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Thursday, January 24, 2008

When Tigers Beckon : Si Racha Tiger Zoo

You know, Thailand has never really disappointed me. There's always something special to remember every time I come to this country. This trip is the best yet. Because today, for the first time in my life, I finally saw and HELD a baby tiger.

Enough with the shopping already, I thought. Enough of hanging out in the city. I wanna go outside Bangkok this time, there's so much to see out of town! But particularly, there're these 3 places I've missed time and time again and have been longing to visit - the old floating market, the tiger zoo in Si Racha and yes, the incredible tiger temple Wat Pa Luangta Bua which I'm sure you've seen on TV and in magazines.

playing with 'Payak', the juvenile tiger
(monks at the Wat Pa Luangta Bua tiger temple are the tigers' guardian)

So I did it. Chose to go to Si Racha first because it was harder to get to. Strangely, I couldn't find a tour company that make trips there! Well, here's the plan... over the next 2 days, it was gonna be tigers, tigers and more tigers for me. What a feeling.

I remember when Abraham (my hero, the ex-vet of Zoo Negara :P) took me to visit MegaGah, our already fully grown hand-raised male, in his enclosure. Tame he was, but the animal's incredible charisma and that silent energy, made me feel so powerless and small. Being close to a tiger like this only overwhelms you with an involuntary gush of fear and nothing more than pure respect.

Now I've anticipated seeing cubs so much I was literally shivering with excitement while quequeing for my ticket at the Si Racha counter; like when candy of sorts are thrown at a greedy child who can't decide what to grab but knows she wants it all, I was so excited I felt lost. Go to 'Pig Feeding Tiger Cubs ' first? Or 'Feed Tiger Cubs with Milk Bottle'?

'Take Picture with Tiger' first or see the 'Happy Family'?

2 Golden Retrivers, a pig & a tiger all in one enclosure.
These poor doggies looked miserable, filthy & uncared for.
Couldn't help but wonder if they actually LIVE in there for real? Are they even taken out for walks?

Maybe start with the Tiger Tunnel first, whatever that is. And then do all the other animals later...

Si Racha Tiger Zoo is about 2-hours drive from Bangkok, down south on the way to Pattaya, located in the Chonburi province. I hired a hotel limo at only Baht3500 (compared to Baht3000 for a public cab) to take me there, wait and take me back. Well, I think this is the best way to go after getting hell from Federico for hiring a public cab at first. He's right, better be safe than sorry. It's long distance afterall, you never know...

It's all good, totally traveling in style; lounging on cream leather seats with blasting a/c and grooving to the greatest hits of Micheal Learns To Rock the entire journey (the 'Rocky' soundtrack would've been equally corny but at least more apropriate la). It must have been 10km or so from destination when the driver started gesturing frantically to the shocking pink signboard bearing an arrow + a 'Frosties' tiger pointing to the word TIGER ZOO, like every km of the way. Although I speak little Thai and he almost zero English, we both understood each other from animation, the excitement awaiting. He, name's Yong, was happy for me and was very helpful. By the way, I decided later to book the tour company he was working for, to the Tiger Temple the following day.

Finally arrived at Si Racha Tiger Zoo. The entrance fee is Baht350. Visually, this place reminded me of Zoo Negara, only a little more run-down. Apart from those interesting activities I've already mentioned, the ticket includes the crocodile, tiger and elephant shows and pig racing too. And pig doing calculation?? That, I missed.

There're also other attractions like Scorpion Queen (girl standing in a cave with scorpions hanging off her t-shirt) and Crocodile Eggs-Breaking Festival (you can help 'hatch' incubated croc eggs & watch hatchling come out of shell - I saw photos). You can even take pictures with tame baby crocs at Baht150. I can see why this zoo is such a hit not only with tourists but the locals too.

The highlight of this place is of course, tiger cubs suckling from their serrogated mother pig. I've seen this on TV too, years ago. But i remember seeing piglets too, dressed in tiger print outfits.

Anyway, what a strange phenomenon. It wasn't noted anywhere though, that pig milk is right for tigers to consume neither do they offer explanation why these tiger cubs aren't feeding on their own mothers. But I read from their website, that this procedure is an experiment (what??!). They let tiger mums feed their young for only 7 days from birth, then pass on to mother pig coz it was found babies grow 20-25% quicker that way. Makes me wonder right away if it's hygenic at all, parasites and micro-organizsms from other species? I really hope they're doing more good than harm to the tigers...

3-week old cubs in nursery
Look at the sleepy one in the back! Aiyoh they're god's gift la...

Well, apparently this zoo started breeding Bengal tigers since '89 and is the largest tiger zoo in the world. I can believe that coz I've never seen SO many tigers at one place! Blessed with an extremely fertile Bengal tigress called NU which gives birth 3 times a year (normally just once in 2-3 years), each time bearing 5 cubs (normally only 1-3 at a time). Wow, that's 15 babies every year from one tigress alone! You can see feeding session in the Tiger Education Centre/Nursery.

What i thought as absurd, irritating and infuriating is behind a glass enclosure full of adult tigers is this jackass African guy & a chick, put there to force tigers to pose for pictures. Yup, he hits the tiger's face with a stick! I couldn't not do anything, so tried to make him stop (heh one day the tigers will return his favor - what goes around comes around...).

A place like Si Racha DOES NOT need a circus like this! It's tacky and it's definitely not kind to the tigers at all.

Then you can of course pay Baht50 to bottle-feed tiger babies - I think that's dirt cheap, for the experience you get! Like I did, you can ask one of the girls to take your picture while you feed:)

There were around 30 cubs in this room, aged 3 weeks to 4 months.

And these cubs, so cute... they make the most unusual sounds! Their little crying growls sound like a cross between a high-pitched scream and a rough 'meow'.

There're also tons and tons of crocodiles at this place because the zoo actively breed them here. People can learn more of crocs at the Crocodile Education Center. Some hatchlings are apparently tame, you can hold them and take pictures for Baht150 or if you fancy feeding the bigger ones, you may do so for only Baht50.

These pictures I took just don't justify the magnitude of space and quanity of crocs here. There're hundreds!

And then there's the crocodile show where the guy slides around with the giants, kisses them and puts his arm in their mouths. The girl however, does her stint by inserting her head into the croc's mouth. Although I find shows like these meaningless, I'm dumbstruck at the possibility of doing it at all without getting your body parts bitten or ripped off! How in the world???

Overall it was a good experience. With the tigers, extraordinary. It was kinda beyond what I had expected. Rates were reasonably cheap for both feeding and picture opportunities so that's great for everybody!

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