We hired a guide to drive us out to Kanchanaburi as a day trip. This is where the Bridge over River Kwai, Tiger Temple, and many elephant camps are.
Disclaimer: We were uneducated about these so-called animal sanctuaries before signing up for this. Sure, we had our doubts, but the Youtube videos we watched that were shot from foreign volunteers’ perspectives about the Tiger Temple made it seem pretty legit. We also didn’t know that there are multiple sanctuaries in the same area. Had we known, we would’ve have gone to Muang Si. Wanting to have close encounters with these animals and help with the conservation of them at the same time, we decided to go with it.
bridge over river kwai
After a 3hr car ride we arrived at the Bridge over River Kwai that sits along the infamous Thai-Burma railway. The construction of this railway took the lives of over 100,000 Asian civilians and Allied prisoners of war in WW2, giving it the name Death Railway. Today, the train still runs on the tracks (with pedastrians walking right beside it!). We were short on time but if you get a chance, do take a train ride and take in the tragic beauty of this place.
As we drove up to Tiger Temple I started feeling uneasy. I didn’t like the giant statues they had at the entrance. Why were these useless structures built when the funds can be used towards caring for the animals?
We were led into a cage to play and bottle feed the cubs. These guys were only a few weeks old- they were so adorable!
At this point we relaxed a bit because the foreign volunteers seemed like they genuinely care about the animals. If this place was shady, why would they spend months, or even years here? (So we thought, anyway)
I was too scared to be anywhere near anything bigger than the size of my dog so I stayed back while AS played with older cubs in another caged area. He said that even though they were considered as babies, they were extremely strong so it still hurt when they pawed and pounced on him.
Before leaving, we passed by a valley where the fully-grown tigers were. This was when the guilt kicked in. Staff led tourists one by one to the tigers for photo ops. Every one of these tigers was chained and obviously drugged up. They just lied there, motionless. I wanted to leave immediately. It was too sad.
muang si elephant village
The first 30min where we went for a ride through the “jungle” felt really odd. It wasn’t even really a jungle, plus the metal hook our mahout used looked really sharp! He never once stabbed the elephant but it must’ve been used extensively in taming or breaking these giants. While I didn’t know how much the riding seat weighed, I can’t imagine how having that strapped around you with 2 human beings on top can be comfortable. My dog doesn’t even like wearing clothes!
The second part we really enjoyed. We went on a bareback ride where we got to splash around in the river and give our elephant a good scrub.
The best part was feeding her bananas in the end.
I really liked this picture but after carefully studying it, is our mahout doing something to the elephant’s ear?
There’s a lot of talk about how we should avoid these animal sanctuaries at all costs. It’s true that there are a lot of horrible camps that abuse these creatures, but for every shady place, there are others that genuinely care and are ethical. All of these places preach about conservation and preservation of these animals; some animals may not be able to survive in the wild on their own. They, and their animals included, would suffer without financial and social aid from the tourism industry.
While all the tigers looked healthy at the Tiger Temple, they were clearly sedated. If the adult tigers at the Tiger Temple were able to roam around freely in that valley, it would be a better place. If Muang Si removed elephant riding, and instead just have bathing and feeding sessions, it would also be a better place. Both places need to have info sessions where volunteers and staff educate visitors about these animals.
Like many people, we wanted to have close encounters with these animals. However, we made a mistake of not doing our homework before signing up for these activities. It wasn’t until after we returned from our trip that we dug into how these places are run and how elephants are ‘broken’ or tamed (which is extremely cruel, by the way). Don’t let those hardcore activists stop you from visiting these places, but do you research beforehand. Don’t make the same mistake we did. If you aren’t happy with the standards when you get there, leave and spread the word so others know.