11 Sep Volunteering with Tigers: The Not-So Undercover Tiger Investigator
Volunteering with Tigers in Thailand – Day 1, Part 1
I rush out of my guest house in Kanchanaburi Thailand, the site of the famous bridge over the River Kwai and nearest town to Tiger Temple – at the wee hours of the morning: 8:15 am. I am eager to get to the temple to start my first day – despite being filled with apprehension about volunteering with tigers.
I quickly find a motorbike taxi. I stretch my Thai haggling skills to get the best price possible.
Ok, so no haggling. The Thai bikers motioned me to the timid guy on the end sporting a bike that had seen one too many days on the road. He seemed confidant.
It took about 45 minutes to arrive under the giant tiger mouth denoting the entrance to the temple. My arms were clutched around my taxi driver as my large backpack protruded out sideways under the driver’s legs and carried my mini-pack on my back.
As I unmounted from the bike, I see a table of sullen looking characters donning shirts that look like something sold at a market fair to the blind. The enthusiasm at our introduction is tepid at best, as the volunteer staff apparently went out for a birthday the night before in Kanchanaburi. I presume binge drinking was involved.
My suspicions are confirmed when I take wind of the whiskey breathe from an attempted good morning and a mumbled set of instructions by one of the lead Western staff.
We sign some documents – probably releasing the temple from any type of any liability should anything happen to us – such as a tiger or bear mauling, scorpion or centipede stinging, or simply a violent stabling by a Thai staff for looking at their spouse in a jealous rage. Typical occupational hazards.
The Rules of Buddhism
I made sure to review the contract thoroughly, as I didn’t want to be put in any precarious situations involving Thai law enforcement, angry monks, or again, angry Thai spouses. The Tiger Temple volunteering website stipulates that one must live like a monk while on temple grounds if they wish to volunteer and follow the 6 Buddhist moral precepts. The rules are as follows:
1. Do not kill
2. Do not steal
3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct
4. Do not tell lies
5. Do not intoxicate causing drunkenness
6. Do not sleep on a luxurious bed
There are two additional precepts for people inspired to dedicate themselves to meditative practice during their stay in the monastery. These are:
7. Do not eat untimely food; i.e. from noon to dawn of the next day. (examples of food (pana) that one is allowed to have after 12.00 noon are foods with medicinal value, such as black chocolate, herbs (e.g. lemon-grass, aloe, ginger, chili, salt, sugar), juice, products reformed after milk (e.g. cheese, yogurt, dry-fruits: prune, logan)
8. Do not dance, sing, play or watch unseemly shows; do not wear jewelry or use perfume.
As I looked down at the rules that lay before me, breathing deeply, mentally preparing for a month of vice celibacy – I reflected on my life to this point. Maybe going to Vegas right before I came wasn’t such a good idea, nor was probably killing that Thai hooker. It was going to be a long month.
Actually, I was somewhat looking forward to challenging myself to resist certain indulgences that we become accustom to in modern society for the month. The appeal of volunteering with tigers at Tiger Temple was actually more than just interacting with and learning about tigers, but also the opportunity to learn about Buddhism. As a non-church-going heathen and science devotee, Buddhism is one of the few religions that interest me, as it is more of a philosophy than a religion and is not as dogmatic. So I was eager to learn the ways of the monk. After all, I look fabulous in orange.
As one of the staff goes through our documents and passports, the volunteers and those not hung over enough to make speech made the obligatory elevator talk. The whole – where ya from, what do you do, sort of stuff – however, unlike the normal everyday occurrences where you force words out of your mouth (modern dating, the chatty guy next you on a plane, awkward run ins with former high school classmates etc.), I actually was quite intrigued as to who were these brave souls willing to risk their lives volunteering with tigers, and equally curious to know, how they came to be here despite the litany of controversial rants said about this place online.
The group, as I expected, was pretty heterogeneous: English, Dutch, Swiss, Aussie, Norwegian, Canadian, Polish and American (this guy). Most were aged between 18-24. With me being the village elder of the volunteers, once again, at the ripe age of 29. Most were still either in university, or hadn’t gone yet, with the exception of a police officer and a small-animal veterinarian (and myself).
As my turn came up to divulge my completely inadequate background for handling tigers, one of the staff chimed in:
Oh you are the job guy right? The one with the website who goes around the world and does jobs?
Ah yeah. How did you know that?
Oh, the [volunteer program manager], reviews and Google’s every applicant’s application
Terrific, Google. Destroyer of marriages, careers, the Yellowpages, and Turner’s ability to remain incognito. It is not that I wanted to deceive my soon to be colleagues about my occupation, there are the 6 moral precepts to consider after all, but the mere fact that because Tiger Temple is a controversial place, I feared that some would be overly sensitive about me asking tough questions and may end up being more guarded, hostile, or even worse, they may just ask me, ‘what is a blogger?’ Apparently Google knows the answer to that too. #tigertemple