Thai Adventures (Pt. 2) Tiger Kingdom

When I went to Thailand, I saw a variety of things, but among the utter coolest was being in the presence of living, breathing tigers.

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I have often subscribed to the identity of a variety of animals. Between growing up in the forest and taking the phrase “monkeying around” to a whole new level with my habit of knuckle-walking, it may come as little surprise that I found characters such as Tarzan (particularly from the Disney animated movie) to be quite boss.

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This is how I legit walk around when crouched, do push-ups, or nudge open doors or press buttons when I prefer to not touch dirty door handles, such as those found in a public bathroom.

But as much as I enjoy to emulate apes, there are a number of other animals to which one might simply call my totem creatures. No, I did not learn any of this from some shaman, nor did I have any animalistic dreams where I spoke to one or more of the following creatures.

These are merely beasts whose traits I either find admirable or familiar.

I’ll feel a kinship with wolves when I am in the company of most dogs. A sense of brotherhood, common goals, or when I otherwise simply feel inclined to work with others as a cohesive unit. Humans are pack animals after all (though considering modern trends, one may be more inclined to say “heard animals,” *cough cough* Black Friday), but generally when it comes to following the crowd or going with the flow, I’ve always identified with the whole Lone Wolf stereotype. Lone wolves generally don’t lead happy, productive or comfortable lives, though, and part of their loneliness may or may not be ascribed to over-confidence in themselves (or perhaps a downright lack of confidence in others). In any case, I dig wolves, for both their ability to work together as a team, their demonstration of intelligence and even compassion.

When I’m feeling more solitary, I’ll identify with bears, but not in that same lone wolf sense. Merely lumbering throughout life with simplistic goals and desires; sleeping, eating, sex’ing. Granted all animals have said goals, but when it comes to a typical bear’s life, they don’t have a whole lot to worry about except the distance between meals. I feel bear-like (not to be confused with bearish) when I’m feeling peaceful, going through the day(s) at a slower, easy pace, with nothing particularly unpredictable or stressful happening. Just going about life as a simple “natural” individual, using one’s skills (like a bear uses its strength) to overcome a variety of obstacles in the world.

Then there are tigers.

These are creatures I’ve always liked as well, but never really had the chance to really appreciate. Wolves I’ve met vicariously through thousands of dogs, and bears are a common neighbor in my childhood home.

I’ve identified with cats when I’m feeling aloof, independent, even selfish. Unlike canines, many felines tend to be solitary by default, and in their natural state don’t seem to regard other creatures with the respect we might see within a pack of wolves, or humans for that matter. And while solitary, they differ from the attitude of a bear in that while a cat, no matter the size or species, is a stalker, not a bumbling forager.

Granted, I’m fully aware there’re a number of bears that will hunt and kill, but in terms of overall attitude I suppose I’m referring to that of a black bear, which is not a particularly aggressive species (and one with which I have a passing familiarity having grown up in the Catskills of New York).

But being around a tiger is more than being around some over-sized house cat.

Having left the Chiang Mai old city by a “bus-taxi” vehicle, I attempted to reach my Swedish Sister, but as had been the case since using getting my Thai-based traveler’s SIM card, outbound calls didn’t really work; only inbound calls, WiFi access, and limited 3G.

At any rate, having arrived Tiger Kingdom, and unable to reach my contact, I did the next best thing: I walked into the open-air lobby, filled with trinkets and shirts and other tiger-themed merchandise, and introduced myself.

“Jesse,” I said a second time, “Friend of Vicky.” The girl at the reception regarded me for a moment; a fedora-sporting, blond-haired white guy with a bulbous backpack, and must of decided I looked thoroughly touristy enough. She lead me ten paces away to someone standing with a posture that screamed gate keeper.

“Hello, I’m Jesse, friend of—”

“—from Viet Nam?”

“Yes,” I said, relief washing over me. I turned and saw that from the open-air lobby/tourist-receiving area, I could see right into one of the multiple enclosures. Within, though distant, I could see a black-striped, creamsicle-colored animal pacing calmly along the far side. White tourists in tank-tops and shorts stood or walked nearby.

Upon confirming who I was, the gate keeper, who went by the name of Louie, announced to the mostly-vacant lobby that all ticket-holders would now follow him in as the next group was allowed entry. He gestured I follow him with a jerk of his head.

Free admission after all, eh? YES.

Considering everything I would see, it would normally have cost upwards of maybe 1,000 baht ($30 or so).

A short walk later, and I was brought to my Swedish Sister. There she sat, chatting with some Thai co-workers, and as I approached the chattiness for which I remembered her most fondly quickly reinstated itself. We caught up on a variety of topics; things we’ve done, our romantic lives, progress on our respective language-exposure and acquisition.

I won’t say whose learned more in the last two months, but it is safe to say she knows more Thai than myself, and I’ve come to learn more Vietnamese than her.

Which is, of course, nothing unexpected.

The Chatty Swede then went about showing me around Tiger Kingdom, and I found myself treated not only to seeing what tourists saw, but also a few behind-the-scenes areas as well. I saw enclosures containing lounging juvenile tigers, cages housing a few screaming newborns, a pen in which scrambled rambunctious cubs, and in the distance (where tourists were not allowed), I saw the pacing of majestic adults.

I asked my questions, as I harbor a curiosity for absolutely everything, both in regards to Tiger Kingdom as well as the animals themselves, and I learned a lot that day. Eventually we came back to the area where there rested our backpacks, and sat on the concrete stoop.

“Are you ready?” she asked. I blinked.

“Ready for what?”

I knew that having an inside-contact would allow me to actually see and touch the tigers, but now that I was finally here, seeing the great cats had me feeling more than a little hyper-aware of my surroundings.

These were some big animals, and while the keepers played with them, fed them, cleaned them, and the tigers were overall very healthy and happy-looking, not a moment passed when I did not look upon the creatures and think: “Yes. That is a tiger. This is a top predator that could end me in about as much time as it would take me to realize I would be ended.”

I asked whether there were any special concerns I ought to be aware of. Thinking back on The Lost World: Jurassic Park, I recalled the part where the animal-expert Sarah Harding informs the other characters that the dinosaurs’ sense of smell is so advanced they’ll detect cigarette smoke, deodorant, or any otherwise unnatural scent and probably be irritated by it.

With a laugh, undoubtedly at my expense, I was assured that my deodorant would not be an issue.

Inside the enclosure, behind a set of air-lock-like portcullises, the tigers were calm, and the keepers/trainers employed a simple technique that allowed visitors like me to come in and touch them. With toys made from leaves tied to the end of bamboo sprigs, the tigers had the majority of their attention focused on the fast-moving objects in a most cat-like manner.

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Being near a tiger, calm and unthreatened as they were, I found myself acutely aware of everything. I paid attention to the way they moved, the direction of their ears, what they looked at when walking or laying down. They moved about with carefully measured steps as one might expect from any feline, but also with the heavier, slow pace of bears. Though the largest ones I got near were still not fully grown, the tigers were immense, and as I stood taking pictures and video, I remember a moment where I felt inclined to inform my Swedish Sister that while I was not exactly afraid, I senses were on high alert.

It was at that exact moment I looked over my shoulder and saw a particularly large tiger laying down right behind me. The animal did not exhibit any abnormal behavior; it merely felt inclined to situate itself comfortably with a view of my back, just barely at arm’s reach.

Visitors were always discouraged from touching the tiger’s front paws and face, even with the cubs, and the tigers themselves were always reminded to not follow people – as their instinct is to keep behind other animals.

I saw tigers nuzzling, playing in the pool, lounging stresslessly about. As I touched – actually touched – tigers, I could feeling their hair comparable to the springer fibers we use to scrub our dishes. Corded, rippling musculature flexed beneath beautiful coats, and even holding a tiger’s tail, all in itself, was a memory to cherish. You’d be surprised how heavy a tiger’s tail is.

These are all details that are easy to forget when writing not only about a tiger, but about large animals in general. I will always remember this experience not only because it was simply awesome, but because contact with the tigers broadened my scope of description. When I write about fantastical creatures, aspects of animals I’ve been around, such as these tigers, will hopefully be enriched by such an experience, translated to words on the page.

The tigers demonstrated playfulness not only with each other, but with the trainers. These were tamed, sociable, intelligent creatures with individual personalities and quirks. It ought to come as no surprise that the more we study any animal, the more likely we are to find staggering discoveries that hey, you wouldn’t believe it, but animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I’ve heard it said (usually by religious people) that animals are bereft of feeling. This, of course, is merely self-serving nonsense that allows for people to consume them, or otherwise exploit them, with minimal guilt.

I’ll cut that particular rant short and stop there, as that’s quite the tangent.

Almost nothing compares to being the presence of tigers, and when encouraged to kneel and pose for pictures with the things, I was described, in terms of types of visitors, as “one of the awkward ones.”

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And why oughtn’t I be? [This was not posed.]

But, apparently, there are tourists who show very little regard for the rules set by the trainers, rules I consider to be common sense.

As a respecter of most animals (as I derive comfort from the notion that, somewhere, there is a special place in some cosmic hell for parasites like mosquitoes and ticks), I find it hard to believe that any fool would enter a tiger kingdom and try to do precisely what the trainers tell them not to do.

Then again I have a hard time understanding the behavior of fools in general, though there are those who would undoubtedly think of my own life choices as foolish, not least of which getting in a cage with a tiger.

At any rate, it took some time for me to get used to being around giant carnivores that people like my Chatty Swedish Sister had spent months around. It was an experience I will never forget.

Not only was it my first visit to Tiger Kingdom, it was also my Swedish Sister’s last day there, so I accompanied her with not only the juveniles, but also in saying goodbye to a few of her favorites. We spent time with the cubs as well, whose behavior felt and looked more akin to puppies than that of big kittens, and the baby tigers alone were unforgettable.

It took considerable self-control to refrain from grabbing and hugging the things, but even little tigers have claws, and one of the chief characteristics I noticed among all the tigers was the sheer size of their paws.

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Their paws are immense in proportion to their bodies, especially in comparison to that of a tabby cat. Which I suppose, also, ought to come as no surprise.

But it’s one thing to read books, see pictures, watch videos of these things. I had seen documentaries about tigers, enjoyed their appearance in movies such as The Jungle Book (1994), though I never saw The Life of Pi.

Is it any good?

It is quite another to be inches away from them, to kneel and stroke their fur, to make eye-contact and be disregarded.

The facilities are clean, the trainers genuinely love the tigers and their jobs, and the level of care for the animals is quite good. I know this not only as an observer (who among other things, saw a variety of signs that encouraged visitors to report whether trainers were witnessed abusing the tigers or trying to sell “souvenirs” like claws and whiskers), but also with the assurance of a reliable friend.

It is comforting to know that this is a good place, and I would recommend it to anyone who happens to find themselves near Chiang Mai.

The following day, though lacking in tigers, was no less astounding, as I would be treated to visiting a mountain-top temple.

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