One of our favorite recent travel experiences was hugging a young panda at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in Chengdu, China.
We were not aware that hugging a giant panda was even allowed until we read about it while planning a trip earlier this year. Apparently, anyone can hug a young panda as long as you can get to Chengdu, China and are willing to part with a steep donation fee for a 2 minute hugging/photography session.
The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (Chengdu Panda Base for short) is a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas located 30 minutes by taxi from the center of Chengdu. The base is huge and is open to tourists for a general admission price of 58 CNY (less than $10 USD). At the base, you can see many giant pandas as well as some red pandas.
The opportunity to hug a panda is available at the base at only two specific times a day (either 10:30 am or 2:30 pm). You must sign up a half hour in advance (so either 10am or 2 pm). According to the staff, there is no guarantee a panda will be available for hugs since their first priority is the well-being of the pandas.
We signed up at the sunshine nursery and paid a donation fee of 2000 CNY (about $323 USD) per person. Payment is cash only and as there are no ATMs near the base you need to plan in advance and make sure you have enough cash with you. The fee was substantially lower a couple of years ago and since prices keep rising we recommend checking tripadvisor or contacting the panda base to ensure you have the correct fee.
Only 2 other people signed up to hug a panda at the same time we did. According to online reports the limit is 20 people per slot/per day. Since we visited the panda base in the winter the park was not crowded but if you visit during spring and fall you should probably show up earlier to guarantee you are able to sign up.
After paying our donation fee, we were given a tag and told to return in 30 minutes. At the designated time a staff member took us into a room for a mini orientation and video on giant pandas.
After about 20 minutes the lecture portion was over and we were taken outdoors to wash bamboo. We took turns cleaning the bamboo by spraying it with a powerful hose. (They take a photo of each person washing the bamboo and use it as one of the 2 photos in a frame they give you.)
Finally, it came time for us to hug a panda! We were led into a room and told to put on scrubs, plastic covers for our shoes and plastic gloves. We were also instructed to avoid touching the panda’s face. Suddenly, a panda named Oreo just sauntered out of a hallway and sat on a wooden bench. It was a bit surprising as we thought a staff member would lead or carry the panda to us but Oreo seemed perfectly happy to come over on his own.
We let the other 2 people go first and they took turns hugging Oreo while the staff was photographing them. There are at least 3 members of the staff and one will photograph you with their camera and another one will use yours. Oreo was busy eating an apple on his own while he was photographed and hugged.
Now it was our turn to hug Oreo! He had finished eating his apple so the staff gave him bamboo sticks dipped in honey to occupy him. Patti was first and she happily hugged Oreo for what felt like a quick 2 minutes. After the 2 minutes Matilda was allowed to join for a bit as the staff took photos of both of us hugging the panda. Finally, it was Matilda’s turn and Patti left so Matilda could enjoy some solo hug time with Oreo.
Time with the panda is only 2 minutes and it goes by so fast. The staff keeps asking you to look at the camera or kiss the panda as they are trying to take good photos. We wished we had at least another minute to hug Oreo without the distraction of posing for a photo.
When it was all done, Oreo got off the bench and walked off the same way he came in. We went back to the office where we originally signed up and waited a few minutes for the staff to print our photos. As a thank you for our donation, we were each given several gifts- a donation certificate, a glass framed photo of us with the panda, a panda pin, a DVD, a magazine, a Pierre Cardin tie (random!) and a panda tote bag to carry everything in.
One side of the frame has a photo of each of us with Oreo and the other side has a photo of both of us. (If you are not with another person, the one photo will be you hugging a panda and the other side will be a photo of you cleaning the bamboo.) Just a warning the frame is bulky so make room in your luggage.
Depending what time of year you visit, you may be able to hug a baby panda that is small enough to sit on your lap. We debated whether we should visit Chengdu Panda Base on this trip or wait since from our online research we deduced that we would be hugging a young panda (rather than a baby). The reason for this is that you can only hug a baby panda after it is 6 months old. Pandas are born around the same time- August or September so we knew that the baby pandas would not be old enough to sit on our lap in January. We googled Oreo and found some interesting articles about how he was named (he was the first panda at the base to be named as part of a contest and the winner chose the name Oreo because it means beauty in Greek and she likes Oreo cookies) so we learned Oreo was a year and half old. Even though we did not hold a small baby panda in our lap, we still think the experience was worth it and we loved Oreo’s personality.
If you want to hold a baby panda in your lap, spring would be the best time to go. The pandas would still be pretty young in the summer but we would avoid summer as the staff told us that when it is very hot (over 26 Celsius) the pandas are moved inside. If you visit in the fall you will be able to see the baby pandas soon after they are born. If you visit in the winter you will be hugging a 1-1.5 year old panda but the panda base will be less crowded.
Although hugging a panda is very expensive for only a 2 minute experience it was totally worth it for us! We would love to go back one day if we are in Chengdu in the spring so that we can hold one of the smaller baby pandas in our laps also.