CONTRIBUTED BY MINDY MORRIS
From the minute you arrive in Chiang Mai, you will see advertisements for Tiger Kingdom. They are on the taxis, on the buses, on the fliers handed out on the street corners. However, for such a widely advertised tourist destination, I was surprised by the authenticity of the animal encounter.
Tiger Kingdom is set up with large fenced-in enclosures where tigers are separated by size. There are walkways in between each so that if you do not wish to actually go inside, you can still get great pictures of these beautiful animals. There is also a restaurant and a gift shop for those who want a less hands-on experience. You buy tickets in packages depending on the “size” of the tigers you want to interact with. They have “Smallest,” “Small,” “Medium,” and “Big” tigers. I was definitely most excited about the “smallest” tigers. I want to interact with the smallest of everything. Very small puppies? Yes, please. Very small kittens? Absolutely! I’m a sucker for anything that is very small! So that was a no-brainer.
When we were there in 2013, the tickets were priced as follows:
Big Tiger: 420 baht per person
Medium Tiger: 420 baht per person
Small Tiger: 520 baht per person
Smallest Tiger 620 baht per person
Big (or Medium) & Small: 840 baht per person
Big (or Medium) & Small & Smallest: 1260 baht per person
All four: 1480 baht per person
After buying your tickets, which they stamp as you enter the designated enclosures, you are free to pick the order in which you use them. Once you decide on an enclosure, you are led through one gate into an area where you trade your shoes for slippers and leave your belongings in a cubby. This helps to keep the tigers from being exposed to anything that backpackers and tourists might track in. (You can bring in your camera, but flashes are prohibited). Then an English-speaking employee preps you on the rules to keep both you and the tigers safe. Some of these include never to touch their heads and, naturally, to follow the instructions of the trainers, only walking, sitting, moving where they direct you. After that you go through a second gate into the enclosure with the tigers. Each encounter lasts between 10-15 minutes.
Tiger Kingdom is the only tiger encounter in Thailand that boasts that its tigers are neither sedated nor restrained. The tigers are only exposed to humans for a couple of hours a day to keep them from being overly stimulated, so the enclosures that are open rotate. There are several dens that contain small, medium and big tigers, but it is worth noting that the “smallest” tiger exhibit can be hit or miss. It is only open when they have tigers in the 2-4 month age range, and if there are only a few baby tigers, it will be closed after the tigers have been interacting with people for a certain amount of time.
We decided on the package with “Big, Small and Smallest” tigers, and visited them in order of their age. Saving the “big” tigers (also the most intimidating tigers) for last. I fell completely in love with the smallest tigers, cuddling up next to them to take pictures. The “small” tigers were a bit more playful and engaging and it was easy to forget that they are, in fact, tigers and could be threatening. They were just so cute, curious and friendly. I believe that these encounters are open to families of all ages.
The “medium” and “big” tiger experiences are only open to adults and children over the age of 15, and it was immediately clear to us why. While we were walking by one of the “big” tiger enclosures, which was closed at the time, a little girl, maybe 3 years old, toddled by holding her mother’s hand. She immediately caught the eye of one of the larger tigers that got up from where it had been perched, lowered itself into a crouch, and began stalking her like prey. Although the family was safely on the other side of the fence, it still made the hair on my arms prickle. Despite what anyone might say about these sleepy felines being drugged … that animal was not sedated.
When it was our turn for the “big” tiger experience, we were prepped again on what to expect and how to behave. The tigers in this large enclosure were all spread out in various stages of catnaps. Tigers (like most cats) sleep for about 18 hours a day. We were directed where to sit, how to pose, where we could pet them and where we could not. It did not have nearly the same feel as the smaller tigers, which we could interact with more freely, but after resting my head on the rib cage of a giant tiger whose heart I could feel beating through my body, I was okay with that!
You are allowed to bring your camera in to the enclosure, but the trainers are not allowed to take pictures for you, as they are required to give their full attention to the tigers. However, you can hire a photographer for 299 baht who will take pictures during each of the encounters for you and put it all on a CD at the end. (Or you can do what we did and just take pictures of each other since only one person is really allowed to interact with the tigers at any given time.)
The only drawback to the whole experience, in my opinion, was that you couldn’t buy a baby tiger in the gift shop afterward. I think our dog would have loved it if I’d brought one home as a souvenir.
Tiger Kingdom Chiang Mai
Hours: Open daily 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Address: 51/1 Moo 7, Rim Tai, Mae Rim 50180, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Directions/Transportation (quoted from Tiger Kingdom’s Facebook page): “The easiest way is going by Tuk-Tuk, red cab or Taxi. It’s about 400-800 Baht for the round trip. Driver can wait and stay with you until going back to the hotel or the other places. The best way is let your driver wait for you because it’s difficult and quite expensive to find a car or taxi going back to the city from our place.”
Special Note from the Author:
I know that zoos can be a hot topic, and there are a lot of tiger encounters in Thailand that I wouldn’t be comfortable giving money to. Those that keep their animals sedated, starved or restrained seem inhumane to me. Tiger Kingdom was the only place that I saw advertising that their animals are neither drugged or chained. Instead they are bred in captivity (another hot topic for some, I know) and are trained and exposed to people from two months old. After doing a little bit of research, I decided that I was comfortable enough with the treatment of the animals at this zoo to buy tickets for a tiger encounter. And I have to say, it was one of the most memorable parts of my trip to Chiang Mai. I loved interacting with the tigers and was very impressed by the staff. There are trainers in each of the enclosures who were genuinely loving toward the animals. I won’t get into whether or not the affection you see demonstrated by the tigers is real, or whether it is simply about who feeds them, but you could tell that the affection on the side of the employees was real. They really do love these tigers.