Ostensibly, you left the Manhattan-on-speed that is Bangkok for the relative peace of Chang Mai, Thailand, to climb the 309 tiled steps to the magnificent golden temple on Doi Suthep. The temple’s origin story involves a white elephant carrying a relic of The Buddha to the mountaintop, so you are hopeful that the needed calm will be found there.
But really, you came to play with the tigers.
You enter Tiger Kingdom under a sign that looks like something out of the Jurassic Park movie. Inside the gates, you approach the desk and select your tiger. Small, medium, or large. Sizes for pizza, not animals, you think. That these are carnivores does not really occur to you at that moment, nor does the inherent moral issue of tigers as amusement. Like enjoying the elephants at the circus until the realization of their difficult existence hits and you are ashamed to have contributed to their misery. But honestly, that came later.
Handing over the colorful baht, you can only think of what a baby tiger will feel like. Eagerly, you walk down a path towards their cages. You stand in the waiting area, read the warning signs that say in one fashion or other, DO NOT ANNOY THE TIGERS, and you agree, absolutely, that you will not annoy them, though you wonder what exactly upsets a tiger in 100 degree heat being stroked by a parade of smiling tourists.
Then it is your turn. You step into the cage and two bundles of striped fur come running up as if they’ve been waiting all day for you. They roll in your lap and over your shoulder and nip at each other and at your hair and fingers. Their handler is sitting on the floor in front of you and each time one of the cubs nips, he pops it on the nose with a thin reed.
Startled, the cub looks at him, then continues swiping at your outstretched hand with its paws. The cubs are the size of small dogs, exploding with puppy joy and feel so incredibly soft that you can’t stop bundling fistfuls of fur in each hand. You coo at them, as if they are babies, and you wish you could secrete one in the backpack you left outside the cage and just take it home. The fifteen minutes you are allotted goes by in a snap and soon the handler is taking away the cubs and you shout bye-bye as if your presence meant something different to them than the hands of the fifty other people that will pet them today.
You return to the path and stop in front of the cage holding the medium tiger. A head as big as a first class airline seat. In a moment, you will be escorted into that cage and you wonder if this is the coolest thing you’ve ever done or the most stupid.
As the handler instructs, you sit behind the tiger’s haunches and stroke his back. It feels the opposite of the cub’s fur—slightly greasy and wiry. More like something you touched once at a kiosk at the zoo. The handler says, “Play with his tail. He won’t mind,” and so you do. You pick up the tiger’s tail and you hold it and it twitches and he turns his head around to look at you. But that’s all he does, just looks, and you sit there, grinning, holding the tail, and wondering if this is annoying the beast.
And then the handler says, “Go on. Lie down on him. It’s okay. He won’t mind,” and so you do. You lean your back over the long muscular line of him, afraid to apply too much pressure in case he is actually aware of you and this is truly not something he wants you to do. You can’t believe it, but you are lying on the back of a four-hundred-pound tiger. Your fifteen minutes just doesn’t seem to end, but then it does, and you get up, oh so carefully, and step towards the gate and you don’t turn around to say goodbye to this animal. You just step outside and take a deep breath of sweat and tiger urine and head further down the path.
You stop in front of the large tiger cages. Six hundred pounders lazing in the afternoon heat, pink tongues lolling on the concrete. You see a middle-aged woman, maybe American, maybe British, lying on top of the biggest tiger you have ever seen and you turn to the people you are with and say,
“Now that’s nuts.”