Jess and I were happy to reach Chiang Mai after another long, 18 hour journey. Bar trying to sleep on the non-sleeper bus and completely failing, it wasn’t a bad journey. The border crossing from Laos to Thailand was the quickest and easiest yet (and consisted of a fun little boat ride across the Mekong river), and although yet again I had the horrible back, corner seat of our mini bus from the Thai border to Chiang Mai, we made a nice little group of friends who made the journey a lot more bearable. It was, however, extremely bumpy being sat on the back wheel and to get to my seat I practically had to sit on a guy’s lap! I did however, manage to preoccupy myself with a few episodes of The Hills through being thrown in the air and worrying my laptop would smash on the floor.
After being sick of constantly being on the move and knowing that there was a lot to see and do in Chiang Mai, we had factored in 5 or 6 days there – knowing that we wanted to wait to see Songkran there before heading back to Bangkok. I felt similarly about Chiang Mai as I did about Luang Prabang. I had visited a year previously on my last trip at a time where I was feeling too homesick to enjoy it and hadn’t had a chance to see much. I basically arrived there one afternoon, went for dinner and drinks, got horribly drunk, woke up the next morning with no memory of the night before, spent a day riding elephants with the worst hangover of my life, collapsed in bed when the day was over and then moved on the next morning. Suffice to say I didn’t see much of Chiang Mai itself and so was eager to explore the city a bit more this time, in a much better frame of mind.
Arriving in Chiang Mai I automatically knew I would like it there. I can usually tell from the first half an hour or so how I’m going to feel about a place, and this was no different. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand and yet has a totally different feel to Bangkok. The centre revolves around some Ancient walls, which make it that little bit easier to find your way around (although we did manage to get lost for about 40 minutes trying to find our hotel on the first evening – it was hidden down some alleyways). It also has a pretty good night market (not as good as Luang Prabang in my opinion but still decent) which has a bit more variety than the Khao San road area and is slightly cheaper. We spent our first full day in Chiang Mai basically chilling out by our hotel pool and then visiting the night market. I often enjoy chill out days as much as the action packed days and this was no different.
There were three things we knew we wanted to do in Chiang Mai – going to the Tiger Kingdom, riding elephants and experiencing Songkran. The first of which I was a little apprehensive of. I had heard bad reports about the Tiger Temple – that it was cruel and that the tigers were drugged, hence why I had resisted temptation on my last trip. However, a quick google search bought up good reports about the Tiger Kingdom, and Jess really wanted to go, so I thought I would give it a go and hope I would leave with my conscience in tact. Luckily I didn’t regret that decision.
When you arrive you can pay for a few different options starting from just seeing the smallest or biggest tigers, to seeing every age. Knowing we would only be there once, we paid for the most expensive package which involved seeing the smallest, 2 medium sized cages and the biggest. We would also get a photographer for two of the cages so we opted for the smallest and biggest. The whole thing cost us around £35 (probably one of the most expensive activities we’ve done in Asia) but for a once in a lifetime experience we knew it would be worth it.
We must have chosen the right time to visit as we barely had to wait to go into the cages. The longest wait was about 10 minutes to get in the smallest cage with the tigers that were a couple of months old. It was pretty frustrating watching everyone photograph the tigers while we stood at the sidelines but we got our time with them eventually. Strangely, of all the tigers, it was the babies I was most scared of because I found them a little more unpredictable – obviously they had had less training. We took a couple of pictures lying on them etc and I was a little worried they would just turn around and snap at my face when I wasn’t expecting it!
They tell you not to touch their heads but it’s so tempting to do that! so unfortunately you can’t stroke or play with them too much but you can watch them play with each other and the trainers playing around with them which is pretty adorable! there was absolutely no way these tigers were drugged as they had bags of energy.
Apparently tigers naturally sleep in the day and since they’re raised in captivity by humans it makes sense that they’re so tame. The older tigers were also pretty playful at times and so personally I don’t think they were sedated.
There were a few moments where I felt a little nervous, especially when the larger tigers would turn their heads to me unexpectedly, but most of the time I felt completely safe. The tigers were obviously well used to this. The trainers would tap them on the head/legs if they came to close or looked threatening – but only in the same way you would train a dog by tapping it – not so much that it was painful. I didn’t think they seemed mistreated and I liked that they had the tigers in a rotation so that it wasn’t always the same tigers being posed with constantly. They seemed to have plenty to spare.
We got to see the newborns but only from a distance. The smallest tigers hadn’t even opened their eyes yet and were so adorable! we also saw the ones that must have been a few weeks old get fed and played with. Although we really wished we could go in and play with them the same way you would with puppies or kittens it was totally understandable that we couldn’t. All in all I loved the experience and I didn’t feel guilty for having gone – it was no more cruel than a zoo.
After the Tiger Kingdom we paid a quick visit to a Longneck village, which cost us 400 baht entry fee (quite a lot here) and was basically just a way of getting tourists to their stalls to buy things. It was a complete waste of time to be honest, even if we did see one or two ‘long necks’. We returned home after that and had another chilled evening. I loved the fact that we had the luxury of doing that in Chiang Mai after intense travelling for so long – slowing down was just what we needed. We spent the day after doing something similar, before doing another trip the day after to see this elephants – and this time I would be hangover free!