The best tourist attraction up here in Chiang Mai, where we’re staying this week, is Tiger Kingdom. Nearly a dozen former SEV teachers have been there on visits to Thailand. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to ever since January, when I saw Erin’s pictures from her trip there. On the flight up here, Jeanette and I decided that would be our first stop the next day.

We woke up this morning and headed down the street for breakfast. The street that our guesthouse branches off of looked remarkably different than it did last night. For one thing, I nearly got hit a few times trying to cross it this morning. Last night, the street was full of vendors and food stalls, all a part of Chiang Mai’s famed Sunday night market. Jeanette and I went to town (or to market? ha!) last night, buying light cotton clothes to make the 95-degree days bearable and picking up a few holiday gifts for family.

So this morning, decked out in our new backpacker attire, we got a tuk-tuk to take-take us out to Tiger Kingdom. Once we got there, we got to hang out with baby lions, newborn tigers, big tigers, and really big tigers. The tigers have all been tamed and for the most part just slept while we were around. We got up close and personal with them, stroking their fur, laying on them and high-fiving their paws. The lions were a bit friskier than the tigers and didn’t appreciate being pet. I may have shrieked and jumped back a few times in the lion pen.

The drive from Tiger Kingdom back to our neighborhood only took about 20 minutes, but that short drive made me realize what it is that I like so much about Thailand. I can walk down the street here without being heckled and hit on, save for the taxi drivers asking if I need a ride somewhere. We drove for miles down some streets without seeing any English signs. This is the real Thailand, much more than Phuket was, with its Club Med, overpriced food and barely legal Thai girls at every bar waiting to pounce on the next senior citizen who walked through the door. Sure, here the backpackers hit up the tourist spots and flood the night market, but walking down the street in their beat-up cotton rags, they blend into the scenery. As much as westerners are out of place in Asia, it doesn’t feel that way here, and that’s a nice change.