We met a local tuk-tuk driver called Gary (not his real name obviously, but what he called himself so that tourists could pronounce it) and did a deal with him to drive us to the tiger sanctuary that we'd heard about, where you can get into the cage with them.
Gary was the Thai equivalent of Delboy, about 50 years old with a slickback hairstyle, dark shades and a glint in his eye. A real character, a charmer. When we stopped for petrol in his multi-coloured tuk-tuk, it was HIM who bought US a drink, when the usual procedure is for the tourist to buy the driver a drink on a long drive. He pointed out all the main attractions on the bumpy journey out to the tigers.
When we arrived, the place looked like Disneyworld, such was the professional appearance and efficiency of the organisation.(I'm not saying that in a derogatory way, only our previous experience of such attractions had been a rundown shack with a wooden handwritten sign and the manager asleep in a hammock.) It soon became clear from the crowds that this particular attraction makes serious money, not least since the cost of 15 minutes in the tigers cage cost around 10 pounds per person, a lot by Thai standards.
Next, we had to select which size tigers we wanted to "play" with. The babies looked cute, the adults looked scary, so we opted for the medium-sized animals.
It wasn't until we were being led towards the tiger's cage that I began to get nervous, and told the guide as much. He laughed and laughed, and when we came face-to-face with the beasts it soon became obvious what it was that he found so amusing...the animals were all snoring their heads off, completely out of it. We were told to take off our shoes and approach the tigers from behind, never attempting to touch their heads or front paws. This precaution was all for show, pretty ridiculous since the animals were all blatantly drugged up to the eyeballs on tranquilisers. We could have marched through there with a brass band in tow and they wouldn't have batted an eyelid.
"How come they're so sleepy?," I asked the keeper as we tiptoed into their cage, going along with the charade. Said keeper, who had been chatting away a few minutes earlier,mysteriously developed a classic case of selective hearing and chose to ignore my probing questions.
We were encouraged to cuddle, stroke and pat the tigers, which we did as the photographer snapped away. The tigers were gorgeous creatures,all soft fur and huge paws. They looked well-cared for, if a little lethargic; the keeper had to drag one of them over by his feet to get him to pose for the pictures. He even had the front to tickle the tigers noses with their tails, to which the tigers barely responded. It was at this point that we agreed they MUST be drugged - you can't even do that to my cat Ronnie without him trying to bite you, let alone a full-blown tiger.We could've prised their mouths open and stuck our heads inside and they'd have just yawned.
Even so, when the keepers encouraged us to lay our heads on the tigers' stomachs for some more photos I still felt a little nervous, which comes across in the pics as we're sporting fixed, Wallace and Gromit-style grins, which look faintly ridiculous since the terrifying, wild animal in the photo happens to be unconscious.
After our final photoshoot which involved us spooning two dozy tigers on the floor we'd had enough of mugging ourselves off and gave someone else a chance to pose with the couple of comatose creatures, whilst we went off to feed the camel, which, whilst not quite so exciting, was at least awake.
We visited the rest of the tigers, only one of which was pacing the cage furiously whilst the rest looked lazily on. It was at least 30 degrees, but even so, this lot were like a bunch of rag dolls. We were able to get really close to them and took some great pics, but we still left feeling a little short-changed and sorry for the animals. Although I don't know quite how we were expecting to rub their tummies and stroke them had they not been doped - we felt a bit guilty afterwards, and despite having enjoyed the experience of seeing the tigers close-up,wondered whether we should have supported such an attraction after all...