Big cat heaven at Phuket's Tiger Kingdom
"Please don't eat my tail. Please don't eat my tail. Oh please, please, please don't...please," begged the poor tiger as I held on to his tail, ready to take a bite. His eyes were closed, praying he won't be someone else's lunch.
Yeah right, like I'm not supposed to be the one on the worrying end that this tiger would suddenly turn on me and I end up as his lunch! But I was confident the beautifully striped big cats at Tiger Kingdom wouldn't do such a horrible thing. They were so miming and just utterly adorable.
Undoubtedly the highlight of our recent trip to Phuket, Tiger Kingdom is actually this specialty zoo's third branch in Thailand already, the original being in Ubon Ratchathani (which houses other animals as well) and the second in Chiang Mai. They had to expand to earn additional revenue and sustain their breeding program, which sounds fine to me as I couldn't imagine how much meat those cats consume in just one day.
Tiger Kingdom is located in the Kathu district just a few kilometers from Patong. It's right along the highway and every cab driver probably knows where it is. There's an open-air reception area cum lobby where visitors can peruse the many packages available and score tickets. Tickets are priced according to the tiger's size:
Smallest (2-4 months old) - THB 1,000 per person
Small (5-10 months old) - THB 900 per person
Medium (11-15 months old) - THB 800 per person
Big (16-36 months old) - THB 800 per person
Special packages are also available where visitors can enjoy a combination of different tiger sizes at a discounted rate. We got a Big + Small package for THB 1,400, which is THB 300 less if we got them separately. The rates, by the way, already include the 7% local tax and an insurance premium (in case things get awry). Optional photography services are also available.
So what do you get out of these tickets? Well, you get to spend about 10 closely supervised minutes with the tigers in their enclosure for what else but photos!
At the lobby/reception area. The photos look so enticing, don't they?
Our tickets. We got Big, Small, and Smallest.
Before long we entered the area where the tiger enclosures are and where ingress of visitors is understandably controlled. One thing I immediately noticed was how clean the enclosures were. It didn't smell at all! The smallest cats were kept indoors while the bigger ones are afforded with outdoor grounds to enjoy. They even have pools in case the tigers want to cool off. Thailand is one hot and humid country after all.
Tiger enclosures on both sides.
Cute how they post reminders and warnings to visitors.
We headed straight to our first tiger encounter--with the small-size ones.
The Small big cats
We weren't quite ready for the "Big" big cats yet so we went with the "Small" ones first. But my, even if they were only 5-10 months old, they were a hefty lot these small tigers. They were akin to really big dogs in size and were very capable, I believe, of mauling a human being for that matter. Their paws alone were already huge for a baby.
My Bibe with our first tiger. Evidently cautious and maybe a bit scared, are we?
He doesn't mind me playing with his tail at all.
But like I said these tigers were so miming that the cat in them is just so evident--the way they behave, curl up, rest their heads on their paws and all that. You'll find them mostly asleep, though, which is probably why Tiger Kingdom is accused by some of drugging their tigers so they remain docile. The zoo, however, would argue that it's just the way these cats are, that they spend most of their time sleeping particularly when they're full (they look healthy and really well-fed, by the way). They even challenge you to stay until late in the afternoon to see how restless the tigers become when they're hungry.
Aww... it's just cats you see, grooming themselves and all, don't you?
Miming fast asleep. I just want to cuddle beside him.
Poor fella fell asleep while lounging in the pool. I just want to kiss his nose.
Our tickets had a number and we weren't let in the enclosure until our number was called. Each visitor or group is accompanied inside by a handler who guides you throughout your 10 minutes with different tigers. Yes, it isn't just one tiger that you get to touch, pet, or snuggle with but all of them. At any given time there are about 4 or 5 in an enclosure.
As they've been hand-raised and trained since birth, the tigers are quite used to having humans around. But however trained they are, tigers are still wild animals and there are rules to follow in dealing with them, like they should always be approached from behind, never in front. They also should be stroked firmly because light touches tend to tickle them and they might react in an unfavorable way.
Not to worry, though, as the handler is always with you the whole time, even providing you with some encouragement so you can better enjoy your time with the cats. He'll even tell you to hold the tiger's tail, hug the tiger and all that. And although they're not supposed to, handlers will even take your pictures for you. So don't be a cheapskate and drop a few bills into the tip box on your way out, alright?
My Bibe was a scaredy-cat who quickly moved her hand away when the tiger moved and lay on his back.
Please don't bite, kitty kitty... Good kitty kitty...
Not everyone's asleep
While walking to the next enclosure we got a glimpse into what the other tigers were up to. And no, not all of them were asleep, as a number of them were wide awake. There were even two big-size tigers who were enjoying some play time with their handler. Yes, they play! Just like cats!
Richard Parker, is that you?
Play time with the humans.
The Big big cats
We felt we were ready for the big ones and went inside their enclosure. At 16 months to 3 years old, these tigers were really huge. Faced with such big-size tigers, that giddiness and excitement I felt was often accompanied by a certain sense of fear, however slight. But they were so cute!
Told you they were huge.
This kitty wasn't in such a good mood. We heard him growl a bit when he was being disciplined by one of the handlers.
Sshh! Kitty's sleeping.
(No he's not. He's ready to eat you.)
The handler assigned to us was just excellent at customer service. He sure made our time with the "Big" tigers truly worthwhile, taking our pictures for us, taking close-up photos of a tiger, coaxing us into laying our heads on a tiger, snuggle with a tiger, hug a tiger. It actually felt like we were there for more than 10 minutes. He was the best and clearly deserved a big tip.
Tired, I dozed off...
...and when I woke up there was a huge tiger next to me. Yikes!
Mr Handler directing My Bibe how to hug the big kitty.
Aww... Isn't this cute or what?
My happiness cannot be contained that morning.
Kitty in a pensive mood.
Big kitty similing for the camera. How adorable is he?
Good thing the cat behind me didn't piss on me.
Had an absolutely fun time. It was time and money well spent in my opinion. But we felt like we wanted more.
The Smallest mimings
Okay, so we just couldn't leave Tiger Kingdom without spending time with their "babies," the "Smallest" tigers, who were about 2-4 months old. This was a bit different since we were asked to wash our hands, remove our footwear, and put on their service slippers before entering.
Isn't this so aww...? Taking a peak into the enclosure while waiting for our turn outside.
There were 4 cubs inside. The 2 younger ones were separated from the other two. The younger cubs were so playful and hyper that it was not that easy taking photos with them and of them. Nonetheless we were charmed beyond the high heavens. I mean, just look:
Belly rub, he likes it.
We look funny together.
Yup, he just couldn't stay put.
"Bad kitty, bad!" Handler giving the cub a dose of discipline.
Oops, Baby kitty found Mommy!
Mesmerized by sheer cuteness. Yes, we probably could stare at him the whole day.
I really wanted to pick him up and hug him, squeeze him, and kiss him.
Both older babies were fast asleep and we didn't wake them up anymore. We were content with simply marvelling at their sheer cuteness.
But he's just a cat, right? Look at the way he's laid himself on the floor.
*Yawn* Rise and shine, kitty, rise and shine!
Kitty's still sleepy and didn't want to go to school yet.
Facilities and amenities
Tiger Kingdom has a safari-themed restaurant at the lobby/reception area that serves refreshments, meals and snacks. They also have a daily lunch buffet. I haven't tried if the food was good, though.
The safari theme permeates through the rest of the property, the restroom included. There's also a souvenir shop where they sell all things tiger from t-shirts to tiger ears headbands and hair clips, to a tiger head backpack. Prices are a bit expensive, however.
The restaurant, from where diners can passively watch some of the tigers go about their routines inside their enclosures.
I really wanted this backpack but it was around THB 2,000 or THB 3,000. Besides, would I really use it? But it's just so cute.
It may cost you some money but a visit to Tiger Kingdom is pure joy and the photographs you'll be bringing home with you are priceless. Besides, the money you pay will only help feed the tigers, fund the breeding program, and guarantee the tigers's continued survival. Yes, they should be in the wild but because their number out there is on a downward trend, they're better off here for now.
That said, I recommend you include Tiger Kingdom in your Phuket itinerary. You'll be all smiles, I tell you.
For more information, go to tigerkingdom.com/Phuket.