Kanchanaburi is a 2 hour bus trip out of Bangkok and oh, what a difference 2 hours can make. Gone are the garish lights and hustle of Bangkok as city skyline gives way to the natural world. Why am I here? I’m going on a tiger hunt. Where am I going? To the famous Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, otherwise known as The Tiger Temple.

Fittingly, the landscape of this breath-of-fresh air destination has got that jungle book vibe. The River Kwai meanders sleepily through this lovely district, vast and lined with tropical palms. Muggy heat shimmers across the water and I half expect Bruce Parry to come kayaking round the river bend, paddling his way to one of the run-down shacks that dot the river bank. It just feels a bit more authentic round these parts.

Don’t get me wrong, there are enough tourists and facilities for us to see that Kanchanaburi is an attractive destination for visitors but in comparison to Bangkok, this place is a tourist ghost town. Our guesthouse matches the ambience – charming, relaxed and very, very quiet. Almost too quiet as we were the only people in the bar last night. Just as well that I’m not here to party.

The story goes that one of the original monks at the temple found a tiger cub, half-dead and nursed it back to health. Word spread and before long, people were bringing tigers to the temple to be taken care of and bred in captivity. Now the tigers are handled by Thai staff and volunteers as well as the monks and the temple is open at certain hours of the day for tourists to sit with and pet the cats.

To the kid that wanted to be Disney’s Princess Jasmine crossed with a vet (until I found out about putting your hand up cows’ behinds and all that pesky science), this sounds utterly captivating. However, as I enter the temple and sign the ‘if a tiger eats your head, it’s not our fault’ paperwork, I start getting cold feet. The animals look amazing. Being so close is an experience in itself. But what if I get the cranky one? What if that one over there is actually Shere Khan and rips my face clean off with one swipe of those dinner-plate sized, claw-tipped paws? I couldn’t exactly blame a wild animal for getting a bit fed up with all those clumsy hands. I’ve just about started thinking they can probably smell fear when suddenly, it’s too late and I’m ushered into tiger canyon to do the rounds.

The tigers have all been fed and are sleeping off their meals in the shade, chained up near bowls of water as the monks wander amongst them. Thai workers clad in pink silk take our hands and lead us in a quick whirl through the canyon, stopping for a photograph with each tiger, instructing us to place our hands firmly on their backs. In a blur of fur and stripes, it’s all over. I guess that’s why they take so many pictures for you -without the amazing photographs I could barely believe it actually happened.

Moving on, we encountered one of the monks cutting a striking visual with his orange robes and extensive tattoos, bottle feeding an adolescent tiger. Milk dribbled over its whiskers as it sat, perched on a rock, all beautiful fur and rippling muscle. Dwarfing the monk yet docile, engrossed in feeding time.

Other volunteers ran and played with an 8 month old cub the size of a large dog. Its exuberant playfulness was a marked contrast to the sedate, resting adults in the canyon. Rumours are rife over the tigers: Are they drugged? Are they being mistreated? Is the place legitimate and well-run? I can’t comment on what’s true or not but the animals look healthy and cared for and it’s been a fascinating afternoon.

Just before the temple closed to the public came a fabulous Noah’s Ark congregation as the other residents were fed. Suddenly, water buffalo, cows, chickens, warthogs, deer and even a stinky old camel were all around us, wandering freely together and munching their dinner.

Tame tigers; orange-clad monks; a menagerie of beasties… All in all Kanchanaburi can be a pretty surreal experience. But one thing’s for sure, it’s something you won’t forget.

image 1 via Catherine Wentworth, image 2 via Alex Saint, image 3 via Wikipedia, image 4 via Temples Churches, image 5 via Thailand Good Tours, image 6 via PBase, image 7 via Getting to Thailand, image 8 via Selina and Mo, image 9 via Catherine Wentworth

* this guest post was written by Alex Saint