BANGKOK — My daughter and I were sitting in a comfortable tourist bus, but I was truly worried for our safety.
"What if something goes terribly wrong?" I thought. "What a wonderful experience this will be!"
We were literally on the other side of the world, having arrived in Thailand three days earlier. We'd already seen some pretty amazing things, and nobody, perhaps with the exception of my daughter, could have faulted me if I'd had a change of heart and altered our plans.
But I wiped my sweaty palms on my Levi’s and stepped off the bus — and into a magical experience.
Tucked away in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi, northwest of Bangkok, is the most amazing wildlife encounter I have ever experienced — the Buddhist Tiger Temple.
Originally founded as a forest monastery in 1994, it became a wild animal sanctuary a few years later when villagers brought the monks an injured and very weak tiger that had been attacked by poachers.
The tiger did not live long, but the cubs, which had knife wounds, did. The monks quickly gained a reputation as kindly and competent caregivers. The monks maintain that their charges are not trained or drugged.
They only allow visitors at naptime after the tigers have been well fed on a diet of cooked chicken and cat food.
Our particular tour also included a preliminary stop at the Death Railway Museum and the bridge over the River Kwai for lunch. Even though I loved the 1960s movie about the famous bridge constructed by prisoners of war, I was too anxious to see the tigers to really enjoy either the bridge or cemetery.
Finally, we reached the stop we had been anticipating for several months. We were quite an apprehensive band of curious tourists, wondering what would happen next.
Looking all around, we caught our first glimpse of a full-grown tiger and her cub. The two were brought out to amuse us until it was time for our walk to the canyon. At this point, we still felt safe because of a horde of volunteer handlers, who closely watched everything.
After the adult tiger laid down, she calmly let her cub chase her tail and nibble her ears. To me, the trip was already worth it. Soon we were organized into a single line, and Amber and I were in the very front.
Another adult tiger was brought to us, and after some instruction, we walked to the canyon one at a time with a living, breathing, unleashed tiger.
My anxiety level was high, but Amber sauntered along as though she was walking with her best friend. The staff snapped a photo of me with the powerful creature, and I peeled off, allowing Amber to have the same experience.
This continued until all in line had their picture taken. For the next two hours we played with tigers like they were house cats. They were like giant kitties with paws the size of dinner plates and jaws that could crush us with an accidental bite.
We were ushered from station to station while the volunteers took pictures of us cuddling with some of the most beautiful wild animals in the world. For a few extra Thai baht, Amber was allowed to sit on the ground while a full-grown tiger put its head in her lap.
I often look back and marvel at the very real danger that we were in that day, but the apprehension and acute nervousness was well worth it. The temple for tigers was a rewarding and enchanting experience that I wouldn't trade for all the "safe" day-trips in the world.
Chris Hale is an airframe and powerplant technician for a major airline in north Texas and has spent the last 15 years traveling the world with his family. He is also the author of "Whispers from the Past," an adventure novel inspired by his real-life experiences. He lives in Grapevine, Texas, with his family and his dog, Marsha, and serves as an elder's quorum secretary in his ward. Visit his web site at http://www.chrisahale.com/.