There are some moments in life when everything seems to come together at just the right time. I had one of those moments the other day when cruising the back roads of Northern Thailand by motorbike and realizing that my Family, nature and a peace provided by a higher power are all I will ever need.
I had planned to rise early at 8am that morning to then join the masses of westerners in a full day of organized tours to the famed temple of Doi Sutep and the irresistible Tiger Kingdom. What is that quote regarding the “best laid plans of mice and men”? Regardless, I overslept and then awoke to be delivered with some rather unpleasant and unexpected news from back home. A potential day-ruiner and I had missed the guided tour bus to my planned destinations. As The Dude would lament, “that’s a bummer man”.
So I headed out of my guesthouse in the hopes of at least a finding decent breakfast and much needed coffee. On my way to a suitable eating establishment I happened to pop into what i thought was one of the many street side (or should I say Soi side) travel booking agencies. As I inquired with the Thai ladies within about tours to my desired destination leaving late in the day, dealing with the usual price haggling and language barriers, a western looking young lady entered the building. The westerner, a lovely Brit by the name of Nikki, proceeded to wave off her Thai coworkers and give me the advice that would completely turn my day around.
“Instead of an organized tour, why not rent a motorbike and do it all yourself? The trust that many fellow expats share was established and my solution was now crystal clear. I thanked her profusely and then headed off to follow her expert advice. Come to find out, the place I randomly walked into was actually the headquarters for S.E.A Backpacker Magazine, an outfit dedicated to backpacker and flash packer travel in south east Asia. Forget travelfish.org, http://www.southeastasiabackpacker.com/ is a great website for getting any information you need about the travel and countries in SEA. I was handed an issue of their latest magazine and read it cover to cover the following evening and I scoured their website, very nicely done.
Based on four lines of written directions from Nikki, I embarked on one of the most incredible day-trips of my life. The first stop was a noon breakfast at Euro Cafe (one of the many expat eateries/bars owned by some Australians) where I did in fact get my decent breakfast and coffee, I had an excellent Spanish omlette. I then headed directly next door to Nikki’s reccomdation of Mr. Beers motorcycles for a motorbike rental for the day, only 150 bht ($5). Despite the name, Mr. Beer was very reputable and helpful.
Getting users to the bike took a few minutes, but then it all clicked. The recess of my brain where motorcycle operation had been stored was fully activated, thanks be to my Dad for giving me dirtbikes and motorcycles as an adolescent. I headed to Chiang Mai’s north gate and continued on the highway to Mae-Rim and the Tiger Kingdom.
Now, Tiger Kingdom, what can I say? A chance to literally pet and play with tigers of all sizes for a price of less than $50, and in an environment wherein they are treated humanely? Yes please. Many folks have mixed feelings about the several Tiger refuges that are located in Thailand, and for good reason. There are reports of abuse, drugging, chaining and general mistreatment of the animals simply for the tourist dollar. I made sure to check out Tiger Kingdom beforehand and they appeared to be a legitimate enterprise. Not run by Monks, like many of the tiger refuges and orphanages, but the Tigers are treated well and part of your Money goes back into conservation efforts.
I walked up to the counter and was directed to purchase a ticket for the type of tigers I wanted to encounter. Big, Medium, Small and Smallest were the choices and based on price ($1250 bht) I chose Big, Small and Smallest for my ticket. I was then led into the gated area and guided around to the different compounds where each set of tigers relaxed during the day.
I was randomly paired with Rober (Robert), a Spaniard also traveling alone, so we got to experience the Big cats together. Some were sleeping some were playing, some were just gnawing on bamboo or coconut husks, but we got to see and pet them all. An especially funny photo-op came when a tiger was getting ready to take a poo, and Rober, thinking that this was a trained pose by the tiger, came up behind it for a photo only to have a pile of steamy Tiger soft-serve dropped between his feet.
Next came the small tigers,which were about the size of my families golden retriever back home but with paws the size of saucepans. Most of these youngsters were quite sleepy at this time of day, so the handler took my camera from me and snapped photos for me while I laid around with these big kitties.
Finally, the smallest tigers and by far the cutest and most playful. These little ones were bigger than your average house cat but acted very much the same way when it came to being lazy and chasing around things on a string. Which brings to mind the question: is there catnip for tigers?
As you can see from one of the pics above, the tigers all still have their claws and teeth and as far as I could tell, none of these tigers were drugged in any way, but as you may notice they appear to be knocked out in many of the pictures. Tigers sleep up to 18 hours a day, this is how they can afford to survive as a big cat with little prey in the wild and make them capable of amazing feats of leaping, climbing and running. You may also notice the spots behind their ears, I was told this was a defense mechanism to mimic eyes on the back of their heads.
After the exhilarating Tiger Kingdom experience I still felt I had more biking to do to clear my head, so I headed off on the Saoseng Road around the mountains to explore and blow off some steam. Little did I realize then that this Saoseng Road would be the equivalent of the “Blue Ridge Parkway” (of Asheville fame) in Chiang Mai. I took a 2 hour long ride up and down steep mountain roads and hairpin turns. There were gorgeous vistas, small towns and lots of farmland. I won’t bore you with more words and I certainly won’t go into my visit to Doi Suthep in this post because you all probably cant stop scrolling though the tiger photos anyway but I did make a short video of my motorbike adventure to can get an idea of what I was experiencing. Music by Knife Party, Internet Friends, the song is a bit explicit, so just turn down the sound if it’s not your bag.