When I was last in Thailand, my travel friend had her heart set on seeing the tigers in Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom. It was not high on my list, but since I had a massive list of things I wanted to see in Asia, like the Killing Fields, S-21, the DMZ in Vietnam and the Cu Chi tunnels, I figured I had better do what she wanted so that she would be more willing to accompany me on my historical and grim tours.
And tigers are beautiful so it wasn’t going to be so bad.
The last time I had been in Thailand, a friend and I had gone to see the elephants when we were in Chiang Mai. It wasn’t until I got there that I realised what we were doing wasn’t exciting and fun, and it wasn’t contributing to helping elephants, it was in fact a sinister money-making tourist attraction that made me feel sick to my stomach.
When it came to the tigers, I voiced my concerns but was assured that this tiger place was a good thing, that it was a sanctuary, and that it helped tigers from becoming extinct. It appeared to be a nice, ethical place, so I started to get excited.
When the day came, we hopped on a tuk-tuk and made our way to the Tiger Kingdom. From first impressions it appeared to be very large and professional. There were options for which size tigers you wanted to see. We decided to go for the big ones and the medium ones. It was tempting to see the babies, but they were the most expensive, so we figured seeing the medium and big ones would be enough.
Before we knew it, we were in an enclosure with two big tigers. Our guide told us one was named JLo, and the instructed us to lie down next to her for a photo. This seemed a little crazy. I had envisioned patting a tiger, but lying down next to one seemed a little risky.
The girls went first and I snapped away, happy to see that the tiger appeared to be asleep. Then when it was my turn, she shifted just as I was about to get beside her. The guide was telling me to lie next to her, but there wasn’t really much room, hence the awkward looking photos. I felt like a one night stand who can’t get the hint an jumps into bed with someone who is feigning sleep!
I have to admit, I was kind of uncomfortable. It was just really surreal to be lying pretty much on top of a large tiger. How did they not freak out that lots of annoying humans were violating their space? As much as I hated to admit it, the words sedated started to flash in my mind. Luckily, I was so distracted by trying to pose for the weirdest photo of my life and stroke an actual tiger, all while imagining it whipping around and biting my head off, that the guilt didn’t really get my full attention.
When we had gotten our photos with J Lo, he moved us on to another. We were told to stroke it, and I, unable to resist the photo op, took some close ups. Funny how despite my niggling worry about them being drugged, I was excited about getting such clear shots.
Next, we were brought outside and had to wait to see the smaller ones. We wandered around a little, and I couldn’t help but think that for a sanctuary, some of the areas were a little small.
We were shown where we were going to meet the other tigers and we stood at the fence, staring in at two extremely wild looking tigers. ‘They can’t be sedated,’ we said, laughing nervously. Suddenly, my concern for the ethics of sedating a wild animal was competing with concern for us about to enter an enclosed space with these two, who looked like they had been sniffing log-sized lines of cocaine. They zipped around, chasing eachother and mess fighting.
I smiled at how happy and playful they were. I felt better about being here. These guys looked like they were having a ball, albeit a slightly rough ball.
And then it was time for us to go in. A man came in with us, holding a thin stick with coloured bits of paper or plastic on one end, like a tiny tattered pom pom.
Our nerves disappeared as we took in just how beautiful these guys were. They were so freaking cute and gorgeous! This was great.
The guy told us to sit behind one of them as he chewed on some leaves. I let the girls sit as I crouched in front, a grin stretching across my face at the joy of capturing such a gorgeous creature. I knew the girls would love these photos, and I concentrated on getting ones where they were smiling and looking relaxed.
Then I got distracted by the tiger and stretched a little closer. I wanted to get one of the tiger without the girls. I was getting there, and then he looked right into the lens. Bingo.
All of a sudden he lunged at me, at full speed. I had a moment of panic before the guy started to shout and distract him. My heart felt as though it was going to pump itself right out of my chest and I stumbled off my feet. I heard the girls screech. Next thing I knew, the man had gotten the tiger away, and I had a big scratch on my thigh.
Suddenly, the little guy didn’t seem so cute. We were all freaked out, but at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that it was kind of cool that I had been mauled by a real tiger. It wasn’t a big gash, and there wasn’t any blood spilling out, save for a little along the scratch, but as the man gestured at me to come stand beside my attacker, who was now prowling menacingly up and down an elevated log, I felt really nervous.
I stood beside him and attempted to touch him as my friend tried to take a photo. As you can see, I wasn’t coming across very photogenically, as I was picturing him going for my face this time. I had already pissed him off, so standing trying to grope him while the same camera was pointing at him didn’t seem like such a great idea. I wished I had just posed with my friends instead of trying to be a photographic Steve Irwin.
We stayed inside for a few more minutes, but each of us was a little scared. When the little guy went for me, the man didn’t really have a game plan, which meant that if the two of them decided they wanted to really go for us, it didn’t look like our guide would be much help. Especially as all he was armed with was the little stick.
Once we were out of the tiger’s turf, we laughed about it, and we were all a little giddy to have made it back to the other side of the fence.
All in all, it was a good experience. I got to hang out with one of the most beautiful beasts, I got a sweet memento in the form of a war wound, but looking back at the pictures today reminds me of the darker aspects of that day. Yes, much darker than a wild animal lunging at me, was the fact that those tigers, especially the bigger ones, were in captivity and likely under the influence of something, all so we can traipse in, cop a feel, and get our photos.
Looking back now, I’m not sure the experience itself can distract me from the fact that we were contributing to the exploitation of a beautiful animal. All I can tell myself is that at least I am wiser now.
After writing this, I researched the Tiger Kingdom some more, and found some conflicting accounts.
The issues that arise from tiger tourism are that the animals are in captivity, and the tigers are allegedly drugged and usesd as a commodity. There is concern that the animals are being ‘farmed’ in large amounts, and that they are not happy, or, in some cases, mistreated.
The other side of the argument is that the tigers are an endangered species and at risk of being hunted in the wild. The people who work there care for animals and, as the tigers are raised in captivity and trained, they are used to human contact. They appear calm and sleepy because that is what tigers act like for much of the day.
Here are two different perspectives by other travel bloggers. If you are debating visiting, I advise you read both, including the comments, and then make an educated decision.
Turner Barr wrote on Matadornetwork.com about his experience at the Tiger Temple, which has a more negative reputation than the Tiger Kingdom. At first, I thought he was writing about the Tiger Kingdom, and I felt really sick, but reading the comments did give some alternative views from someone who worked there and wrote a long comment explaining how the place is run.
Jim Cheney of tripologist.com had a positive experience at Chiang Mai’s Tiger Kingdom, and felt the animals weren’t on drugs.
The comments are interesting here. One person claims they were bitten by one of the full-sized tigers and had to get stitches. While this was obviously a traumatic experience for the person, (and a lot more serious than my scratch!) I took this to be kind of a good thing, as if the tiger attacked a tourist who said they had done nothing wrong, it would lead me to believe that maybe they aren’t drugged.
What do you think about all this? It’s a tricky one!