Chasing the Tiger

When it comes to Darwin Award-worthy tourist attractions, running with the bulls in Pamplona is one of the dumber ways to test humans’dominion over the creatures of the earth. But for my money, it can’t quite beat chasing after tigers in Thailand.

Being a serious journalist, I woke up and opened my Tours of Thailand pamphlet, looking for the craziest excursion available. I quickly settled on “Tiger Temple, River Kwai and War Museum,” because it was the only one with a safety warning: “Tour participants are strongly advised not to wear bright colors, especially red, pink or orange.”

Dressed in muted blues and browns (I’m not that crazy), I found a seat on the tour bus next to Tobian, a Swedish retiree who has been traveling the world for the last several years. His biggest concern was that there were no seat belts.

“We’re going to the Tiger Temple, and you’re worried about a traffic accident?” I asked. “I hope the bus crashes before we get there.”

He laughed, making us instant traveling buddies.

Our first stop was the Bridge on the River Kwai War Museum.

For those who have not seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, the 1957 Oscar-winning movie directed by David Lean and starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, it is the story of the 100,000 World War II British and Australian prisoners of war whom the Japanese used and worked/starved to death to build a railroad bridge to connect their supply route from Thailand to Burma and thus into China. Many more Burmese and Malaysians than white boys died in the process, but without the farang, there wouldn’t have been a movie.

Before we arrived at the museum, our tour guide felt compelled to make this point: “As to war crimes, the Americans concluded that Thailand had been forced to fight on the Japanese side.” While that is technically accurate—the United States had wanted to use Thailand as a staging base in the Cold War and therefore brushed the collaboration charges under the table to gain Thailand’s acquiescence—the truth is that Thailand was to Japan what Italy was to Germany, the weak-willed, eager-to-please younger brother to a fanatic fascist.

Until the coup of 1932, Thailand had been Siam, as in The King and I. But taking cues from Japan and Germany, the country’s newly minted military rulers based their new state on the racialist concept of a “Thai” people. As is the case with all racial theories, the “Thai” needed an opposite and found them in the country’s significant, wealthy, and somewhat insular ethnic Chinese population. Wichit Wathakan, Thailand’s founding intellectual, infamously said, “The Chinese are worse than the Jews.”

(Not only was this anti-Semitic, it was terribly unfair to the Chinese, who, given their demographic and cultural strength, are actually more like the Borg. Just ask the Tibetans, the Inner Mongolians, or infertile American yuppies.)

The toughest decision for any atrocity museum is what to put in the gift shop. Do you go with general touristy trinkets, or do you get specific and sell shackles, mini-guillotines, and replica gas chambers? The River Kwai War Museum gift shop skipped the diet books and dysentery pills and offered Thai silks and toy elephants instead. But there was one plaque on sale, which lamented the fact that the only time the countries of Burma and Thailand have ever been joined by rail was from 1943-45. (By the way, that is one answer to the question: What have the Japanese ever done for Southeast Asia?)

You would think that the Bridge on the River Kwai had a sufficiently bloody history that the Thais, not wanting any more needless deaths, would put up guardrails and cover the gaps in the bridge. You would be wrong. As I felt the crush of hundreds of tourists pushing me toward a hideously huge hole 100 feet above the terribly shallow river, I noted how ironic, in an Alanis Morissette sorta way, it would be to die before even reaching Tiger Temple. Then I noticed a chubby Japanese teenager having a laugh with his buddies, and I slipped behind him. If I was going over, he’d be perfect to cushion my fall.

Brushes with mortality have a way of focusing a man’s mind, more often than not, on sex. After leaving the River Kwai, Tobian and I fell into a debate over the question that so vexes farang men: How sincere is a Thai woman’s smile? In “Love in a Duty-free Zone,” Pico Iyer chewed through the entire Western canon, as is his wont, before giving up. In “Fooling Yourself for Fun,” Ian Buruma detected opportunism in those smiles.

Tobian was more sanguine: “The Thais are friendly people.”

I was not: “I don’t see why they’d want to smile at us. Every time I look at my aging mug in the mirror, I want to cry.”

Tobian patted my shoulder in a fatherly fashion: “Cheer up. It only gets worse.”

As we entered Tiger Temple, our tour guide’s only advice was: “Walk beside tiger. Don’t walk in front of tiger, or tiger think you lunch. Don’t walk behind tiger, or tiger think you toilet. Go pee-pee on you.” This last part he found so hilarious he repeated it twice. Then he had us sign a waiver acknowledging that we understood the tigers might not be fully tame. Thailand is a good case study in what a country looks like without decent trial lawyers.

Tiger Temple is trying to rebuild the decimated population of Indochinese tigers, one orphaned cub at a time. It is up to 18. The temple’s abbot allows tourists to play with his tigers because our money supports the refuge. Somehow, this knowledge helps. Stupidity tastes better wrapped in a noble veneer.

This was certainly true of the three Australian women who volunteer at the temple. Their job was crowd control. As they looked at the hundred-plus throng of us, the skinny one said to her taller compatriot, “This is an awful lot of people to guide.”

I didn’t find her remarks reassuring. Cuddling up to a fully grown tiger is only possible because tigers become extremely sleepy and pliable for a few hours after they’ve had lunch. Once night falls, not even the Thais dare to go near them, and there are very few things the Thais won’t dare to do.

“I hear one of the handlers was mauled last week,” Tobian confided in me.

“Which one: Siegfried or Roy?”

A dozen Thai handlers led the tigers on leashes past us to a damp rock quarry for their siestas. These tigers did not look nearly tired enough to me. The Thai handlers needed to use their knees and elbows to convince the tigers to move in the right direction. When the last one walked past, the signal was given, and a hundred tourists bolted after the tiger.

While it was perfectly understandable that no one wanted to be that last person to get their picture taken with the tiger after he had lost his patience, the overall result was a three-ring circus. As I was jostling for position within the mob, trying not to knock over the 5-year-old girl whose parents—clearly, followers of the Steve Irwin school of child-rearing—had brought to play with the tiger, I realized my father had been right: I should have gone to medical school.

Finally, it was my turn. I handed my camera to the Thai man taking the pictures and grabbed the hand of the skinny Australian who led tourists to the side of the tiger.

And then I was walking beside the tiger, petting him.

“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”