Published: December 13th 2008December 13th 2008
When I left the boat in Kao Lak I was going to head down to Hat Ton Sai Beach, but on the way down it absolutely chucked it down with rain. After a very wet visit to the James Bond Island in Pagna Marine National Park, I decided to give the beach a miss and head back up north. Hopefully, I'll come back and do the beaches after the Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam circuit.
Instead I decided to head back north to Kanchanaburi...the weather had been getting better up there, so maybe it was just on and off monsoon still down south. This was the trip I was going to do with Bev from the elephant camp.....hiring a scooter and heading north from Kanchanaburi up to the Burma Border.
The weather was good in Kanchanaburi. I even got to sit by a pool for a couple of days.! For anyone who doesn't know, Kanchanaburi is home to the Bridge over the River Kwai, which the World War 2 movie made famous. Hence, there's a lot of museums about the war and the plight of the POWs there. I learnt loads about the war, and what happened to the POWs over here, and was really moved by the 1000s of graves and how well looked after they all were. It was also good timing for a sound and light performance on the bridge which runs the first wk of Dec each year......shame it was all in thai language!! WW2 stuff pretty much was all I did in Kanchanaburi, other than sit by the pool......oh and the thai cookery class! That was really good. It started with a trip to the market to get the ingredients.......that was an experience! Some of the pictures aren't good while you're eating....the thais eat some wierd and wonderful things!! Sugar who owned the school came with us and talked us through the market and what we needed to buy to make our dishes we'd chosen. Our cooking teacher was Micky, who wore a mini skirt, but that was probably the most feminine thing about him, or her! He could cook though......really well. I was amazed how easy it was as well. We did sweet and sour, red and green curry, and Pad Thai. Pad Thai, which I thought would be the easiest was infact the hardest ...trying not to let the noodles stick together! The key was to balance the flavours......salt, bitter, sweet and chilli. We ended up with so much food, but it was really really tasty! Afterwards I went and collapsed by the pool to let it all go down!
After I'd seen everything in Kanchanaburi, I hired a bike and headed first up to Erawan National Park. There's a beautiful waterfall there which you can swim in. Trouble is, you're not the only one there by a long stretch so peace and tranquility is not normally on the menu. That is, unless you stay in the park overnight. It was expensive....800baht for a night, but it meant I could get up before the park opened and be the first one in the waterfall! I got up really early and headed down there expecting to be the only one, only to be greeted by a whole thai film crew up there!! Luckily they were only on the first level, and the second level, which has the nicest swimming pool, was completely empty. Apart from the fish that is.....loads of them. And they nibbled too! It was fab being the only one in there. The only trouble was I wanted some photos too! No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't set the timer and get back in within the 30 second delay on my camera's timer!! Luckily another family came along after 10 minutes or so and offered to take some pictures for me. They disturbed my 'peace and tranquility' a wee bit, but if the truth be known, it was actually flipping freezing and the fish really did bite, so I was ready to get out anyhow!
After Erawan, I headed back to Kanchanaburi and took the road up to Sangkla buri and the Burma Border. On the way up, I stopped at the tiger temple. Brief intro to Tiger Temple.....it's a buddhist monastary which a few years ago took in one baby orphan tiger after poachers shot the mother. They cared for the baby, but after a while it died. However, soon enough another orphan was taken there by locals who knew the monks had looked after the previous baby orphan. There are now probably about 40 tigers there and they're breeding.
There are virtually no wild tigers left in Kanchanaburi province because poaching is rife.......apparently a whole tiger is worth about 100K for chinese medicine. It's pretty certain if these guys were left in the wild, they'd be dead by now.
The temple does make some money out of these tigers, but they say it's all going towards a conservation project of building an enclosed 'wild' sanctuary where these guys can be left to live as wild animals and hopefully the next generation can be released back into the wild. They're also trying to educate the public to try and control the poaching but I'm not sure how much luck they'll have with this based on the price on a tiger's head!
I wasn't too sure what to expect at the tiger temple. Basically, the tigers are pretty tame. They eat breakfast with the monks and when the public come in the afternoons, they can get right up to them and have their photo taken. Yep, I know, sounds like a pretty awful exploitation of wild animals. I had my doubts about going there for that reason. There are also many rumours that the animals are drugged, which I wouldn't support in any way, but the long and the short of it was that I wanted to go and see for myself.
The monks say they're not drugged in any way. So do the western volunteers there. Apparently, they are just brought up around humans and are used to human contact. That said, you have to be careful around them.....one swipe of a paw and you'd be history pretty much, so you are led around the tigers and told exactly where to sit and where you can and can't touch them.
When you see them, they are really sleepy......which probably is why the rumours started. Apparently they're fed a really big lunch and hence they crash out in the afternoon. This said, I have seen enough wildlife programmes to know that tigers do apparently crash out after a feast. I honestly don't know enough about tigers to know if they're naturally that sleepy after a meal, or if they can become this friendly with humans. Most of them didn't look drugged to me, but there were one or two of the big males that were 'incredibly sleepy' and walked really slowly. That said, they are breeding which is a sign of happy healthy tigers.
The monks say they're not drugged, and it would be completely against all buddhist belief to lie or cause any damage to another life, so in that respect I truly believe them. While I was there, I spoke to the volunteers who also said they definitely weren't drugged. One of them also mentioned that the temple vet lived up the road and had a guest house. I still wanted to find out more, so I went back there to stay that night. The vet was a lovely guy. He spent a lot of time talking to me and showing me videos of tv shows that had been aired about the temple. He was very open and honest and we had a frank discussion about it. He said he knew that there were some 'animal rights' activists who would rather have the place shut down, saying these were wild animals that belonged in the wild. I have to say, that I believe wild animals should be in the wild too. However, he also pointed out that there are virtually no tigers left in Kanchanaburi province and that some of the species have died out altogether there due to poaching. There are also very few left in the rest of thailand. Basically, as I said before, these tigers would be lucky to be alive if it wasn't for the temple. He also showed me the plans for the wild sanctuary they were building for them, which I hadn't seen when I was at the temple and told me about the long term plans to rehabilitate them into the wild.
I have to say, I came away feeling he was probably right. Overall, yes, I think wild animals are much better off in the wild; but whats better ....... only keeping them in the wild, or keeping the species alive. I'm not expert enough to judge, but my feeling is the place is doing what it's doing with the best interests of the tiger at heart. Maybe I've been well and truly duped, but I hope not. I did feel very privileged to have been so close to such an amazing animal, and to have had such an amazing experience playing with the babies.
The next day I continued the journey up towards Sangklaburi, stopping at Hellfire Pass on the way. This is where the POWs cut through a mountain pretty much by hand in order to lay the railway lines. The cutting is about 10m high by a few hundred long I'd say. No mean feat. When you consider the conditions they did that under it was no doubt so many died doing it. It made you feel very humble to see it. I also walked up the old railway route for a few kilometers, not only because I was interested, but also to stretch the old legs a bit!
After that I headed on and stopped in a town called Thong Pan Paew (or something like that!) for the night. It was ok, but not an awful lot there I have to say. The next day I headed on to Sangkla Buri. I hadn't had breakfast before I left, so I stopped on route. It was definitely getting a bit more wild out here. Unlike the more developed parts of thailand, people still stare at you out here as farang don't visit quite so often out here. The road was getting beautiful too. Lovely mountain scenery and lakes round each bend.
When I got to Sangkla Buri, I was also pleasantly suprised. I found P Guest House (well recommeded) which had a stunning view of the most beautiful lake.
I was only going to stay a night or two and head back, but I ran into someone who told me about Whispering Seed. Whispering seed is a small orphanage set up and run by Jim, an American guy with a passion for helping children. It's only small....7 kids and has a fantastic family feel about it. Most of the kids there are the children of sex workers, many of whome have died or are dying of HIV. Some of these kids have had things done to them that no adult should have done to them and have turned up riddled with disease as a result. They've had a pretty shocking start in life, but thanks to the loving family atmosphere Jim has provided, they've turned into wonderful, well rounded kids.
I was lucky enough to find out about them and volunteered to help build some earthern houses for them to live in at their site out of town on the edge of the jungle. They run courses in building these things and hence normally have big teams of people coming up every so often, which really gets a lot done. Unfortunately with the airport trouble, a big group from Oz had to cancel the visit, so Michael who'd come over from Ireland to show them what to do no longer had his team of workers. Hence I volunteered to help.
The buildings are amazing and I had great fun building them. They're basically made out of the clay soil which the site is on.....either blocks, hand made from soil mixed with rice huscs and sand; laid with a cement made from clay and sand,; or cob, which is a similar mix but with straw and sometimes small pebbles added. It was like being a kid again playing with mud pies!
I ended up staying there a week and had an amazing time. I feel priviliged to have had the opportunity to stay with Jim and the kids and be part of such an amazing project, if only for a week. If any of you are feeling generous, or are desperately upset you didn't get the chance to buy me a birthday pint this year!, throw a few pennies their way instead. It's a wonderful cause, I can assure you.