Hey Animal Lover! Instead of spending your spare time scanning Instagram for videos of yodeling huskies or adorable baby sloths, why not plan a real wildlife encounter? You don’t have to go to Africa, either: Here are three favorite (an unexpected) wild kingdoms where you can get up close and personal with some magnificent creatures.

By Jes Ware

Giant pandas in Chengdu

Chengdu is the capital of China’s Sichuan province and home to 14 million people—plus a whole bunch of cuddly pandas. At the sprawling, 800-acre Chengdu Research Base, you can watch the black-and-white (and sometimes red) bears tumble, play and munch on bamboo. Further afield, at the Dujiangyan Panda Center, you can even be a volunteer panda keeper for a day, helping with feeding and care. Where to stay? The Temple House is a beautifully realized blend of ancient and modern, with 100 contemporary rooms surrounding a stunning Qing Dynasty courtyard and a house Audi Q7 to whisk you to your cute overload experience.

I want to play with the pandas!
Photo by Shutterstock
I want to walk with the elephants!
Photo by Shutterstock

Elephants in Thailand

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort overlooks 160 lush acres of tropical savanna in northern Thailand, near the border of Laos and Myanmar. It evokes an exotic sense of place, with bronze goddess sculptures, terraced rice paddies and—oh yes!—elephants. The resort, in partnership with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, works to rescue and rehabilitate endangered Asian elephants, and guests have a whole menu of pachyderm experiences to choose from. You can join them on their daily walk and watch them eat and bathe; ride one to a scenic picnic spot; even train to be a mahout (elephant guide). And then head back to the resort for a traditional Thai meal and an aromatherapy massage.

Whale sharks in the Maldives

The dappled behemoths known as whale sharks cruise warm waters around the world, but they make their home base in the Maldives. (Who can blame them?) The 40-foot giants are gentle and seemingly unaware of the presence of something as small as a wide-eyed diver. Getting close to them is a specialty of Naladhu Maldives, a resort whose collection of 20 individual, butler-serviced beach houses sits in one of the whale sharks’ favorite Maldivian hangouts. The guided diving, snorkeling and glass-bottom boat excursions glide through the so-clear-it-has-to-be-fake water to the South Ari Atoll, a protected marine zone. Jump in! They don't bite.

I want to swim with the whale sharks!
Photo by Shutterstock