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When my trip to Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai was previewed during a Photo of the Week, commenters had many insightful questions, mostly along the lines of this: What exactly is it that you are doing in a cage with a vicious wild animal that could rip your left lung out with the swipe of a paw?

Well. Excellent question. Let’s back up a bit.

Over the years I have avoided the controversial outside Bangkok and it’s lesser-known cousin in Chiang Mai. These are zoo-like places that allow visitors to enter tiger enclosures to pet and be photographed with the animals. I had not done much research but had two vague objections which kept me from seeking out these attractions.

First, I consider myself an animal lover and these places are a no-go zone, as hardcore animal activists argue that wild animals shouldn’t be caged and put on display for our amusement in any setting (zoos, aquariums, etc.). I’m a big fan of the well-run zoo and so I don’t agree with that. However, Tiger Temple and Tiger Kingdom are on shaky moral ground as rumors abound that the cats are kept higher than Lindsay Lohan on her way to court-ordered rehab. You know, on account of they don’t want people getting mauled in the face.

Second, while this is a much smaller consideration, I always kind of felt that these places were major overpriced tourist traps.

Well, somehow I found myself in the center of Chiang Mai in a stare down with a tuk-tuk driver over prices to get to Tiger Kingdom. Two things convinced me to go. One, I was in a complete mental and emotional daze over my recent life changes. My friends Wim and Dave probably could have suggested that we go deforest the Amazon or embezzle some retirement funds and I would have nodded blankly and started walking in that direction. Two, I really, really wanted to pet a baby tiger. I AM NOT MADE OF STONE, PEOPLE.

As we arrived I was curious to see how my two objections would play out. On the overpriced front, I was of course totally accurate. Tiger Kingdom charges separately for each time you walk into one of the tiger enclosures, which are categorized by “big,” “medium,” “small,” and “smallest” tigers. To go into each enclosure ranges in price between 420-620 baht ($13-20usd). Because we kind of figured this is a once in a lifetime thing we went for one of the combo packages, paying 1,260 baht ($40usd) to go in the cages of the big, small, and smallest tigers. There were also photo packages available but between three people and two cameras we had that covered. This is one of the priciest activities I have taken part in throughout Thailand.

Now, onto the drugging debate. Do the tigers above look drugged to you? Yeah, not to me either. At this point, standing with my little paper cage-entry tickets and watching these creatures buck and roar, I kind of secretly hoped they ones I was about to meet had been slipped an Ambien or something at least. (Just kidding, crazy animal people. Please don’t throw red paint on my coat. It is pleather.)

But yes, moments before we walked into the cage, I felt fear for the first time since the whole idea came up. Hey, want to go pay butt-loads of money to be placed inside the cage with a 300lb. beast? HECK YES! Actually standing in front of a sign warning you not to put your fingers through the cage for fear of dismemberment? It brought on slightly different emotions. Um, did I not just pay to go into that cage?

And this was before I had ever even read about at the “tame” cheetah park.

Luckily they started us out slow, with the small (but not smallest!) tigers. There were about six in the grassy enclosure and half were snoozing while the other half romped around. It was pretty surreal to walk up to a sleeping jungle animal like it was some kind of house cat. I think of myself as fairly gutsy, yet it took a bit of prompting by the handlers for me to actually reach down and stroke their coarse fur.

I had seen promotional photos of people using the tigers’ tummies as little head pillows, a pose that I wouldn’t quite choose for myself partially due to my laziness towards hair-washing. But the handlers very enthusiastically insisted that I take part, and so I did, with somewhat hilarious results.

Of course the tigers, who had snoozed through this routine for both Wim and Dave, chose the exact moment I made to engage in some terrifying sleep-stretching. At this time I learned exactly how fast I am truly capable of going from the laying-down to the sprinting position.

Once my nerves subsided, it was time for the big cats. I was pretty comfortable with the idea of the tigers at this point, until I realized how hyper-alert the keepers in this cage were. They definitely knew their charges well and were quick to tell us where to touch, when we were too close, etc.

As with the human population, tigers get lazier with age and these big boys were actually quite sedate. Still, when I touched them I was shocked; it was nothing but pure, lean muscle beneath that wiry coat. The tail alone felt like a hundred pounds in my hands.

Obviously I took the whole thing very seriously.

Queen of the Tigers

There was one moment where things got a little real. As Wim and Dave were posing for a typical honeymoon us-with-a-tiger shot, their costar got a little fussy and gave out a tiny roar. Lucky I captured Wim’s reaction on camera. After that we decided it was time for tiny tigers only.

We had definitely saved the best cats for last. Unfortunately, we had also saved our sweatiest, grossest selves for last. If you really want post-card worthy photos with these little guys, I recommend trying to see them first, or bring at the least bring along a hairbrush or something. I kind of cringed when I saw myself in a mirror on the way in and realized I was about to take part in the most well-documented 12 minutes of my life.

That thought pretty much evaporated the moment we got on the floor and started tummy-time with these munchkins. What is it about us biologically that makes it impossible to not melt at the sight of tiny baby creatures?

I mean, we can all go home now, right? Because this is the most adorable thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world.

The cubs were hilarious. A few were sleepy but the majority ran around like little caffeine machines. They pounced, swatted, and played, and at one point one cub took a little nibble on someone’s hand! The trainer swatted him lightly on the nose and said “no,” which amusingly is the same tactic I used while trying and failing to train my dog Tucker.

So what about the drugging charges? Tiger Kingdom vehemently denies them, claiming the tigers behave the way they do due to a combination of factors. For one, they are nocturnal animals and thus are used to sleeping through visitor hours. Also, the average tiger sleeps 16-18 hours per day! Lastly, these tigers are extremely well-fed, as opposed to their wild cousins who spend the majority of their waking hours hunting. So, as one keeper explained to me, with all their basic needs met, the tigers turn to laziness (for more evidence of this phenomenon, reference 97% of the human race).

After interacting with these animals it is of my opinion that they are not drugged. If they are, it must be fairly lightly because they are quick to play, react, and interact.

Of course I cannot say with 100% certainty whether or not these animals are being sedated or whether or not they are happy, and I completely respect the decisions of those who decide to stay away. But I can tell you this: I have learned to listen to my gut when it comes to these matters, and I left here with a clean conscience. I’m really glad I visited Tiger Kingdom. I went in expecting a feeling of discomfort that has become familiar when it comes to animal attractions in Southeast Asia, but it was a majorly pleasant surprise.

What do you think? Have you or would you visit a place like this?

To see the full set of my photos from Tiger Kingdom, click

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43 Comments...
  • Toni
    July 4 2012

    Meihoukai these photos are truly gorgeous! I can’t decide who is cuter; you smiling on the tigers šŸ™‚ You look so naturally happy and having fun and you’re right, they don’t look drugged – very playful instead; just being lazy in the heat. And I LOVE your friend’s reaction when it growled and that she is wearing nail polish!! My kinda lady šŸ˜€
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    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2012

      Thanks Toni! What a sweet comment šŸ™‚ And yes, the heat definitely contributed to everyone’s laziness… tigers and humans alike!

  • Kieran Chapman
    July 4 2012

    This is a wonderful post for two reasons:

    a) It’s hilarious, warm and I love your writing style.

    b) Iit’s not a cop out, you faced the issues head on, you deal with them reasonably and you took it upon yourself to find out from your own experience what your opinions were.

    Definitely coming back for more! (Though I’m not sure how you can top hanging out with Tigers… just sayin’)

    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2012

      Thank you so much Kieran. It’s definitely a struggle to write honestly about some of the ethical decisions when you travel (especially when you aren’t taking the clear-cut high road!) And I’m so glad you find my writing hilarious — I find that to be the highest of compliments!

  • Dani
    July 4 2012

    We didn’t visit Tiger Kingdom the first time we were in Chiang Mai, but we finally gave in and went the second time we were in town. We weren’t unsure about the drugging of the tigers – some people said they were drugged, others (who had visited the park) said they weren’t. So we wanted to see it for ourselves. To be honest, we are still not sure if they really are as sleepy as they were when we visited, but we have to admit that we totally fell in love with the baby tigers – so adorable!!
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    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2012

      Yes its definitely a gray area, I wouldn’t say that I’m 100% sure of anything, of course. But as I said overall I was impressed with the conditions! And yes… the baby tigers were simply irresistible.

  • Dad
    July 4 2012

    Meihoukai, these are fabulous pictures and what an adventure!!! However, I have not let Tucker see this post. He would be very jealous of the attention you are lavishing on other four legged creatures and spooked by them being really big kitty cats. He is such a wimp about felines.

    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2012

      Haha. Poor Tucker, I don’t know how he ended up so afraid of cats. Miss my pup!

  • I loved this post Meihoukai – I have the same hesitations about places like this. Glad to hear it was a good experience overall. Your photos are fantastic, as usual, and as someone who tends to make a mustache out of anything close by once a camera comes out, I particularly appreciated the tiger tail ‘stache one šŸ™‚
    EM | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 5 2012

      Ha, thanks! That was one of my favorite shots as well! šŸ™‚

  • Rachel
    July 5 2012

    Those baby tigers are so freakin adorable. I’m considering going to Tiger Kingdom when I’m in Chiang Mai; although I am a bit hesitant. But I keep reading posts with good impressions, so that’s positive!
    Rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 6 2012

      It’s definitely a personal decision, and I respect people who make either choice!

  • Marc
    July 5 2012

    Meihoukai, You are crazy !!

    • Meihoukai
      July 6 2012

      You know Marc, had I been home I would have scanned and included that picture of all the girls in Myrtle Beach holding the baby tiger! Might need to do that when I get back!

  • Jonathan Look, Jr.
    July 5 2012

    The big cats are amazing. I was once hired to do a photo shoot at Tiger Creek Wildlife rescue near Tyler, Texas and came away changed. Magnificent animals that definitely deserve our respect.
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    • Meihoukai
      July 6 2012

      That sounds like an amazing experience! I love wildlife rescues and it would be such a treat to be hired to photograph one.

  • Jen
    July 5 2012

    I am so incredibly jealous! My favorite wild animal has to be the tiger, and I would pay any amount of money to be able to pet and cuddle with one! I’m glad you followed your gut. I too get really conflicted visiting zoos and aquariums, but I appreciate the opportunity to be able to get so close to nature and learn more about them.

    • Meihoukai
      July 6 2012

      That’s the thing, Jen, that keeps me defending zoos and aquariums. I think its hard to find the passion to protect something if you can’t see it and understand it.

  • Zoe
    July 6 2012

    sooooo cute!!!!!

  • Emily in Chile
    July 7 2012

    I think I would have to stick to smallest tigers. Not only because they are SO CUTE! but because I’d be against drugged up big tigers and kind of scared of non-drugged big ones. But tiny baby tigers? Yes please!
    Emily in Chile recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 8 2012

      That is definitely an option! You can just go in one of the cages. But yes, I relate to your dilemma ha.

  • Morgan barsi
    July 8 2012

    Awesome photos. I’m headed to Chiang Mai tomorrow. I definitely want to check this place out. Do you have any accommodation recommendations in Chiang Mai?

    • Meihoukai
      July 9 2012

      I’m so sorry Morgan but I can’t recall the name of the place we stayed! It was pretty pricey anyway at 600 baht… we totally splurged.

    • Meihoukai
      July 9 2012

      Wait I lied! Found a photo. It was called Ban Ramida. Really really nice, I totally recommend if it is within your budget.

  • Paul Sentes
    February 7 2013

    Make no mistake, zoos are prisons. Have you read of the plight of elephants in North American zoos? (It will turn your guts if you truly care about wildlife and know how sophisticated elephants are.) There are better ways to get people behind saving wildlife than locking them up in glorified jail cells, your opinions about zoos notwithstanding.

    I just went to Tiger Kingdom today and left after taking a good look at every enclosure. The baby cats are sure cute, but the big cats just hammer home to me that they don’t belong here, a tourist side show. At least there are no poachers hunting them, so I guess that’s a . Overall it’s a pretty slutty take on animal exploitation, and Thailand is one hugely guilty nation in this regard.

    Last week I went to the Elephant Nature Park north of Chiang Mai. Look up this reserve to see how someone who really loves animals runs an operation. She makes Tiger Kingdom look exactly like the perverse joke it is, and she makes a fraction of the money. I didn’t see one piece of literature or signage in Tiger Kingdom that eluded to any type of tiger conservation, unless I’m completely inattentive, because I was looking for them. It was the reason I left early with no trophy photos. This organization is barely better than elephant trekking, but they’re both still in the moral basement.

    • Meihoukai
      February 8 2013

      Hey Paul, funny timing to see this comment pop up now after almost a year. Funny because I am back in Chiang Mai now and just visited Elephant Nature Park! I have a post about it coming up soon. I was also dismayed at Tiger Kingdom that none of the profits went to Tiger Conservation… that would definitely make the whole experience easier to swallow.

  • Paul Sentes
    February 9 2013

    How cool, Meihoukai!
    I will be the first to admit, my visit at Lek’s Elephant Nature Park (not actually named that, it’s just that Lek started it) is what turned me a little bit off on Tiger Kingdom. Thailand is such a beautiful country, but their wildlife abuses are brutal. ENP was exactly what I think a wildlife reserve should be. No tourists riding the elephants, no elephants painting, no sitting upright on their hind legs, etc. There’s a ten year old there from B&B Circus who is blind from cataracts caused by camera flashes. You probably saw her. She’s only ten! Proper elephant handlers know how sensitive their eyes are, apparently. There are some +90 year old elephants at ENP. I will go there again for sure. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. What a great place. I rented a motorcycle from Chiang Mai and rode up there myself, then toured up to Pai for a few days. Now I’m back in Chiang Mai as well, leaving for Bangkok tomorrow afternoon.
    I’m at 088-827-4164 if you have phone access.

  • Rosie
    March 1 2013

    Thanks for this great post! I went to Tiger Kingdom a fortnight ago and absolutely loved it. I believed their claims that they are not drugged when the one I was supposed to be posing with jumped up and splashed into its pool! Some of the biggest ones were pretty quiet but then again so would a 300 lb human if you fed him well and allowed him to sit in the sun at midday… Drugged, unhappy tigers are definitely not what I experienced.
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  • Brittany
    April 24 2013

    So these tigers are not drugged, but this facility does not keep them beyond 2.5 years of age. After that they are sent to zoos or “other facilities”.

    Here’s the problem- tigers reach 60-80 pounds by 6 months of age, so in order to always have smaller babies this place has to have litters every few months. That’s a lot of tigers who reach 2 years of age every year. Tigers live to be 12-15 years old, so what is happening to these tigers for the rest of their adult lives? They can’t be released as there’s no way they could survive in the wild. Based on the constant supply of cubs there must be at least a dozen tigers per year that are leaving this facility.

    I’ve worked in zoos for years, and basically all accredited zoos are full, many with waiting lists for animals. There are tiger sanctuaries that are absolutely full of discarded tigers from the movie industry, and from people who have owned them as illegal pets. So where are the tigers from Tiger Kingdom ending up? I know 1 or 2 have gone to Ubon Zoo in Thailand, but how about all the rest of them?

    I don’t have the answer to this, I’ve researched it and tried to figure it out, but this is the one area of business that Tiger Kingdom is not at all transparent about. I’d like to think that these tigers spend the next 13 years of their lives comfortably but if that were the case why would Tiger Kingdom be so hush hush about it?

    • Meihoukai
      April 26 2013

      Brittany that’s an interesting part of the equation that I haven’t heard before! The controversy over captive tiger facilities is definitely growing and I’ll be curious to see how it shakes out over time!

  • Brenda V
    July 4 2014

    I don’t agree that you have to see and touch a particular animal to appreciate and want to help with conservation. Sorry. I love and respect animals I’ve never seen in real life through reading on them and seeing them through documentaries. Why would I want or first need to see an animal in a cage in order to love it? Of children are taught to respect animals amd truly love them, they wouldn’t want to see them in cages. I’m not saying I’ve never visited a zoo..but once I did and I saw those animals locked up, I vowed never to visit another one.

    • Meihoukai
      July 6 2014

      Hey Brenda, you might enjoy my post on The Ethics of Zoos and Aquariums. I’m not sure if I’d do it again if I knew what I know now, but as you can see I was conflicted even at the time of my visit. Appreciate you sharing your perspective!

  • Anne
    January 26 2015

    Going to Tiger Kingdom or Tiger temple contributes to the exploitation of these animals, and to more tourist attractions like this being opened. Tigers are endangered: we have lost 97% of the population in the last century. Is it really worth exploiting these animals for a couple of photographs?

    Here is a video explaining what goes on at Tiger Temple:

    • Meihoukai
      January 28 2015

      Hey Anne, I visited Tiger Kingdom years ago and don’t think I’d make the same choice today. I wouldn’t be so opposed if the money at least went to tiger conservation but it doesn’t appear to. Thanks for sharing the link.

  • Kate
    April 19 2015

    Hi there! I know this is an old post, but I’ve recently discovered (and fell in love with) your blog and have been going back. I have a question–do you have a strong opinion on the Karen village in Chiang Mai and seeing those? I’ve seen a lot of photos and tours involving them but I am unsure if they have similar moral issues as some of the other Thailand tourist experiences and was wondering if you had an opinion! My gut just says nope.

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2015

      When I was in Mae Hong Son I was kind of waffling back and forth on how I felt about it, and on my final day ended up having food poisoning. I guessed that was the universe’s way of telling me not to go šŸ™‚ I think I would have found it uncomfortable and a little too touristy.

  • Maria
    November 9 2016

    After Reading your blogpost on Tiger Kingdom I googed on it and found this article:

    Read this Before you decide to go!

    • Meihoukai
      November 12 2016

      Hey Maria. I’m long overdue for an update to this post. I wouldn’t make the same choices today.

      • Maria
        November 13 2016

        Okay. I love your blog by the way, it given me so much inspiration!:)

        • Meihoukai
          November 13 2016

          Aw, thanks Maria! I appreciate that!

  • khunwilko
    March 1 2017

    It is so sad to see apparently educated people contributing to the abuse and exploitation of animals in this way.
    your behaviour just increases their suffering and brings animals like tigers and elephants one step nearer to extinction.

    • Meihoukai
      March 3 2017

      Hey there. I have been meaning to add an update to this post. Today, I wouldn’t visit an attraction like this — I’ve learned a lot since 2012.