While wandering down the main street in the Old City area, my friend and I were approached by a private tour guide, Mr. Udon, who offered us a ride to see the tigers at Tiger Kingdom for 300 baht (about $9) each. After some deliberation on wether or not he was legit, he knocked his fee down to 100 baht (around $3) each and we decided to go and at least check it out. He gave us his business card and off we went. He talked the whole way there and we learned some interesting things about Thai culture.
Once we arrived we went into the Tiger Kingdom camp and could choose which size of tiger we wanted to see. There was big, medium, small and extra small, which were little tiger cubs. There was a unit price for one size of tiger (ex: to get a picture with only the big tigers was 420 baht) but if you chose to see two or more tiger sizes, you could get a discounted rate. Once you chose your tiger size, you paid for your ticket, signed an insurance form that said you would be careful but if needed, xxx insurance company will take care of any medical needs you may have. Comforting.
Once that was sorted, we went to go look at the tigers and wait our turn to enter the cage. We chose “big cats” and watched as trainers led people into the caged area and took them around for pictures. There were four big tigers in the cage we would enter and all of them seemed to be having a good time with their trainers.
The trainers were there to guide them into sitting position, make them face the camera or move over and in general, keep the animal entertained and in good spirits. I had read about some tigers being drugged in Thailand so they remain calm, yet sleepy around the tourists but I was relieved to see that these tigers seemed in high spirits and seemed well taken care of.
The baby tigers were running around like lunatics chasing each other, splashing around in the water and climbing giant logs the whole time. The medium and big tigers were equally spirited; climbing everything and playing around with the trainers. It seemed easy to forget that they were such enormous beasts of the jungle and not just huge kittens when they carried on like that.
We were instructed before entering on how to conduct ourselves. For example, rules included: Don’t approach the tiger face-on, as it is a sign of a challenge or an invitation to “play.” Approach from behind and walk slowly. Stay near their hind legs and avoid the head. No loud voices or sudden movements and overall, the general idea was to use your head and don’t be a dumb-ass. They ARE tigers and respect is due.
The trainers were mostly young Thai men and their relationship with the tigers was actually quite heart-warming to watch. They had code words they said and the tigers would react by sitting or standing, yawning or doing this weird call that sounded like a cat in heat. They were cuddling and head-butting their trainers in the legs, playing like a giant kitty would.
When we were done with pictures and made it safely out of the cage, our driver was waiting and took us back to the Old City area of Chiang Mai where our impromptu adventure began.