Chiang Mai… the first stop of our tour of South East Asia. Not a bad place to start either as it’s generally heralded as one of the best stops in Northern Thailand, with it’s cosmopolitan population of locals, ex-pats and hipster university students making a home for themselves in Thailand’s ancient “Rose of the North”.
As well as spending a bit of time wandering around the city, we had two activities planned for our 3 days in Chiang Mai – visiting a Tiger sanctuary and attending a Thai cooking school. We managed to get both of those things done, but as it turns out, one left us with full stomachs while we left the other feeling a little empty inside.
Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai
Like most tourists visiting this part of Thailand, we had already decided that we wanted to visit one of the many tiger sanctuaries in the area. We’ve heard an awful lot of horror stories about these places, like this one and this one, but we’ve also heard a lot of positive ones, too.
I don’t think there is any getting around the fact that some of these attractions seem to mistreat their animals and abuse them for profit (the most common rumour is that the tigers are drugged to keep them docile), whereas some are genuine sanctuaries for re-homed and rescued tigers. But how do you know which is which?
We tried to do some research, read blogs and asked other travellers, but for every good review there was a bad one and vice versa. The whole situation is exacerbated as each of the santuaries seem to share an almost identical name!
In the end, we decided we just had to go for it, so we visited the incredibly popular “Tiger Kingdom”, just outside of Chiang Mai. At that particular sanctuary (I think that’s a kind way of putting it, perhaps “Zoo” is more appropriate) you select which size of tiger you would like to see, pay for a ticket and wait your turn.
I’ll start by saying it is an incredible feeling being so close to creatures of that size and strength. Just stroking their backs you can feel the power there, so it’s a little bit nerve racking, but you soon calm down when you realise they don’t actually move around that much. At that point, you start to think maybe they have been sedated. They’re awake and mobile, but incredibly docile. Maybe they’re drugged, or maybe they’re just bored… but that’s not much better, right?
The tigers you can visit are certainly a stark contrast to those you can’t; rare white tigers which have been rescued from circuses and private owners. They pace up and down the (undersized) cages hoping to find a way out, or at least something to break the monotony. These tigers don’t seem to have the temperament for visitors – I don’t know whether that’s because they aren’t drugged or a as result of their past life, but regardless it’s heartbreaking to see.
We were fortunate enough to spend a little bit of time with the ‘medium’ tigers (still pretty bloody big) and the ‘small’ tigers, one of which tried to eat my shoe, which was adorable. At least the baby tigers seem active and happy! We did thoroughly enjoy the visit, but you leave the cages feeling a little bit hollow and a little bit guilty for enjoying it so much.
I could be hypocritical and advise you not to go, to take a stand against the profiteering, but I think the only way to decide is to find out for yourself. Or even better, you could always chat to our good friend Alastair of TwinPeakesMedia. He spent some time living and working in a genuine sanctuary so he knows a thing or two about the topic!