Every time one climbs into a Songtaew (red share cab) to get anywhere in Chiang Mai the only thing to look at (other than each other) in the bed of the truck are signs for Doi Suthep, Tiger Kingdom, Monkey School, “Long Neck” Village, a shooting range, something with alligators and something with snakes. Other than Doi Suthep, all of these attractions are located in Mae Rim, a district just outside of Chiang Mai.
I don’t venture outside of my area of Chiang Mai much. The 5 km radius around the gym is the extent of my exploration on a regular basis, usually seeing most of the outskirts on my runs. A few weeks ago Kevin and I walked up to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium for an afternoon, which was a rare and lovely experience away from training. But with my fight schedule, I generally don’t have time or energy to go out and see much of what Chiang Mai has to offer in terms of tourist attractions.
Recently Kevin decided he wanted to go see the tigers at Tiger Kingdom. I was surprised and when I looked at the prices online I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get out there. But when Kevin sets his mind to these things (the zoo was his idea, too) there’s usually only so long I can tell him “no.” Two years ago we went to see elephants the day before my second fight in Chiang Mai and it definitely left a lasting impression for my fight the following day, as well as over the years since then. These animals are just incredible and being able to interact with them so intimately is not something one chances in the west. So I caved and we decided to go on my day off before my 28th fight.
Getting out to Mae Rim isn’t difficult at all. Our options were renting a motorbike or taking a Tuk-Tuk or Songtaew. After looking online at some bloggers who had visited the Tiger Kingdom, we determined that one can take a share cab, round-trip with the driver waiting, for 200-500 Baht. The first cab we stopped said he’d take us for 400 Baht, which we thought was a fair price for two of us and the driver waiting for the return trip. Because he gave the number so quickly it’s likely that it’s around twice what one could pay with some negotiation, but Kevin and I don’t really barter unless the initial quote is unreasonable. The drive is about 10 km and takes about 15 minutes (it would be easy to find on a motorbike if you knew the general directions). 400 Baht is about $13.
Once at Tiger Kingdom our driver dropped us off at the door and then told us where he’d be in the parking lot. You go up some stairs and are greeted by an employee who advises you on the different prices and options. There are baby tigers (really little, domestic cat-sized squirts), “small tigers” which are about 5 months old, “medium tigers”, and “big tigers.” We decided on a package that had “big or medium” plus “small” for about 840 Baht. (Individual prices are about 600 Baht for the babies and progressively cheaper down to around 400 Baht for the big cats.) We were advised several times – to make sure we understood – that the “small tigers” are not the babies. I reckon there have been some misunderstandings in the past. But we wanted the biggest cats and the small cats, not babies – two tickets for two enclosures ended up costing around 1600 Baht (~$54). On the way out, we both remarked that this was an incredibly low price for this kind of experience. I was reformed from my initial sticker shock for sure.
We went to see the small tigers first. We arrived at about 11:00 AM and the tigers had already been fed and there weren’t a lot of guests yet (there were many more right as we were leaving just after 12:30). The small tigers were leaping around on the logs inside their area (my kickstarter premium supporters got video of my visit with them – thank you for your support!) and across the way a medium sized tiger lounged in a giant water pool, peering out over the lip of the cement pool with utter cat-like annoyance. I’m not sure what he was looking at, but I recognized every cat I’ve ever had in his pissed off expression. A guide took us into the enclosure with the small tigers and warned us about some electric wires around trees and keeping the tigers from crossing too close to the entrance, but they were easy to avoid and one tiger touched one around a tree and seemed to dislike it, but definitely wasn’t hurt by it.
Getting In the Cage
Next to the small cats were the big cats. A handler was using a long stick with a bush attached to the end to play with one of the males, this intensely huge animal standing up on his hind legs and swatting at the toy like a house cat but with enough power to take out a bear. He tired quickly, moving all that muscle must be exhausting, and laid down. Once inside the enclosure I was astonished at how much bigger and more intense the tigers seemed just from one side of the fence to the other. One female was pacing back and forth, wanting to play with the medium tigers across the walkway, which were having a pool party and swatting at each other and giving some seriously knee-shaking cat growls. I was able to sit down next to the big tigers that were taking a rest and touch their bodies, tails which are shockingly heavy and strong, and their back paws. The texture of a tiger’s fur is strange. It’s not like the hair of a domestic cat and it’s not like a dog. Each hair is very thin, so there’s a softness or smoothness to it, but it also allows you to feel the anatomy of the beast in a really immediate sense. The claws of the tigers are trimmed so as not to have a point, but they are not declawed (you can see in the video below). As I was stroking one I noted a number of scars in the shoulder area from where he must have had some scraps with other tigers. The handlers had some pretty nice scars from scratches as well.
The handlers kind of guide you through the experience, definitely keeping you safe but also encouraging you to touch and even lie on the tigers. I wasn’t fully into that – there’s a majesty about those animals that I wanted to maintain respect for and just being near them was thrill enough. I did lie down on one of the males, putting my head on his side and feeling the impossible strength of his muscles as he breathed under my ear. One female (the one that had been pacing) let me pet her for a few minutes and then sat up, resulting in the handler instructing me to “stand up” with an appropriate urgency. These tigers are not drugged and are not domesticated. They’re incredibly alert, to each other mostly – it’s weird to be touching an animal and have it look right through you to see what’s going on with the tigers across the way.
We spent some time watching the pool party tigers wrestling and batting at each other in the water, their tails splashing and spraying arcs of water like artwork. One chewed furiously at a log that he dragged into the water at one point and got dog-piled by three other tigers, none of which was really too interested in the stick but rather at the attitude that the tiger with the log seemed to have by possessing it. In a moment of wonderful glory a truly irritating tourist knocked over a “do not enter” sign to slip between enclosures to photograph the large tigers and within seconds was charged, full speed, by at least two tigers. He scampered out of his little ally and hurried up the hill, probably needing a change of shorts. Just after this incident one of the tigers in the water looked right at me and crouched down so that just his eyes peered over the lip of the pool. I immediately took a step backwards and Kevin laughed at me, asking if I didn’t have faith in the fence. It wasn’t that I thought the tiger could get me, it’s that the experience of a 250 kg animal charging straight at me is not really an experience I’m inclined to allow. Holy shit!
Muay Thai Lesson
What was perhaps the most profound recognition of the day came while watching two grown tigers facing off in the pool. If you’ve ever watched two cats batting at each other’s faces on the small scale you can picture the general energy of these tigers. They stayed right in each other’s faces, ears flattened and eyes squeezed almost shut for protection. There is stillness between strikes, but it’s loaded stillness – threatening stillness. And then comes a strike, the paw coming down in a quick slap across the top of the opponent’s head and an immediate counter strike by the other; now that the score is even they stay in the stand-off, maybe a little circular movement before they start again. It is so much like Muay Thai fighters in the ring, the bravery and brazenness of just standing in space against each other until there is an explosion of movement, an evening of score. It’s dueling. And yet, this is play, it’s not serious and if it did get serious it would be over pretty quickly. That was the lesson of the day, the lesson of playing. From the tiny baby tigers no bigger than house cats (but far less coordinated) to the giant beasts there was a thread of similarity that ran through all sizes and that was that every moment of action was characterized by play. And that’s what I need to bring to training with me, the lesson of the tigers that will enrich and advance my strength and joy as a fighter.