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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Walk on the wild side in Thailand

The two Bengal tigers rear up on their haunches and wrestle. Upstaging the king and queen of the jungle who are keeping a low profile tonight, the tigers unleash an ear-splitting roar that stuns the passengers perched on the tram.

Backing off from each other, the tigers then prowl their enclosure, howling in the moonlight as a guide trains a spotlight on them. His commentary drowned out by the noise, the guide kills his beam and the tram rumbles on.

Welcome to Chiang Mai Night Safari. Set on the fringes of the city romantically called “the Rose of the North” in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the 1.5bil baht, Thai government-run initiative opened in 2006.

Modelled on Singapore’s night safari, it consists of two loops. The first, Savannah Safari, stretches 2km, and encompasses a hodgepodge of animals that, despite the name, come from Asia instead of Africa.

The second loop, the loosely named Predator Prowl, is about the same length but more glamourous. It features creatures you certainly would not want to meet on a dark night. Think vultures, tigers (including the rare white tiger), jackals, hunting dogs, wolves and Malayan sun bears whose dark disposition drives them to wreck coconut palms and cocoa plantations when not methodically dismantling walls. Or so we are told – they look cuddly enough to keep as pets.

Anyway, the safari nicely caters to tourists like me who have done spas and temples and want to embark on a tour with an edge. We head for the 7.45pm pick-up point, a tourist police booth buried in the depths of the night bazaar.

Greeted outside with a twinkle by a male usher in a zebra print outfit, we duck into a minibus that matches his get-up. Deliciously cool after the bazaar’s humid hustle, it whisks us to the park by around 8pm.

Beyond the night safari megalith sign (which must look strange in the day), dappled deer dot the fringes of the avenue that bristles with soldiers and statues depicting hybrid mythical beasts. This inspired one critic to think of a genetic engineering centre. The faux-mud roof, wood columns and bongo music of the arena that houses the ticket office, information desk and souvenir shops suggest a tribal village.

Strolling through, we take our seats in front of the lake. Peacocks wail. Otherwise, the park is eerily quiet in the run-up to the no-excess-spared laser show incorporating a musical fountain, which throws up water to serve as a screen for laser graphics portraying a procession of animals and objects.

An elephant makes the cut. So too do a crocodile and a squiggle that could be a snake or a gull, along with a cheeky rabbit that mutates into an impala. Enter three sticks of rhubarb and what resembles an Ikea flatpack furniture item. Everything wiggles around to a swaggering, mashed-up version of Mission Impossible.

As the music builds, the fountains pulse, shimmy to a Mexican wave before climaxing in an explosion of green beads of light. In the subsequent hush, ushers, one touting a megaphone, round us up and herd us towards the Savannah Safari train station. There, we have our tickets punched.

Climb into the back of the farang (“foreigner”) tram for the Savannah Safari loop. Many of the animals, in particular the hyenas, are just too lazy to hunt – a bunch of underachievers, the guide suggests.

The hyena’s neighbours range from gawky and shaggy animals it might try to eat, to monsters and one top-tier misplaced predator. That translates as wildebeest, yaks, giraffes, white rhinos and cheetahs. Then there are the obscure outsiders – serows (goat-antelopes with short, sharp horns, long coarse hair and beards), gorals (goat-antelopes equipped with backward curving horns), gaurs (mammoth oxen native to India and Malaysia) and barasinghas (deer native to India and Nepal).

Amid this menagerie, herbivore hippos play a cameo role, submerged so that they expose little more than their long-lashed eyeballs. Despite their penchant for bananas, cuddly toy looks and aura of calm, hippos are hard. In the wild, they regularly take out crocodiles.

What a scream it would be to see them tangle with the Siamese crocodiles presented in Predator Prowl.

We would see all the gory detail because visibility is consistently good. Only once, when scanning an enclosure for an unfamiliar goat-antelope called a gwarg or something, do I fail to see the occupant.

Keep an eye out for wandering ostriches, our guide says, observing that, while an ostrich’s egg is 30 times bigger than a chicken’s, its brain is the size of a bean.

Consequently, sometimes like a demented geriatric, an ostrich meanders onto the track and stares at the tram, obliging our guide to push the bird way. Our guide, who claims to ride bison, peppers his talk with aspersions.

He ridicules the free-running wild pigs that eat their own poop and male lions that do nothing but eat, sleep, mate and have a beer.

Emus for him represent a warning of the consequences of not washing your hair.

His irreverence injects some jollity into the tour, which needs it because seemingly every other animal is threatened with extinction – usually thanks to the supposed aphrodisiac quality of its private parts.

As the night wears on, we stay alert – jokes, jolts and sudden overpowering urine whiffs helping to ensure that. The worst whiff emanates from the golden jackal, which appears unpleasant in every way, living up to the reputation enjoyed by jackals in general.

For its party trick, the predator dances, siren-like, around its prey until the prey is infatuated, then rips into its face and tears it apart – the stuff of nightmares.

My only grievance is that, although the ushers say you can take photographs, just try. Flash is banned. Photographing fawn-coloured woodland animals without it from a tram negotiating slopes and bends is tricky. Expect megapixel soup.

About the only workable photo opportunity comes when some antelope-like animal, an oryx, I think, appears beside the tram and just stands there, nibbling leaves scattered over the tarmac. Never on the journey do I feel under threat except when some roving wildebeest come into view, all horns and sinew.

If you trespass on their territory and turn your back, the non-predators come after you, the guide says, revealing that he once jumped into a tree to avoid them.

More than any other animals we see, the wildebeest check us out but seem less feral than the cat I saw en route to the night bazaar, which was gripping a gecko between its teeth. The least tame creatures we see appear to be the zebras, which approach on the other side of the road from the wildebeest at a brisk trot.

Bugged by the Bengal tigers or pointing cameras, the zebras buck, displaying their massive haunches. Seized with the jitters, they then lose the plot, break into a canter and, bulging-eyed, bolt, generating a rush of air and contained excitement.