I started writing this August 2013 but it has been in my drafts ever since, so I decided to publish what is here rather than let it accumulate hypothetical dust in cyberspace. 

Right, so before I begin I should probably state that 'backpacking' usually suggests hostels, but personally I wasn't ok with the whole 'sharing a room with strangers who could possible strangle you in the night and steal your stuff'... so this 5 week adventure was a little more luxurious. And who am I even kidding 'backpacking'??? I had my boyfriend Charlie carry my rucksack the majority of the time... either way, last August instead of going to university I decided to prolong it a year, save some money and explore South East Asia (the prospect of touching elephants really sold it for me). Originally I thought going alone would work, but then I realised I'm a liability at the best of times, so I decided to drag Charlie along. We booked our flights (£520 return each I think) 6 months in advance around Christmas time, meaning we got a fairly good deal and then before we knew it June was here, we were at Heathrow and leaving to Bangkok via New Delhi.

Haha, now the light hearted intro is over let me tell you how this adventure began.

We arrived at Bangkok around 6am, after flying for about 14 hours with a stop over in India, which was still midnight UK time. With little knowledge of how the currency (baht) corresponded with the UK sterling pound. We were happy to jump into an air conditioned taxi after hitting the humidity insisting 'METER' like all the travel books had told us. I think the hour taxi cost 400 baht including tolls, which at the time seemed outrageous- a lot of paper money! But then when we actually looked at the conversion rate at the hotel 300 baht was about £6... and can I add on the Isle of Wight where we live, £6 wouldn't get you 2 meters down the road- let alone an hours drive!

For the first night, we booked in at a hotel I found on laterooms.com (with a pool, breakfast included etc. of course) just so we had somewhere to go at 6am to drop off our bags and get a little sleep. It was definitely a good shout, we had a shower, walked around in our courtesy robes for a bit and then I tried to get Charlie to wake up to come explore Bangkok. - So first tip: book accommodation for your first night to get your bearings.

First impressions weren't that great, I mean I wasn't expecting much, it is a city after all with a bit of a tainted reputation... but it did grow on me.

Don't judge me on my fanny pack... they're in fashion ok!! And super practical in Thailand.
Actually tip two: buy a fanny pack.
If you like shiny looking painted gold buildings, and walking around in 40 degree heat whilst covered up, then man you'll enjoy The Grand Palace! No I'm kidding, well I'm not, but it was interesting and one of the top things to do in BK. Plus the guards which have to stand there all day without interaction or probably even blinking top things off. I was thinking about it, and those guys must sure appear on a lot of Facebook pages- I took a photo next to one just because it was the same guy my sister had a photo with a few months prior!! I also took a few photos for other people with that guy, but seriously, why do I have to turn HDR on for every iPhone user?!?! It makes a great photo, why don't people know that?

Here we have the famous guy who appears on many people's Facebook pages and
sometimes even makes the cut to profile photo (not in my case, sorry disciplined Thai man!).
Ah, Khaosan Road... the former rice market is a far cry from that now. We were instantly bombarded with men measuring Charlie up for suits and you couldn't walk 2 meters without finding a pair of knock-off Dre Beats or Ray-Bans. You could more or less find anything on this surprisingly short street, including a night with a deceivingly good looking ladyboy...
Beware of the tuk-tuk men who weirdly are desperate to take you on a tour of the city for a cheap price or even for free... I mean so weird, why would they do that? I guess they're just super kind and definitely aren't trying to con you... either way, calling me a pale lady whilst I'm grumpy with jet lag is no way to get me into your tuk-tuk Mr Tuk-Tuk man! Pale, me?? IT WAS THE FIRST DAY, give me a break!!

Jim Thompson's house was a brilliant spur of the moment decision, due to it being close to the bus station we needed to get to that night. An american guy's house what's the fun in that? Well my friends, maybe you should google Jim Thompson... or you could just wait for me to tell you. Born 1906, Jim Thompson was an American businessman who fell in love with Bangkok whilst in the army, who then went back there after the war to revitalise the Thai silk industry in the 1950s/60s. The page turner is, he completely disappeared in 1967 to never be seen again- and at the time of his disappearance he was the most famous American living in Asia. It is said he almost singlehandedly saved Thailand's silk industry from extinction.

I liked learning about this man I had no idea about and also watching how silk was made, which I too had no idea about. We got to explore his house that had been preserved since he disappeared, roam his gardens and pester the turtles within the grounds.

Next stop: Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand).
So finding the bus station wasn't as easy as the map suggested, and after getting off the skyrail to where should have been the bus station... it was nowhere in sight. The sky was black with cloud and it had started raining conveniently, so we tried to get a taxi but no guy would take us by the meter so we thought they were ripping us off where it was so close. You can shove your 100 baht stupid taxi man, and you can shove your 40 baht weird dangerous moped men, we said as we sulked in the rain... and the heavier rain and the torrential rain... expecting to find our bus station which indicated we were already there on the map. After 20 mins walking and no taxi stopping for us as we were completely drenched, a pesky moped man offered to take us one by one, we declined as there was no way we wanted to get split up. Then however, two turned up together... it wasn't that far though, surely? What could a little journey on the back of a moped hurt? Safe to say up until that point I'd never feared my life more- two people cramped on a tiny 125 moped which certainly had not undergone any MOT, blinding rain, no helmet, I'm dressed in shorts and a crop top, with a guy who weighed less than the rucksack on my back weaving us in-between huge lorries and buses on a busy road. We arrived and I was weirdly happy, it was probably the whole surviving thing which had just happened. We gave the drivers 100 baht each and they looked puzzled and said in poor english 'no 40 each' and we just smiled and said 'take it'. Our tip for them getting us there alive and giving us the biggest adrenaline rush and fun imaginable. Tip 3- take the taxi at the damn skyrail for 100 baht, especially if it's raining!!

Tip 4 - don't expect to sleep on the night bus to Chiang Mai, even when travelling VIP. When getting coaches in Thailand, you'll come to see they all look like they won't make it out the station, well they sound like that too. Noisiest journey with tons of pointless food stops to wake you up even if you had nodded off. Jet lag doesn't help too... but Chiang Mai makes up for it!  

We arrived at 5am, an hour earlier than expected and were worried we wouldn't be able to get into the 'old city' where we were going to stay. We needn't worry as there was obviously an army of tuk-tuks waiting for the coach to come in. Before we knew it we were in the old city, without the cramped streets of Bangkok anymore plus with added dogs. We stayed in Soi 9 if you need to find somewhere to stay, 350 baht a night for air con, fan, wifi and a private shower.

Tip 5 - go to Tiger Kingdom! Before even arriving in Thailand I knew 'Tiger Kingdom' was going to be my priority of the trip. Despite a sleepless night I was eager to get there as soon as possible (Charlie not so much). I'd done a lot of research and was aware there's a lot of controversy about the tiger encounter experiences in Thailand. Places such as in Pattaya where the tigers are kept in small cages, drugged, declawed and have their teeth removed- all so tourists can have a photo cuddling a tiger. Tiger Kingdom however had very positive reviews, still apprehensive I wanted to check the place out for myself and form my own opinion of Chiang Mai's popular attraction.

First impressions aren't bad, you arrive at a landscaped building and park similar to a zoo entrance, with lakes and large enclosures surrounding. We chose to do the 'baby, medium and big' option, beginning with the cubs first to gain a bit of confidence! I think it came to about 1500 baht each with a professional photographer in one of the experiences- we chose with the adult cats.

You're led over to a large enclosure where you're told to wash your hands with antibacterial hand gel, to remove your shoes and to put on a pair of their soft ones (similar to the dreaded CROCS) and to ensure you have nothing dangling around for the cubs to play with, with your bag securely away.

I think the cubs were about 3 months old but they were HUGE, and surprisingly intimidating as they play fought with each other. They were probably the size of a heavy middle sized dog (not really narrowing it down here for you, sorry! A beagle maybe? Man I love beagles...) We were told not to go for the faces as they think that means play mode... but we were encouraged to sit down and interact with them if they were interested and slowly we gained the confidence to cuddle them. Just like any other cat they seemed to love the attention and rolled over like dogs to have their tummies tickled, one cub tried to steal my shoe whilst I was cuddling another! Once comfortable the workers offer to take photos for you, all they have with them is a small bamboo stick which they tap on the floor if the play fighting gets out of hand... or like with me, they try to steal a shoe. The cubs very much do their own thing, and you just get to touch the ones who want to be touched- no forcing occurred.

(Sorry for the quality of the photos- they were just taken on my iPhone, which had a 'life proof' case on which caused a horrible reflection glare in that particular lighting.)

I expected them to feel soft like a cat, but they felt quite the opposite and were very corse. We were told the tigers can sleep between 16-18 hours a day, especially in the heat of Thailand, much like a house cat; with the cubs constantly snoozing. We however had our time with a bunch of active ones, constantly running around, playing and play fighting with each other. I'd have happily left there and then content for the rest of my life... well, if there wasn't the option to meet the adult tigers!
Next we met the medium sized tigers 'the adolescents' who were about a year old. These guys however looked huge in comparison and it took us a while to get the courage to go in the cage with a bunch of tigers roaming around. These tigers had a proper enclosure, and we were told a list of basic safety rules before going in- mainly don't go for the faces, but they really encouraged us to go for the tummy rubs if we wanted to make friends! We were led over to relaxed tigers, whilst others just walked around us... the cubs were certainly not drugged and neither were these.

The photo above is a tiger relaxing on a log- the keepers instructed me to get on the log to 'cuddle it'... as you can see by the photograph that is one large tiger!! If it wanted to eat me, it could do so in a second- I did not want to straddle a log, interrupt the relax time it was clearly having and cuddle it. Either way, I ended up cuddling it as you can see. My hesitations were lifted once the keeper went 'are you too scared?' which I immediately replied 'of course!' he laughed and then grabbed the face of the tiger and blew a raspberry lovingly into its face which the tiger seemed to enjoy.

From there we were taken to the enclosure where the fully grown tigers were kept. We had paid for a professional photographer for this enclosure, which basically meant we came away with a lot of cliché photos they made us pose for...
These tigers were BIG. I couldn't help but warily ask one of the keepers if anybody had seriously been hurt by the tigers... curiosity really killed the cat there, he bluntly replied 'oh yes!'. After that I felt really safe and relaxed...

In here I was made aware that these tigers, although yes in captivity, had their own free will in situations... hey who would want to mess with one though?! One of the largest males was swimming and I had a few photos with him, but once out the water he seemed somewhat agitated and started pacing up and down (this is where I wanted to run away). A keeper approached him to try and calm him but Mr Tiger was not pleased and laid down in a huff. It was not pushed any further and the keeper just told us he'd had enough and they were going to let him rest... thank god said my limbs and vital organs!

The misconception people have of Tiger Kingdom is that this place is tarnished with the same animal cruelty as the rest of Thailand- the main issue being drugs involved. I personally have seen on Facebook people I know who have visited similar places, and yes you can see these tigers are drugged if their eyes are shut with their limp body stretched awkwardly, their head placed nicely on the lap of the human. However I saw no indication of drugs whilst there; the cats also had their teeth and claws with no visible signs of mistreatment. Let's face the facts with how these cats are brought up- from a young age they are hand-raised by their keepers, with human interaction and discipline/training everyday, they are well fed, have space to roam and play and are continuously shown affection from the public and keepers. To be blunt, they are essentially large house cats, which is why they act the way they do. Of course like any animal, especially wild, these animals are unpredictable (you only need to read the article of the student who recently got mauled by a tiger in a similar place in Thailand) but I see no mistreatment. Captivity will always be an issue when dealing with wild animals, but as captivity goes these enclosures had grass, plants, rocks, different levels, water fountains, lakes etc. and were not just a tiny cage. I always feel for the animals in captivity, but if these beautiful, majestic creatures are happy enough to breed when in captivity it essentially means it's less likely they will become extinct. I, like most people would much rather see these animals able to roam in the wild and be protected, but at the same time I understand the conflict between development and preservation/conservation.

I left Tiger Kingdom grinning, mainly because I made it out alive with both legs... but it certainly didn't leave me feeling any more sad than if I had visited a zoo in the UK. My questions had been answered, and I agreed with the positive reviews of the place. It showed me that locals can take care of their indigenous wildlife even if that means having to protect them in a zoo like environment, at the same time using profits to enhance the quality of life for the tigers that they bred there. I think unfortunately a lot of tourists do not care about the quality of the experience, which is why cruel places which drug and consequently torture the animals are still in business- if people can get a photo with a tiger awake/asleep/dead they will, which seems to be the sick truth. I'm hoping Tiger Kingdom, rather than inspiring more low quality imitations which are not only more dangerous for tourists but also reduce the quality of life for the cats, actually can pave a pathway to show tourists that conservation/preservation measures can be difficult especially in a tourist-dominated, developing country like Thailand. The breeding program they have can aid in ensuring these endangered animals have a fighting chance to populate, whilst also helping humans understand and develop the knowledge on these cats.

To be continued...