The List: Number 72 – Pat a Tiger

By | RL | 3 Comments

Okay… so this was on The List. And I did this… Our third day in Thailand we did a tour, drove out the many hours to Kanchanaburi and paid to see and interact with tigers. It was all kinds of amazing, exactly like you’d expect it to be… except I do have put up a really big disclaimer: I didn’t think I was doing a bad thing.

Which is to say – I was absolutely doing a bad thing. Because at the heart of it?

Wild animals shouldn’t be used as tourist attractions to make money.

No wild animal should have to pose for a photo with me. No animal should be bred and then forced into interaction with people. I point blank didn’t realise while I was out there what I was doing, and yes, I fully 100% agree that supporting the tourist fuelled animal abuse trade is horrific.

When I think about it now, I feel guilty. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I didn’t stop to ask the bigger questions, and I didn’t see the subtext.

So, photos first. Because it did happen and it was absolutely a highlight of our trip and I feel slightly ill thinking about it. Then why these photos are terrible, and what we can all do about the horrible horrible things.

Tiger Temple is not a conservation project

So, at the very start of the day we stopped and got food to donate to the monks. We had a wad of cash for donations to the temple too. We met the monks, kind of. We stood behind tables and they walked by us. As they went we put food in their baskets. It was awkward and weird.

We then met our very blonde, very young and very very American lady guide who told us thus: The monks at Tiger Temple took in a few rescued tigers. Originally they were circus animals, or possibly poached orphans. And the amazing monks cared for them and since then everything has gone swimmingly. They operate as a conversation project, and their main goal is retraining tigers to hunt and letting them loose on a reserve, and caring for those that couldn’t fend for themselves. They let nature do their thing (which is to say, the tigers breed and have babies). They now have over 100 tigers, and we were lucky to be see a part of the whole big project while it was all going on.

Mm. After I left I started doing a bit more research. Turns out the Temple is neither a sanctuary nor a recognised conservation NGO, despite us paying out ‘donations’. To be a conservation project you have to promote the well being of the animals in captivity. You educate people about the animal and fund protective programs for animals in the wild. As a conversation project you fund the money you receive back into conservation and protection, right?

As I understand it and from what I saw the first one seemed to be on par (from my very limited, non-existent expertise). There weren’t any education centres or displays about tigers at all. The protective programs in the wild also seemed non-existent (our blonde lady didn’t have any answers about how they train tigers to return to hunt, and just said they weren’t in the habit of releasing animals who can’t help themselves into the wild…)

Tiger cubs shouldn’t be removed from their mother for tourist photos

Next, our young blonde american guide gave us a run down of the rules. Remove all red clothing. The smaller ones are a bit like domestic cats, but sometime they bite. When it comes to the bigger tigers, don’t touch the tigers faces, if you get permission to pat the tiger from the minder, only the back, and only the top. Don’t turn your back on the tigers, and always pay attention to the minders. They’re there to keep us safe.

And with that, they let us loose. We bottle fed some of the youngsters. Oh man, you guys they were adorable. Some were tiny and small and some really weren’t. Each tiger had a minder or two, and we were able to move freely between them. Sometimes feeding them, sometimes patting them. Whichever. It really was a free for all.

Some of the larger cats were chained to the side… at the time it made sense from a safety point of view. Now? Now I think that perhaps there is a reason why tigers are mostly solitary and there is a reason why mother tigers feed the cubs, instead of human tourists. Perhaps being tied up to feed isn’t the most awesome of things.

Now, here’s the thing. These cubs were tiny. Some clearly less than a month old. The bigger ones which weren’t even a year weren’t as cuddly as the younger, smaller ones. If cubs are meant to stick to their mother until the two year mark, then these tiny little babies were being removed purely for us. The tourists, to take photos of and feed and pat.

I feel a bit ill, really. I was so happy at the time, but now? It’s horrific. I had such a great time and it makes me uncomfortable to think about it. Sad face.

Next up we took the tigers for a walk. Which is to say, they handed us leashes, and we got a minder and we walked very carefully behind our tiger. Seriously, if he had wanted to bolt we wouldn’t have been able to do anything to stop him. We stopped when he stopped. We walked when he walked. We followed him. The leash thing was a bit a of a misnomer, really.

Still, he had a belly full of milk and knew where he was going and was happy to go there. So off we went.

Seriously you guys, that grin on my face doesn’t even come close to the joy I felt just then. Being so close to a tiger, the delight at following him around. It was amazing. Which I think in part is why I feel so guilty now. That little itty bitty tiger shouldn’t be forced into interactions with humans, let alone paying tourists like me.

Boo.

High risk interactions between tigers + tourists is not cool

He didn’t really like what came next, either. We gave him a bath, which was less than fun for everyone. It’s a bit bizarre to have your hands on the back end of a tiger, and then FEELING him rumble his unhappiness at being washed. He wasn’t loud or vocal about it, other than the occasional ear flick. If I hadn’t had my hands on him when he did it I wouldn’t have noticed. Still, he doesn’t look happy or comfortable, does he?

Which as I read it back, is kind of ridiculous.

I HAD MY HANDS ON A TIGER.

What the actual fuck, you guys. There is no way that is safe. After a quick google search I found this. That actually happened at Tiger Temple, a girl got mauled doing exactly what I was doing. Holy shit, you guys. I’m actually blown away by how cool but really not cool this all is.

A tigers diet needs to include red meat

So, after washing our grumbly tiger, We fed him chicken after to appease him. However, because he’d just eaten not an hour before he wasn’t that interested. When I asked the keeper what they fed them, she pretty much waved the chicken around and said ‘this’

Apparently red meat is too expensive? As I understand it tigers need to eat red meat regularly to get the enzyme taurine and other essential vitamins for their muscle development and long-term health… I’m really not sure about this, because while I’m sure that running the temple is expensive, but we paid a fuckton of money (“donation”) to the temple, and counting the 20+ tourists in our crew, knowing they do it every day that’s a lot of cash coming in. You’d think that red meat would be up there on the priority list…

Next up these young critters went back to their folks (or so we were told) and we walked one of the bigger cats down to the enrichment centre. When I say ‘we’ I mean the entire group of twenty. We got to walk behind the tiger, each taking a turn of about half a minute, snapping some photos and then moving out of the way for the next couple.

I’m actually kind of ashamed at my grin.

Next up, enrichment with the teens. This was actually really fun, and bar the completely not safe-ness in it, this part of the show seemed at least to be good for the tigers. They were very active, and played as they pleased. In fact, mostly they behaved exactly as a domestic cat would, if you had an enticing bit of string. Some weren’t interested, and that was fine too.

We each had a minder and a stick of recyclables to wave about. I remember that one of the tigers lay down in the water (it was a stinking hot day, easily 40°C+) and he lay on my foot, wrapping his tail around our legs as he watched the bottles from above.

As you can see there is no barrier between us and the tigers. They were RIGHT THERE. Oh man. It’s kind of mind blowing now, but at the time it seemed like the most natural thing to do in the world. So easy, and everyone assured us perfectly safe. Being in that context with people ushering you around and encouraging this kind of behaviour it just seemed so natural. You couldn’t go there and make a fuss about being in a space with tigers, really. Better to not go at all I think.

Afterwards, we were ushered into much larger area, and had photos with an adult tiger with his head in your lap.

Okay, I personally don’t think this tiger was drugged. Considering that tigers are mostly nocturnal, and it was hella hot, I can see this tiger being pretty placid. Apparently this tiger had been trained to do this, and had been doing it for such a long time he knew the drill and wasn’t bothered by it (this doesn’t excuse the practice or make it safe… my point is I don’t think he was drugged). I think even more telling was that once we’d all had our photos, he got up and was just as active as the other cats.

What I remember though, is that his head was really heavy. Ridiculously heavy. His fur wasn’t as soft like I imagined, but thick and a bit rough to the touch. He was amazing, and huge. The size of him was overwhelming. He watched lots of people but after a while was happy to close his eyes and snooze in the heat. He was pretty aware, if someone came too near he opened his eyes to look at them. It was pretty awe inspiring.

In saying that, it 100% isn’t okay to train a tiger to do this. It 100% is not okay to pay money and have an animals behaviour changed for tourist photo opportunities.

It is not okay to train animals behaviour to do tricks for tourists

Next up, we were corralled into a little pen (mostly a flimsy fence tied together with string. True story) and we watched some of the adults play. They had been chained to hoops in the ground, but once loose mostly hung out. It was really really hot, so while some of them were reluctant to play, one or two could be coerced into chasing the bag of recyclables on a stick.

After the show we went on our merry way. As I was thinking about it after, there were a few questions I wished I’d ask, but didn’t. Or if I did ask, was redirected or shut down.

Illegal tiger trafficking? That shouldn’t even be a question.

One of the questions I had is if they’re allowing the tigers to breed naturally (which they are, when I asked I got a haughty american accent with the comment ‘I don’t know why anyone would say more tigers in the world is a bad thing’) then if there are 100+ tigers breeding, with a reproductive cycle of a litter a year, and it’s been around for over 15 years… shouldn’t there be more tigers? A lot more tigers? Where are all the other tigers?

Where are the trained professionals?

Our blonde guide was blissfully in her first season as a paid professional. Previously? All her tiger experience was here, as a volunteer, which is kind of disturbing. Also, I’m pretty sure the minders we had didn’t have degrees in zoology or biology (or whatever it is that people who work with animals are meant to educate themselves in). To be fair, they literally just seemed like people pulled from wherever they could find them. The complete opposite of what I’d expect of a sanctuary.

Sad face.

There were many terrible things, but this trip was amazing.

So, there are many things which are less than awesome about this place. But what I struggle with most? This trip was amazing. Being so near the tigers was amazing. Having a tiger comfortable enough to snooze in my lap was by far one of the most phenomenal things I’ve ever experienced. I struggle because all of things were so very amazing to experience, and I’d love to do all of it all over again.

I also know that this practice is terrible. Morally I’m 100% opposed to animals in captivity being trained unnatural behaviour to do tricks for tourists. It makes me uncomfortable, and it’s not something I want to encourage.

However, the pull of all of the amazing is really really strong. I actively have to keep thinking that in a way it’s a kind of rape (forcing an animal into unnatural behaviours) to pull my feelings about that day into line with my moral values.

So, then….

Should you go to Tiger Temple? No.

I want to say no. Don’t go. Don’t buy into animal cruelty. But, I get that some people are a bit dubious and have different morals than me. This guy volunteered there, has a whole bunch of posts about it and came to a similar conclusion. If you go, he says be aware that your money is not supporting tiger conservation. The tigers, which are the stars of the show are practically working in a circus. It’s a tiger business.

Sad face.

How to help

Donate. Donate to WWF’s TX2 Tiger program. A program across 12 countries with an aim double the number of tigers in the wild. Apparently there as few as 3,000 wild tigers left in the world. Part of it is a lack of habitat, part of it because some cultures still believe that tiger products cure ills (they don’t), which creates a demand for poaching.

TX2 aims has six aims:

1. End demand for tiger parts, but educating consumers away from tiger products.
2. Reduce the means by which tigers are culled, through anti-poaching measure and the political scene.
3. To protect tiger habitat, to establish protected areas and corridors between them.
4. Encourage knowledge around research and monitoring techniques
5. Reduce conflict between people and tigers.
6. Increase political will, funding and commitment moving forward.

As far as I can tell from the research I’ve done, this seems to be the most efficient and forward thinking campaign for tigers at the moment.

So. I went. #72, done. I think this is the first time that I’ve ever had regret over completing something from The List. Sad face.

Thailand – Bangkok

By | RL | 3 Comments

As much as I love the adventuring and being in the new place part, but the actual physical moving from one place to another I really don’t like. I hate travelling. Flying into Bangkok was a bit of a mission. One, we made the mistake of not flying direct and had to go via Singapore. Cue unnecessary extra awake time in another cramped plane, another airport breathing terrible recycled air.

When we got out at Bangkok we were shattered. For all of the sitting we did it was ridiculous. Having got ourselves from the airport out on the sky train (easiest Metro to navigate ever!) and showered at the hotel, we ventured out to wander around Bangkok for a bit.

First impressions – it was HOT, and muggy. A bit like walking around in soup. Your clothes stuck to you, and your hair to your forehead. You regretted wearing any form of clothing immediately, and decided that moving fast was not a thing you wanted to do anymore. It seemed like an okay place, though. Safe enough. Plenty of opportunities for exploring.

In the true nature that was Zee + me, we thought we’d go explore map free and ‘just find something’. Well, we ended up exploring the back alleys of all the slums. It didn’t feel unsafe or anything, but anytime we tried to figure out where we were going or where we could get food from it was clear that we had no idea where we were going and just got ourselves more and more lost. We wandered, down dirt tracks and past little houses with windows thrown wide, and rooms with people sewing, or yelling at tvs. There was a lot of open double doors to what looked like small sewing factories – lots of industrial sewing machines crammed into a little room.

It was very different to what I thought it would be. Eventually we hailed down a tuktuk driver, and were swindled. He took us to a horrible touristy restaurant, but at this point our ignorance was pretty clear for everyone to see. Even us. We ate our overpriced average food, paid (in pride and money) and moved on, determined to do better the next day.

Which we did, when I organised at the very last minute a tour of Bangkok. Someone to take us to see all the things we wanted to, to direct us away from the tourist swindlers, to provide context and history. Ideally with a driver and some kind of air conditioned car. Wonderfully, all of these things happened. Good job, Tour with Tong.

We were met the next day by our guide, who was lovely. When we explained that we hadn’t eaten (because where do you find breakfast in the slums?), she took us around the corner where there was a whole market with things for eating (I did a double take, because wtf. How did we miss this market yesterday during our failed explore?) it was pretty great. Most folks spoke some form of English, and before long were stuffed with all sorts (fresh Pommegranate Juice juiced in front of us, jam donuts, eggy bread… nom).

First up…

China Town

It’s the oldest district in Bangkok (apparently a whole bunch of Chinese merchants set up shop here waaaay back in the 1780s. Before that they were where the Grand Palace is). It was a little warren of market stalls, sheltered under little taurapaulins and what not. Seriously, it’s a crazy set of alleys, left, left, right. I was lost two minutes after we entered. It was a maze! And they sold EVERYTHING. Fireworks. Tea leaves piled up in jars. Piles of little crabs, and fish on ice. Spices, nuts, mounds of cabbages. Beans (so many beans). Black chickens, dim sum. Sushi. Flowers. Dumplings, fresh fruit, dried fruits, kittens (yes, kittens. That bit was a tiny bit heartbreaking). Having just eaten at all the markets we didn’t buy much, mostly we were just overwhelmed by the sheer amount of STUFF. It was a crazy crazy walk.

(Side note: an air conditioned car with a driver was the best and most luxurious thing ever. The driver had chilled flannels which was fucking amazing and refreshing. Exactly what I wanted. And chilled bottled water. And it was so comfortable in the car. It felt like we were going from hot chaos to a moment of still ready for the next adventure).

Next up was…

The Grand Palace

Woah. Buddy.

It’s essentially many small buildings all put together, clearly built organically as and when each new Thai monarch felt the need to make their mark and build another amazing monument. It’s one of those places that you almost can’t believe has been built. Seriously, it was so ridiculously opulent. First order of business though was dressing appropriately. Zee borrowed a pair of traditional pants to cover his knees. My shoulders were already covered and my dress was considered appropriate length, so I was good. It was SO HOT, so I really felt a bit sad for Zee having to add more layers on.

It was phenomenal though. You walk around and your told that this towering, gorgeous building is made with millions of Chinese porcelain hand painted tiles from the 13th century. Everything is very intricate and detailed. There was an awful lot to take in (and I probably won’t repeat it all here). We spent hours here, wandering from place to place, admiring the many (many) gold buddahs, or the demon/angel statues around each building. There were so many murals, and our guide took the time to explain part of it.

One of the highlights here was the Emerald Buddha. It’s common for a buddha statue to be placed in the roof of a temple, and there was a temple in the north that was struck by lightening, and part of the buddha was revealed. Now he sits in a very fancy chapel in Bangkok, and is adorned with a special gold get-up that’s changed every season by the king. Apparently no other person is allowed to touch him, just the Thai king. I actually thought he was pretty small for all the hype. It could just have been that he was SO far away, kept atop a big fancy as gold plinth, that it was hard to see his amazing-ness amongst all the rest of the amazing. Shrug. The little buddha is quite revered, and it’s believed that he’ll protect + provide prosperity to the country he’s in, so okay.

After a quick stop for lunch, we hit up….

Wat Pho

Which is otherwise known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Holy crap you guys, this reclining buddha is MASSIVE. As in, easily over 40 metres long (and something insane like 15 metres tall. 15 METRES TALL!) We were dwarfed! It was incredibly incredibly impressive. As you walk in one side you can hear a fairly consistent clinking noise. As you work your way around the incredibly large buddha, you come to the opposite side, and there are 108 bronze bowls lined down the side. The idea is that you buy a bowl full of coins from a monk (which is considered a donation to help maintain the wat) and you drop a coin in each bowl as you go. It’s meant to bring you good fortune, and as you go you think good things before you drop the coin in. Well, 108 specific good things is hard to think of under pressure, I ended up just envisioning lots of general good thoughts and how good feels rather than many good specific things.

I loved it, though. The sound of many many people dropping coins in the bowls hoping for good things was actually kind of lovely. Especially in the presence of such obvious wealth, it was a nice touch, I thought.

After a quick stop for lunch, we walked down to the river and took a ferry across to the otherside so we could then visit:

Wat Arun

This is the craziest tour ever, I don’t know how we packed everything in. Insane. Anyway, Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. This one actually has a really really really long name that I missed the fourth and fifth times our guide mentioned it. (Wikipedia tells me it’s: Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan. Good luck pronouncing that one).

The history of this one is a bit random… the temple used to house the fancy Emerald Buddha, and way back then (like, seventeenth century way back then) it was actually on the Royal Palace grounds. Then someone decided that actually, across the river would be a better place. Apparently its very pretty in the morning, when the first light makes it all pearly.

We climbed up to the top to admire the view, and what I remember most is that it was hella steep, and the climb was a bit of a scary one. I didn’t mind going up so much but the down? The down was pretty not awesome. I took my time, holding on to whatever I could before carefully stepping down, whereas Zee bundled down like it was no big thing. Pfft. That man has no fear.

The rest of the tour I didn’t take so many photos of. We were dropped off at one of the famous multi-level shopping centres. Dude, those things are MASSIVE. And cheap. We bought loads of stuff. The best buy I got was these lovely harem pants, wonderfully made, covers your knees and keeps you cool at the same time. I should have bought more, now that I think about it.

We also hit up the infamous Koh San Road where Zee tried a scorpian, and I had the best 10 Baht pad thai I’d ever had (street food made in front of me in 5 minutes. Nom!). It was full of tourists, more than any other tourist spot we’d been too. We got massages, I bought a lot of cheap market dresses which was lovely.

So yes. Our second day in Bangkok? A million times better than first. We definitely packed it all in there!

What about you, have you been to Bangkok? Have you done any of the things??

New Zealand – Have I even been away?

By | RL | 12 Comments

It’s odd to be back. Driving around streets I knew but had forgotten and hadn’t thought about in years was weird. The memories kept coming back hard and fast, and they pounced from each street corner.

I was 8 years old and had just mastered roller blading, a car of teens cheered I’m sure now ironically, but at the time it felt like I had my own cheer leading squad. I felt like a million dollars. Walking my dog down the footpath when he was a pup, and again less of a pup. Trying to build up running stamina with my friend Jude. Night walks between the trees to meet a guy, holding hands in the dark, feeling like we were the only ones in the world. Riding my bike with my sister behind and Dad in front, wind on our faces, sun above. Big family friend picnics, around the BBQs, smells divine…

Memories flick through my mind a million a second. I forgot it could be like this. Living in a place like London where I don’t have that kind of history makes it easy to forget, I’m too busy making new memories to remember the past. Here? In Auckland? I can’t not remember. The memories are everywhere.

I’m driving my old car down the streets I grew up on. My dog leans out the passenger side window like he’s always done, the radio is playing the same tunes it always did. It feels like the last three years hadn’t happened. That all the things I’ve done, the things I’ve seen, the adventures I’ve had… They’re reduced to nothing. I’m in the same place I’ve always been.

Is this who I am? Underneath all the bravado, is this it? Does my history make me the person I am? Do all my adventures count for nothing?

Aaand then I got on a plane and went to Thailand, where I swam with elephants and took selfies with little baby tiger cubs. Turns out I can be whoever I want to be.

My history is clearly a part of who I am, and must have carved out, carefully defined and shaped who I am. Lucky for me, the history doesn’t define who I can be.

It’s odd to be stuck in a moment. To be swallowed by the familiar like you’ve never left, and never will. To both shrug into it like an old comfy hoodie and at the same time feel stifled. I guess this is what home feels like now.

New Zealand – Impromptu Geocaching

By | RL | One Comment

So yes. Geocaching happened. I was upset, I think. We were scheduled to fly out the next day and I didn’t want to go. It felt like before our holiday had stretched out in front of us for miles and miles and suddenly, now I was leaving? Leaving my family behind, my dog, my friends. I was only just beginning to comprehend how things had changed and now I had to go? I wasn’t ready. I didn’t want to. Sad face. So, instead of tantruming and refusing to go to Thailand like expected (because I still wanted to go to Thailand, obviously), Zee and I went for a drive. Squeezed in a bit more sun somewhere familiar.

I think I’ve mentioned Geocaching before. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s basically a world wide treasure hunt. You download the app on your phone, and use your GPS to find little caches all over the place. Zee + I have cached all over the place. New Zealand, UK, Croatia. The caches are literally everywhere.

This one was down the road from where I grew up. I must have passed it a billion times in my life. I’m glad we were able to drive through and catch it while the sun was going down. I wandered about without shoes (something I’d never, ever do in London) and soaked in the last moments of home.

New Zealand – Fishing

By | RL | One Comment

Fishing, with a rod in a little boat out in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf is something I’ve been doing with Dad since I was a child. I’ve caught hundreds of fish in my lifetime, and delighted in eating the fresh goodness of the days catch (no, seriously, DELIGHTED!). For me, the eating part of fishing is by far the best bit.

Well, turns out that Zee has never once caught a fish. Ever.

It was a bit mind boggling, so even though the tides were badly timed Dad and I took Zee out for a days fishing. It was GLORIOUS! The skies were blue, the water flat. There’s something really amazing about being out on the boat. The silence, the gentle rocking. Hanging out in a small space with people you don’t mind hanging out with.

Besides the snappers and whatnot, I managed to catch two baby sharks (which Dad dehooked and threw back). Zee caught a handful of baby snapper and a decent sized Kahawai and Dad? Dad managed to catch himself (which was a bit awkward, and required a three man operation to get the hook out of his finger without pulling the barb through the flesh). It’s quite relaxing being on the boat, out on on the open water. Everything is still and quiet.

We didn’t catch a haul like I remembered as a child (snapper too big to fit in the bin, so their tails would hold up the lid), but we did okay. We caught enough for dinner, and that’s enough really. I suspect that thanks to commercial traders trawling all the fish out of the ocean, the snapper schools probably aren’t as big as they were 20 years ago.

Because we’d caught enough for dinner (that and the fish were just eating our bait) we called it a day, and stopped off the back of Waiheke and taught Zee how to waterski. Because that was something else he’d never done.

It was amusing watching him fall rather spectacularly, and when he did get up? I cheered – glad he’d managed it, glad he’d stuck through and glad that we spent that day out on the water together with Dad.

This was one of those days I want to remember. The sun, and salt and all the happy.

Taking the boat for a swim.

That view!

The first little guy I caught. I kissed him before I let him go.

I love this shot of Dad teaching Zee. Dad taught me how to waterski just like this when I was about 12. And he taught Sibling and a whole bunch of our family friends. Love it.

The boat.