How I Accidentally Became An Exploitative Traveller

I'm not going to delete the photos from my Facebook feed.

16/06/2016 5:38 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters
All tigers have now been removed from the controversial 'temple' in Thailand.

I don't want to believe Thailand's Tiger Temple is unethical.

Raids on the tourist attraction have uncovered a freezer full of dead cubs as well as a collection of endangered birds, bolstering allegations of illegal wildlife trade. All the tigers have been removed and the 'temple' has shut down.

A rational person would say it sounds pretty dang unethical.

Yet there I am in a photo on my Facebook feed from 2009, with a look of love as I stroke a little tiger.

Matthew Fallon
Cayla at the Tiger Temple in 2009.
The first time I heard about the Tiger Temple as a teenager, I was determined to go.

A relative told me about this place where monks had rescued baby tiger cubs from poachers, and as they'd grown, the monks had learned to live with them. The story went that now, the public could go and walk with the tigers and feed the cubs.

I saw photos of him grinning in awe as he walked alongside the heft of a big, healthy tiger.

In this big, wide world -- of which I'd seen very little – I believed there could be a place where wild tigers and enlightened monks lived side by side. There's magic and wonder in ignorance.

Years later, while volunteering in the Philippines, I spied cheap flights to Thailand, and all I wanted to do was see this long-fabled Tiger Temple.

And that's how I become an accidental exploitative traveller.

Chances are, you've inadvertently caused harm on a trip too. Maybe you've ridden an elephant trained to serve tourists, or had a boozy night at a 'girly bar' where women are made to flirt and prostitute themselves to foreigners. Perhaps you bought sweat-shop trinkets made from sea shells plucked from the reef or own a piece of Aboriginal art, signed not by an artist but a 'Made In China' sticker.

And I don't think you're a bad person because of it. I think you, like me, like everyone, is naïve until shown otherwise.

I spent the day at the temple with my mouth agape in awe, playing with cubs, patting the big tigers and watching the monks meander about, keeping the tigers tame with occasional whacks of their walking sticks.

Matthew Fallon
They're not kittens, they're tigers.

Looking back, I don't doubt the tigers I met at the temple could have been drugged, and I see that I played a small part in perpetuating the illegal animal trade. But I'm not going to delete the photos from my Facebook feed.

Because that's what growing up is. It's seeing the world with a sense of awe and magic, that piece by piece, is proven to be smoke and mirrors and horse tranquilisers.

Travel broadens the mind but it also hardens you to the realities of the world. Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.

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