Dave is sipping his Leo beer and I my Bacardi Breezer as we sit on the porch of our bungalow at the Pai River Corner Resort. Karis and Casey are snoozing in the bungalow next door. Multi-beaked flowers of brilliant scarlet sprout beneath the wide leaves of the palms that skirt the lawn before us. Across the way, the turquoise waters of an infinity pool sparkle in vivid contrast to the mud-brown river flowing just beyond. On the opposite bank, people squat, washing dishes. Yes, they are wearing coolie hats and washing dishes in the river as we sit on our porch with our drinks.
The dish-washers have a fire going, and it smells like autumn in New England as plumes of wood smoke rise above bamboo huts visible among the palms. From the hotel bar sound system, the ‘80s singer Boy George croons, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
I know. Crazy.
Pai is a clash of cultures: hippie-meets-island-meets-jungle-meets-up-and-coming-resort town. Strings of red lanterns criss-cross narrow streets of tiny storefronts interspersed with tangled vines, palms, and open-air restaurants beckoning with swings or resting platforms as seating. Thai silks and hand-woven scarves form colorful curtains and neat rainbow mounds in several shops, while right next door, an establishment sells kewpie dolls, dingy yellow rubber duckies, an E.T doll in a red sweatshirt, pink knitted pig heads, and retro wind-up streetcars, fire engines and satellites. Intriguing.
Signs for Thai massage are an omnipresent lure. Dave plans to partake and during this afternoon’s exploratory stroll, he peered into each parlor, hoping to spot a babe of a masseuse. So far, the women glimpsed have appeared sturdy and strong, but definitely not babes.
Lining the main walking road, vendors on blankets, in booths, and with pushcarts hawk their wares. Skinny, dread-locked jewelry merchants sit cross-legged, stringing beads, next to black-garbed Hmong women in colorful embroidered vests selling handmade purses, skirts and bags. Dumplings simmer in boiling oil, vegetables steam, eggs bake in wrought iron pans, and meats roast on skewers. Despite one hideous case of food-poisoning in Laos, Casey and Karis are bold about tastings. Dave and I, however, are wary of street food. Prior to our departure, many people warned us about gruesome diarrhea, parasites and stomach aches, so my backpack is heavy with a plethora of potions: Pepcid, Pepto-Bismol, Cipro, Maalox, cranberry lozenges, charcoal pills, Imodium, and Ex-Lax. We hope to avoid their use.
As it is, Dave and Thai food have not been a good mix. The coconut milk, soapy-flavored basil, and sour fermented fish (a real favorite) have made him bloated, uncomfortable and suspicious. The Witching Well, a cozy Pai eatery decorated with witches, orange walls and spooky black trees, served the best food we’ve had in Thailand: tofu, broccoli, mild curry, cauliflower, and cashews. Delicious.
Pai has been a lull in our quest for danger, for this morning, our driver, a man for whom brakes do not exist, did his best to kill us on the switchbacks in the mountains on the road to Pai, and yesterday, we snuggled with tigers.
Tigers are not in this world for people to pet, but Tiger Kingdom offered that opportunity with the assurance that “Tigers do not have to be drugged to be tamed.” Drugging aside, I’d prefer tigers free and wild, and elephants unchained. I don’t want farmers to lose crops to a stampede, nor their small children to a hungry orange and black striped beast, but how do we reconcile large animals and humans? The answer is not elephant rides and tiger temples, I know, but here, one can lie with tigers, and we did.
At home, organizations and agencies seek to save us from folly and unhealthy leanings. Regulations, red-barred circles, barricades and fences remind or coerce us to caution. Not so in Thailand. As we took a tuk tuk (a motorized rickshaw/taxi) to Tiger Kingdom, motorbikes zipped past us, laden with entire families. Without helmets or safety devices, three-to-four people clung to each vehicle. In the back of pick-up trucks, aged crones and tiny grandchildren made the ride to home or market. And at Tiger Kingdom, a signature on a waiver gave daring, or possibly stupid, tourists full responsibility for whatever mauling or mutilation they might incur as a result of their choice to cuddle an impressively clawed and toothed 700 pound animal.
Casey and Karis were the impetus behind this tiger encounter. They were also the ones with a healthy fear. I, who suffer from anxious butterflies for days at the thought of a few minutes of public speaking, had no qualms. Perhaps I still unconsciously adhere to my naive childhood belief in the protection and concern of beneficent governments, confident “they” wouldn’t let us do this if it were dangerous.
A quaint notion.
After reading the rules, a list of “Do Nots” - Do not approach the tigers from the front, do not touch their paws, do not engage in provocative behavior - we removed our shoes and donned slippers to enter the cage with the baby tigers. Seventeen months old, and the size of a hefty beagle, they were precious – big kittens! Most were napping, although some batted littermates’ ears, climbed up on the low table in the middle of the enclosure, or ambled about checking the visitors.
Casey and Karis were charmed. They cooed and beamed as they stroked orange fur, rubbed tiger tummies, and lay against warm bodies. What a moment: our dear, intrepid travelers, faces blissful, curled up like children with beloved and trusted pets.
Trainers bearing sticks the size of pencils – the means used to train the cubs from the time they were tiny, a quick rap on the snout enough to halt iffy actions – accompanied each tourist group, ever repeating rules and cautions. I’m an intelligent person. I read the rules. I heard the trainers. Still, when a cub honored me with his attention, established eye contact, roused himself from the floor to begin a slow, purposeful saunter my way, I looked him in the eye and made “awww, you are the cutest little guy” type-sounds. Three trainers sprang between us, pencil-sticks at the ready, firmly hissing, “Avoid eye contact! He thinks you want to play! Dangerous!” The tiger backed off and I was flush with embarrassment. I had provoked a tiger.
After that success, it was time to see the big cats.
Again, foolishly – I seemed to have an instinct malfunction - I was not afraid. Dave wore a bright smile; I noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Casey and Karis wisely stifled their default mode of raucous laughter. They approached this encounter with wide eyes and hesitant, should-we-really-be-doing-this smiles of awe, respect and again, healthy fear.
As suggested by a pencil-armed trainer, we took turns draping ourselves across the broad muscled backs of four different animals and running our hands along their sides. I hoped the tigers, who gnawed coconuts, licked their paws, yawned, and shot the occasional bored glance at whomever was lounging on their flank, would not reach the point of annoyance and cuff the offender. Headlines ran through my head, a ticker tape of unnerving possibilities, all a variation on the theme, “Tourist Loses Face in Tiger Incident.”
For these tigers were alert. When not subjected to our ministrations, they paced the enclosure, grumbling. Huge paws placed one before the other, they padded back and forth along the fence of the enclosure. At one point Karis knelt by a tiger, patting and smiling, patting and smiling, her smile stretching too tight, blue eyes widening as I cheerfully video-ed her tiger time. “Um, Lea? It’s probably okay, but there’s this tiger? Right behind you? Don’t make any sudden moves…”
Wishing only to make a sudden move, I kept the camera running, continued narrating in a singsong voice, turned s-l-o-w-l-y, and reflected that while I didn’t want the tigers drugged, I’d thought, had hoped, they’d be, maybe, drowsy...
But the tiger was far more interested in the tussling of his fellows in a nearby enclosure than he was in me. After Dave, Karis, Casey and I immortalized each other with our tiger companions in a variety of self-conscious poses with four separate cameras, our time was up.
As we headed to the exit, Dave’s grin relaxed and his eyes widened as he said, “You won’t believe what happened to me!”
What? What could have happened? We were all in there together.
“Before we went in. I was strolling over there,” he indicated the slip of a path between two cages and the animals within. “I took a few pictures, and as I walked away, I heard thudding. When I turned to look, that tiger had a bead on me and was loping after me. As I scurried away, the tiger on the left was coming at me too! Might need to change my pants after that one!”
He provoked the tigers too!
Turned out, Karis had an unnerving experience as well, when the one lion in the place turned nasty as she lined him up for a portrait. He lunged at her, but crashed into the chain link fence. Whoa. Provoked again. What set them off? Maybe Dave and Karis smelled…tasty. Good thing we had pencil-waving trainers to protect us when we walked into the cage with the tigers.