Feb 7, 2014

Tiger Kingdom

......or the story of how we found ourselves surrounded by tigers in the dark, with the hungry, deafening roar of a lion just behind us.

After the breakneck ride back down Doi Suthep mountain, our songthaew driver took us to Tiger Kingdom, a restaurant/theme park where you can go inside large caged areas to pet and take pictures with tigers. These animals are not drugged or chained, they are free to walk right up to you under the supervision of several trainers. Each cage is divided by age group and price of admission, with the newborns being the most expensive. 
We decided to see the "big" and "small" tigers (those that were about 2 years old and 6 months old).

The line was very long, so while we waited we had a fantastic lunch of pad saew noodles. The restaurant hugged the sides of an open-air cage with the biggest cats. We could look out and see the tourists taking pictures with them, hesitantly approaching behind their backs to pet them while a trainer distracted the tiger with a giant "stick and strings" cat toy.

By the time our number was called, it was nearing closing time. We went into the same cage we'd been watching, and the tigers weren't having it. They leapt into the pool and fought, swiping their giant paws at each other's faces. The trainer tried repeatedly to distract them and finally broke them up. Our group approached one sitting on the deck to take pictures. As soon as people were behind him, he jerked his head back to stare at them and growled. It was clear he didn't want to be pet anymore.

"They're hungry," the trainer said. "Six o'clock is feeding time." So he apologized and said it wasn't a good time to see the big tigers, and took us to the "medium" cage. We were quite happy to see a different age group, especially because it felt like a free add-on to our ticket. They were more mellow than their giant relatives, but kept pacing back and forth, waiting impatiently for their fresh meat.

The "medium" sized tigers.

After our visit into the "small" tiger cage, the entire Tiger Kingdom fell under a sunset glow that slowly deepened into darkness. There was no roof or overhead lights. We lingered, looking through the window of an isolated building where baby tigers were being fed a bowl of milk. It was the cutest thing. They were the size of grown house cats, but compared to the other Tigers we'd seen that day, they looked tiny. Their caretaker brought them to the bowl one by one, and as soon as his back was turned, one of the little guys would get really excited and jump right into the milk bowl with his front paws.

Another caretaker came around the building and started to talk to us. He explained that the baby tigers in the back of the building, just within sight, were 14-day newborns; their eyes were still closed and they huddled over themselves in a big pile. Their mother was on the video screen, pacing and waiting for them to be returned to her. I felt so lucky we got to see every age group.

The young man also explained how a white tiger cub had been stolen from an affiliate Tiger Kingdom in Thailand, and that they had to be careful and not let tourists hold the babies anymore. We were disappointed, because of course we wanted to hold them. Our attention was diverted to the cage on our left, where a white tiger was napping. We stared at it in awe. I wondered how someone could have come in and taken a white tiger cub - so rare and regal - right from under their noses.

That's when we heard the roar. It's a sound we've heard countless times before, on soundtracks and TV shows, and especially at the beginning of each MGM movie; but it's not the same. The lion's roar we heard was close enough to be behind us (which, in the dark, he was). It was loud and ferocious and hungry. It set my heart beating faster.

Now that we had seen (and heard) all the different cats at the park, and it was time to go. We slipped out of the main gate, the last visitors of the day, and rode back to the city.


The adventure continues on Monday with my favorite memory from Thailand, zip-lining through the jungle!


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