On the last day of my last trip to Thailand, I learned about two things that I could have done if I had more time: pet a tiger and swim in a shark tank. Ever since then, I've been looking for an excuse to go back.
My excuse came this year when I discovered that flying from Tokyo to Berlin would cost about $600 one way, but that a one way ticket from Tokyo to Bangkok and another one from Bangkok to Berlin would cost $500 combined. I wasn't getting a free trip to Bangkok-- I was getting paid to stop there.
Bangkok has some amazing malls- the apparent king of them being Siam Paragon, at the Siam skytrain station. Besides a movie theater with fold-nearly-flat leather recliners complete with pillows and duvets, a Lamborghini dealership stocked with cars, and one of the best food courts I've ever seen, it also has an aquarium. A big aquarium.
Central to the aquarium is a shark tank that holds nurse sharks, reef tip sharks, and leopard sharks. If you pay between $150 and $225 (depending on whether you're a certified diver or not), you can scuba in the tank with a guide, and get extremely close to the sharks, rays, and other sea critters.
It may not be wild like the ocean, but there's something to be said for being in such a small body of water so highly concentrated with interesting things to see.
It's amazing to get to see sharks so close, with no barriers between you. Not sixty seconds after descending to the bottom, a one swam two feet in front of my face. For the first time I got a real sense of their size and presence.
For the most part it wasn't scary, although they do have a habit of swimming straight at you and then turning at the last second. At another point (visible in the video), I looked around and realized that three of them were circling me. Another time one of them hit my head with its tail.
I highly recommend the experience, even (especially) if you're scared of sharks. It's a great opportunity to see live sharks from inches away.
The next day we joined a tour to visit the Tiger Temple. I normally stay away from tours, but it was far cheaper than organizing the trip ourselves, and had an extra stop at the bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge was actually built under the conditions described in the movie, but looks completely different.
The most interesting part of the River Kwai stop, though, was right around the corner from our bus. Sitting on top of a table in a food stall area were two baby leopards. Live baby leopards.
Would I like to feed one for $3? Of course.
Next thing I know, I'm sitting on the edge of a table, and a baby leopard has climbed on my lap and is pawing at me to get the bottle that I've been handed. Incredible! Because it's a baby it's very active, so I have to restrain it a bit with one hand while I pet it with the other. After it gulps down the first bottle, I'm handed a second. Possibly the best three dollars I've ever spent.
After that we went to ride Elephants, which was really touristy and cheesy. Afterwards I bought a bucket of elephant food (bananas) and hand fed one of them. For some reason no one else was excited about this option, so I did it alone.
Also falling under the category of "why is no one else doing this?" was jumping in the River Kwai. After eating a really good lunch that I didn't know was included, they took us on a raft up the river. I was a little annoyed at myself for signing up for something so touristy, so I decided to liven things up by stripping down and jumping into the muddy water. The water felt great, so I floated next to the raft all the way back down to the restaurant.
Finally, after a somewhat awkward bus ride where everyone else was fully clothed and I'm not wearing anything besides soaking wet underwear, we get to Tiger Temple.
Tiger Temple was a normal monastery until, some years ago, an abandoned tiger was left with the monks there. They took care of it, and were given another tiger. Now the've got a couple dozen of them, and visitors can come and interact with them. I had no idea what to expect, but I figured I'd be satisfied even if I just got to pet one once, and that I'd push for more if possible.
I wasn't disappointed. At the back of the grounds is a canyon that has about a dozen or so tigers lying around in it. Some critics accuse the monks of drugging the tigers, but I read everything I could about it and was convinced that this isn't the case. One by one a guide takes you from one tiger to the next to pet them and have your picture taken.
It's crazy, really. These are beautiful animals that you can usually only see through thick glass, and at the Tiger Temple you're actually laying down next to them and petting them. One of them laid on his back and let me rub his belly like a dog.
After all that, which only lasts five or ten minutes, we wandered off around the grounds until we found a monk walking a baby tiger. I asked him if I could walk the tiger, and he handed me the leash. For the next ten minutes or so, it was as if I had my own pet tiger. When we stopped, the tiger turned back towards me and licked my shin with his prickly toungue. I sat down in front of him, held his paw, and put my face near his. It sounds trivial in the retelling, but it was really an incredible experience.
Thailand is great country for a whole host of reasons, but the ability to get up close and personal with normally forbidden animals is at the top of my list. Next time I go I want to swim with the elephants near Chang Mai and do the four hour morning program at Tiger Temple where you get to hang out one on one with a tiger for hours.