Walkies on the wild side. It's time to join the cub
For Helen Oon, feeding, and playing with tigers was a dream come true
Putting the cat out: Helen Oon takes a one-year-old tiger for a stroll
Ever since I had a close encounter with tigers on a safari in India, I have been smitten with these magnificent creatures. Sadly they are becoming an endangered species. That is why I had to embark on a journey that I have been longing to do - to visit the famous Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi in Thailand.
So at the crack of dawn at 5am, I set out on a two-hour journey from Bangkok to visit Tiger Temple in a forest monastery.
The temple charges a hefty fee of 5000Baht (about £112) for the privilege of mingling with the monks and tigers but it is worth every penny.
The afternoon tour is 500Baht (about £12) but with only the opportunity to see the tigers and pose for photographs.
The ritual starts with alms-giving of food parcels to the monks. In the morning mist, a group of eight monks materialise from the hazy sunshine, their saffron robes draped round their bodies to keep away the morning chill. Led by the chief Abbot, they collect the parcels from our small group of five visitors for that morning.
l Low cost airline AirAsia X flies to Kuala Lumpur from Stansted with connection to Bangkok on AirAsia regional flights. www.airasia.com
We follow them to the Compassion Pavilion which is used as a temple. Here, in all its splendour, sits the Golden Jubilee Buddha. It is made of 80kg of gold donated by the King of Thailand on his 50th anniversary to the throne.
Tigers from six-week old tiger cubs to two-year olds are assembled for the morning prayers together with staff and visitors. The monks sit on a raised area of the temple while the rest of us sit on the lower section.
While the monks chant, the tigers sit quietly on their paws. They say that the tigers that are brought to the temple sanctuary were monks and friends in previous lives. It is their karma to live in the monastery in this life.
After the morning prayers we join the monks and staff for breakfast and later we bottle feed the tigers, supervised closely by the staff. We are discouraged from petting the tigers on the head, for in tiger speak, it means trying to dominate them, nor are we allowed to cuddle them. Though hand raised and used to human contact there is always the danger of the wild instinct in them surfacing and may swing a paw at you. It could be out of playfulness but the paws are the size of boxing gloves and have the might of a heavyweight boxer.
My first tiger is a greedy young cub of about six months who gulps the milk in seconds. With his paws resting on me, he swigs his second bottle with relish. The next tiger is about a year old but the size of two Saint Bernard dogs. Its rippling muscles exude power and strength and I can't help thinking how privileged I am that he allows me to stroke and pet him.
Then it's walkies time - we are each given a tiger to take out for exercise.
We walk them to an enclosure with a pond and artificial waterfall for them to play. We are each given a broomstick with a plastic bag and rags tied to the end to tease and play with the tigers. It is such a hoot watching them try to snatch the plastic bags.
Playtime over, it's time for a bath. "Excuse me, you want me to bathe this beast the size of a motorbike?" I asked nervously when my lady minder asks me to lead a huge tiger to a hose pipe. "Yes", she says, " I will hose him down while you shampoo. Try not to splash water on his face."
My tiger seemed to enjoy the spa treatment as I wash him and give him a bit of back massage. I swear I heard a purr coming from his throat.
While he is left to dry, I hand feed a smaller tiger with cooked chicken. He laps the morsels of meat from my palm with his rough tongue scraping my hand like sandpaper.
The tigers are fed cooked chicken and are never given raw meat to prevent them from regressing into their wild instinct if they taste blood.
We lead the tigers on leashes to the canyon where they play in a pool surrounded by rocks. This time my tiger is fully grown with a powerful muscular body that it makes Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like a weedy schoolboy.
He decides to step on my foot as he takes his first step. It is like being stepped on by a fully grown man. In the canyon, about ten tigers are let loose to swim and frolic in the pool. For our safety, we are ushered into an enclosure with wire fence while we watch them play. It's a kind of reverse situation where humans are being caged while tigers are loose. There are many staff and volunteers around to control the tigers and to play with them with rags on sticks or rubber balls.
Tiger Temple started life as an animal sanctuary when villagers gave the monks an injured jungle fowl to nurse. Soon other jungle fowls and peacocks settled in the forest around the monastery. One day an injured wild boar was rescued by the monks and released back into the forest when it recovered. The next day the wild boar returned with his family of ten. Villagers started to bring unwanted pets, four species of deer moved in, followed by buffaloes, cows, horses and wild goats. The menagerie grew and all animals roam freely in the monastery grounds.
The first tiger cub was brought to the monastery in February 1999. It was a female Indochinese tiger cub whose mother had been killed by poachers near the Thai-Burma border. It did not survive but a few weeks later two more were brought in followed by more tiger cubs intercepted by police from poachers. Today the monastery looks after about 80 tigers and there are plans to build a 'Tiger Island' which will enable tigers to live in a natural forest and remain thankfully safe from poachers.
● Low cost airline AirAsia X flies to Kuala Lumpur from Stansted with connection to Bangkok on AirAsia regional flights.
● Thai Airways International flies direct to Bangkok.
● Tiger Temple details
● Peninsular Bangkok hotel