Cats - in all kinds and sizes - have always been my favourite animals, my talisman and my obession.
When I was a little kid, I would only draw cats, my Mom would call me "Kisa" (which means more or less kitty in Russian) and no cat would ever pass by me without getting a hug! I might have widened my drawing skills - but some other things stay the same, no matter how much I grow older.
Anyway, while we grow up and become adults, we often keep our childhood passions - and so did I. Therefore, while travelling in Thailand I couldn't possibly find a place where to touch a big cat - more specifically a tiger. Many might know there is a big problematic about illegal parks where the tigers get drugged just so that tourists can take a picture. Of course, as a fierce animal rights' defender, I would never want to participate in something similar - and for me it was never about the pictures, but just the experience of being able to touch a tiger, pet them, play with the little ones.
After a lot of research - and testimonials from people who have been there already, or volunteered in such a place, I found that Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai was the most acceptable place where I could go to fulfill this dream of mine.
Of course, you can't expect the tigers to be really WILD. Almost all of them grew up in captivity - in the park itself, or with another similar organization. Therefore, they are not aggressive towards humans, and don't see them as pray. Of course, for safety reasons, there are rules about the minimum age to go inside the cages of the differen tigers. There are 3 or 4 different categories, starting from the little ones of 2-3 months, 'till the big ones who are mostly 2-3 years.
I decided I wanted to see the smallest and the biggest ones, just to have an antithesis.
The little ones are really cute, and you can even play with them - just not touch their teeth and mouth. Since they are very young, this is the time where their education starts, and they get taught to not lick or bite people. Of course, at this age, they probably wouldn't be able to hurt a human - but if they continue doing these playful things when they become bigger, they could easily bite off some useful bodypart.
Most of the time they sleep - just like a kitten of a house cat, but when they're awake they're happy to interact and play with you!
The big cats are a different story. You are not allowed to touch their entire head, front paws and you can't approach them from the front - which might make them think you want to play, and you could end up as a tigertoy - which is not recommended. For the rest, you can freely give them a belly rub, touch their tale (this is a big difference with a cat, they don't seem to care too much about it...) and hug them.
As far as I can judge, none of them were drugged. A trainer gave us a small proof of that when he started playing with one of them with a palm leaf - and I didn't see any tourist screaming "He is drugged" while he jumped up about 3 meters in the air, trying to catch the leaf with his paw.
Most people just don't realize that if a wild animal is raised with people and loving care, it will not be the same as the wild species, not have the same hunting instincts, and not see us as food or threat - but as a friend or playmate.
I think everybody should be able to judge for themselves - and though of course I prefer to keep wild animals in the wild, I have to admit this was a very enriching activity on my trip, and before going there I researched a lot about tigers, and animals in general kept in captivity and their behavioural changes because of that.
Tiger Kingdom is located about 30 minutes outside of the center of ChiangMai, and easily accessible by scooter or car. Prices vary, but are around 10-15 Euro per visit of a certain age category of tigers.
Getting to Chiang Mai is easy and can be done by cheap AirAsia flights from Bangkok Don Muang airport (starting from 20 Euro one-way), or even by nighttrain from Bangkok.
If you're looking for a simple and cheap accomodation - with a possibility to have orgasmic Belgian waffles or pancakes for breakfast, consider booking a room at Cumpun guest house, a very simple hostel run by a Belgian young man and his Thai girlfriend. Very nice people who are always there to help you, small clean double rooms for less than 10 Euro a night.