A tiger lover by day…
Have you ever seen a Discovery Channel documentary about a tiger refuge in Thailand run by Buddhist monks? The Tiger Temple (Wat Phra Luang Ta Bua) – a place where tigers roam free without the danger of being shot in the rainforest, where orphaned tigers cubs get the chance to grow up rather than die of starvation. In case you have not, you might want to learn more about this unique place (or here – the official website). To tease you further, here is a photo from a monk/tiger daily routine:
I do not know about you, but to me that image seems like it came straight from Gary Larson’s cartoon series The Far Side.
But let’s not get too distracted with Gary Larson’s hilarious cartoons – you can find a plethora of those online – and get back to the tiger theme. Could it really be that the Tiger Temple was somewhere near Chiang Mai and I could visit it?
Well, no. I had to settle for the second-best thing – the Tiger Kingdom – which is different from the Tiger Temple (as much as a temple is different from a kingdom). Unlike the Temple, the Kingdom is a for-profit organization, and they charge you a good entrance price. You might want to find out more about them here.
So, how did I end up going to Tiger Kingdom in the first place? Just the previous day I had no idea that it even existed, and hence had no plans of visiting it. But I saw a poster at the hostel, and the poster looked, I kid you not, like this:
… and they threw virgins into cages with tigers…
Knowing a bit about Thailand already, at first I could not believe that they really let a visitor play with little tigers like that – rather I thought it was some kind of photo-op. So I asked the Thai guy from the hostel and, sure enough, he said “yes, they do, even with big ones”. This sparkled interest in the people that happened to be hanging out the hostel’s living room – and it did nto take long to get ourselves organized for a visit.
So, in the morning we loaded ourselves on – you guessed it – a red truck –and off we went. In case you’ve been wondering, the Tiger Kingdom was about half an hour ride outside the city.
You could choose spending time (10 to 15 minutes) with three different tiger age groups – from young cubs to full grown adults (or take a combined ticket for all three). I decided to go for the cubs first, and then make up my mind whether to “interact” with the bigger ones. I got the ticket and was told to sit down for a while, until the current visitors vacate the little tigers cage.
The Tiger Woods - where the tiger lurks...
Some ten minutes later it was my turn. And I was taken to a cage where there were five or six tiger cubs – one was sleeping, but the others were in the mood for play.
Here I shall add the inevitable words about the difference between staged posters and unstaged reality. A couple of staff people were around at all times using small sticks to ‘discipline’ the tigers if needed. Also a lot of restrictions are in place for the visitors as well. One thing that you were not allowed to do was exactly what the girl at the poster was doing – that is, put the tiger in your lap.
Still, you could freely touch and interact with the small tigers – as long as you did not lift them from the floor. One of the little beasts got my finger in his jaw and started sharpening its teeth, just like my cat at home used to do a long time ago. It was not really painful and I did not mind it at all, but one of the staff noticed it and put an end to the teeth sharpening process.
As all good things must come to an end, especially if they are meant to last 10 minutes, those 10 minutes were soon up. Since I’d come to Tiger Kingdom with other people, I moved on to see what experience they were getting with the adult tigers. I could do that, because the Tiget Kingdom was in fact a set of sidewalks with cages and fenced areas, where one could move around and take photos freely – regardless of whether you bought a ticket for one tiger age group or more.
Compared to interacting with the cubs, the interaction with the adult tigers was – surprise, surprise – subject to even more restrictions. You would not mind a tiger kub practicing its bite on your fingers, but you’d hardly find the same pleasure if an andult tiger double your body weight did that, right? So the visitors inside the cages were told to avoid making rapid movements. One could not touch the tiger on the head or stand near its head, etc. In fact you were only allowed to gently pat the tiger on the body and let someone from the staff take a photo of you – while you bravely lied on top of the animal. If you check out the official website of Tiger Kingdom that I linked in the beginning of the post, you will find plenty of such staged photos. Those were possible because the adult tigers looked as if they’d just had an enormous meal and had not a care in the world.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
OK, don’t get me wrong here. Despite all the safety-related restrictions, I’d say the experience was worth it – perhaps because at the end of the day playing with moving, living, breathing, self-assertive small tigers is an experience in itself. You cannot do that in the rainforest. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
- At the end of the day, who are we to judge whether tigers are happy here or not…
- Courtesy: author
And since I began the post by introducing some Far Side cartoons, I’d like to end it with one
…a social animal by night
The atmosphere at the Spicy Thai hostel was very easy-going. People would come down the living room, sit for a drink and share stories. At some point that evening it was about ten of us there – and our collective hive mind decided to proceed to one of the downtown bars. The hive mind consisted of, as far as I can recall, an American finishing his business major, a Dutch girl who went to college, a boy and a girl from England who were doing their “year of travelling after high school and before college,” a guy from Sweden – working as a software developer, an Australian girl who was just about to started a volunteer job at Chiang Mai, yours truly – and a couple of people for whom unfortunately I do not recall anything. What mattered the most, of course, was that we all wanted to enjoy the evening together. So we loaded ourselves on – I will not tell you what kind of vehicle, because you must know it by now – and off we went downtown to one of the many bars. The bar happened to be right next to a McDonalds.
Long gone are the days when McDonalds was famous for being all the same every place you went. Here is Ronald Thai McDonald for you:
McDonalds - Chiang Mai
The bar itself was on the roof of a four-story building – this in fact making it an open air bar. Again, we had to leave our shoes outside to a big and about-to-become-chaotic shoe collection (and hope that no one mistook their old cheap dirty shoes for your favorite, clean and expensive new ones). Needless to say, the prices were “for foreigners” – and, you guessed it – all the people around were foreigners (and a couple of Thai girls, who were probably going to end up in their Western friends’ beds).
The music was good, albeit loud. In addition to being bare foot, you were supposed to sit on the floor – the first (and only) time I have done so in a bar. There were bamboo mats and small pillows to sit on. We grabbed some drinks, sat and were soon joined by more people (all acquaintances of acquaintances of people already sitting).
The highlight of the evening (perhaps the very reason why I made a post about the bar at all) is this: at some point I ended up talking to two twenty-something British girls who, as it turned out, had decided to get from London to Singapore. So, what is the big deal about it, one may wonder? Many people do that. Indeed. But those two girls had set off to do it traveling by land only! Now, you try that! They had begun by crossing the Chunnel to France, then they’d travelled to Moscow, where they had taken the Trans-Siberian railway, crossed over to China, then Vietnam, then Laos. And here they were – already nearing the end of their journey. I am sure they will have stories from this trip to tell for the rest of their lives. I’d love to tell you some of it, but the music at the bar was so loud that we had to shout to get ourselves heard – but what little I learnt was still more than enough to inspire me. Cheers, ladies!