The sun pierced the grey clouds overhead to beat down on my back drawing from it a thick line of sweat. The perspiration trickled from the nape of my neck and likewise from my furrowed brow. I’d like to blame it on the heat, oppressed only by the humidity, but in all honesty my faltering nerves bore the brunt of the responsibility.
A small man, carrying nothing more than a narrow bamboo stick emerged from behind the thin chain link fence, the sound of clanging metal a signal to us we were being granted entry. With my eyes following nothing more than my feet, I crouched to make my way through the small gate into the open concrete pad beyond. “There,” the man said using his bamboo as a pointer. From his hand I followed the line of the stick to the massive bengal tiger lying leisurely in the corner.
My heart pounded in my chest drowning out our Thai trainer and a noisy group of tourists nearby. The feeling drained from my legs leaving them heavy and awkward. Still, I stumbled toward the creature in the corner.
Whether he was simply unbothered by our presence or in a drug-induced haze, I’ll never know. “Rub him,” the trainer encouraged as my weak legs carried me ever closer to the tiger. Quietly and without the authority and certainty most likely necessary for working with one of nature’s most powerful and dangerous beasts, I crouched near the tiger’s tail and ever so cautiously stretched my hand near to the tiger’s thick, muscular hind leg and gently let it fall.
The thick, course hair bristled beneath my hand, and the tiger lifted its head from the cool concrete only momentarily before allowing it to fall back to the earth. “Harder, harder,” the trainer barked as he watched me do little more than tickle the beast. “They don’t like it soft,” he reiterated. “Push hard.”
As my hand sank deep into the belly of the tiger, its stomach seemingly softer to the touch than its hind quarters, his thick tail rose from the ground slapping me in the back. I could feel the strength and power even within his tail, which was easily thicker than one of my arms. His heavy paws, twice the size of our hands, gave way to his muscular legs, thick core and gigantic head with his sharp yet sleepy steel grey eyes and powerful jaws capable of taking down animals five times my size.
I panicked. I jumped from the tail end of the tiger and moved swiftly toward Dan who was standing nearby. He chuckled as he moved to the tiger, sat down near its rear and began to stroke its legs. Dan reveled in the moment, the exhilarating experience of touching one of nature’s untouchables far outweighed any fear or doubt that entered his mind.
“You can lie down,” our trainer encouraged Dan. He reached his hand past the tigers heaving belly toward its strong, thick neck making a weak attempt to stretch himself ever closer to the tiger’s face.
My mind blurred as we moved from tiger to tiger, each massive creature different from the last and each reacting differently to our touch.
Looking back now, it was most likely the stupidest thing we’ve done thus far. I voluntarily walked into a cage with four adult bengal tigers in the Thai countryside. I can’t quite say what exactly it was that led me to agree with Dan’s outlandish idea, but I hesitantly saddled up and went along for the ride.
Days before in the comfort of a beautiful Chiang Mai hotel room there had been harsh debate over the legitimacy and ethics, or lack there of, of visiting one of two of Thailand’s tiger experiences. The first, a tiger sanctuary run by monks south of Bangkok, has come under extreme scrutiny for abusing and drugging the animals, but it seems each allegation hurled its way cannot be substantiated. However, the Tiger Kingdom north of Bangkok outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand has largely avoided the negative publicity that plagues the Tiger Temple south of Bangkok near the bridge over the river Kwai. Still, caging one of mother nature’s most powerful and beautiful creatures for the benefit of tourism is wrong. Like other animal “sanctuaries”, Tiger Kingdom didn’t pretend to be saving Thailand’s endangered tiger nor did it tout its efforts to create a viable, comfortable habitat for them. It is what it is – a place for tourists to roam freely alongside beautiful bengal tigers.
While our giant cats were as docile as a house cat, I can assure you other tigers at the park are not drugged. I stood in amazement as a young couple wandered into an enclosure with not one or two dangerous cats, but five mid-sized and very playful tigers. The animals raced through the enclosure, diving into a murky, man-made pool and stalking each other with fierce intensity before pouncing to play.
The chance to interact with some of nature’s most magnificent creatures is what brings many tourists to Thailand, but it’s generally not what makes them fall in love with the long, slender Southeast Asian country. For all of its faults, and to be honest there are many, the country offers an exotic escape with modern amenities and without the fear of being thrown to the travel wolves in a far flung country. It’s why after criss-crossing Southeast Asia, and spending two days on a slow boat up on the Mekong River in Laos, we were overwhelmingly relieved when we crossed the border back into Thailand.
Our time in north Thailand near the Golden Triangle was spent reveling in burgers and ribs at a country western steakhouse in the very westernized enclave of Chiang Mai and exploring the more rural sites outside of the overly touristy city.
Farther north in the smaller enclave of Chiang Rai, we somehow wound up using a rented scooter as an off-road dirt bike during our failed attempt to find one of several waterfalls, and instead settled for a roadside pineapple picnic thanks to the dozens of fresh pineapple stands lining the main highway north of town. We were amazed with the uniqueness of Chiang Rai’s White Temple and Black Temple. The White Temple, the incomplete masterpiece of modern Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, is a world renowned artists known for using traditional Buddhist imagery in modern art.
Its counterpart, the Black Temple, serves as more of a contemporary art gallery seemingly centered around the creatures of America’s great southwest. Here, snake skins, skulls and cow-skin rugs are used as centerpieces inside hollow, wooden, black, temple-like buildings. The bizarre nature of the works of art is intriguing at least, fascinating at most.
The several days in Chiang Rai led us to explore the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos collide. The Triangle, originally home to the largest opium production ring in the world, has since ceased open production of the drug, but the numerous roadway checkpoints flanked with armed guards indicates ongoing underground production and distribution. Intrigued but mostly uninterested in learning more about the once active and dangerous drug trade in the Golden Triangle, we instead set our sights on Mae Salong – a small Chinese village, which at the urging of the Thai government traded its opium fields for tea plantations.
It is THE place to learn more about the subtle yet vast differences in tea cultivation and production. Here small stalls peddling tea line the roadway and small restaurants dishing up authentic Chinese cuisine abound. But, it’s the stunning scenery that captivated Dan and me. The wild growth covering the rolling, green hills give way only to seas of tea plants or small pockets of rice paddies, and never-ending green stretching toward the horizon is interrupted only by the main street of the small town and shining gold tops of the outlying Buddhist temples.
Inside Doi Mae Salong sit some of Thailand’s tribal women who use the town to sell jewelry, clothing and bags to passing tourists.
Outside of the small town tucked off a rough dirt road sits a multicultural village home to three of Thailand’s Hill Tribes. It’s a rather bizarre and to be honest disheartening experience to walk through the small thatched-roof huts filled with dozens of hand made scarfs and hand-hammered bracelets each tended by a member of the Long Neck or Big Ears tribes.
The tribes and tourists have come under recent scrutiny for the symbiotic relationship they have developed: tourists pay to see the long-necked women and the Long Necks continue to subject their bodies and that of their young daughters to what equates to mutilation as a way to make money. The rings are placed around their neck at a very young age and as the child grows so does the number of golden metal rings. The neck is never actually lengthened rather their collar bones collapse and their shoulders are forced downward to give the appearance of a lengthened neck, which is a sign of beauty in their culture.
However, as the modern world reaches their doorstep many Long Neck Karen women are choosing not to subject their bodies and their children’s bodies to the traditional rings that have been a hallmark of their culture for decades. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t shake the strange feeling as we walked through the rows of tourists stalls at the tribal village. It felt as though they were animals in a zoo.
While in the small village we learned of allegations that Thailand refuses to claim them as part of their population and instead views them solely as refugees from nearby Myanmar where the long necks originated. It has left them without a permanent home, a sense of belonging and without support from a government.
Still, the hill tribes are a unique part of Thailand, and if it weren’t for the income tourism provides they would quickly fold into a homogenized modern society. For that reason alone, I’m glad to have learned about their unique culture first hand.
Unfortunately, it does seem as if we were simply unable to avoid Thailand’s ethical dilemmas, but I am thankful we were able to recognize the issues at hand instead of simply ignoring them.