’s uniquely inhabited by huge cats (one of the biggest in their species in fact) together with Buddhist monks. Apparently they allow people- tourists really- to visit. To see these cats. To go near these cats. To pet these cats. We actually started our little Temple Run because we wanted to see this place for ourselves.
They say the tigers inside Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua or Tiger Temple have grown and lived with monks all their lives, that they are as languid and peaceful as their smaller counterparts out on the streets or those domesticated as pets at home.
We were trying to sniff the tigers out, or at least hear guttural moans we associate with these big cats as soon as we entered Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua. The air was severely still and humid, though. Smells only came from dungs of deers or wild boars, walking freely among us. The noises only came from young monks sweeping the dirt roads with brooms made of twigs or rams butting horns with each other nearby. Following an open terrain of dusty lime stone and trees though, we finally got to a small lime stone valley which housed some 30 tigers inside a wide, caged area.
They did not smell like how I’d expected them to, nor did they make any sound.
Firstly, I didn’t think it would be that busy. They do say that it’s best to visit this place very early in the morning, when the monks can eat breakfast with you, and the tigers are freer. We reached Tiger Temple around 4:00 PM though, which apparently was when everybody else decided to come by. It was like a sushi revolving counter, the way the guides brought you from one animal to the other. The sight was surreal. Noisy people. Quiet tigers.
Secondly, I didn’t expect to feel weird.
Of course I expected to feel afraid. After all, some of these tigers were 3 or 4 times my size. While there were professionals on the lookout and people roaming around, you can’t really omit the fact that wild animals (even those trained by Siegfried and Roy) could just snap.
Imagine: some 30 tigers and 50 people literally caged together in one corner of a lime stone valley. I am expected to be afraid.
I felt weird though.
Sure, it could have been a lot worse, like tigers mauling us all. Sure, this was one of those very surreal moments of my life. Sure, I felt immensely lucky to have been there in the first place.
But somehow I felt that nothing of this was natural. “This is not how tigers should behave,” I kept thinking while patting their limp bodies on the ground.
They looked powerless, forlorn even- which I never thought majestic creatures could ever be.
I am grateful to have come so close to those beautiful creatures, don’t get me wrong.
But as we drove off, I felt like I didn’t want strangers- hundreds of them in a day- touching them any more. I meditated as I watched the temple getting smaller and smaller in the distance: “Please take care of these cats.”
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