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The great thing about visiting a place for the second time is getting to do all the stuff you missed the first time around. One thing I skipped during my first whirlwind trip to Phnom Penh was a chance to visit Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.

Phnom Tamao

Luckily I had with me another animal loving fool- Freya. So while our travel buddies wandered the streets of Phnom Penh for the day, we signed up with Betelnut Tours to take a behind the scenes tour of Cambodia’s home for animals rescued from trafficking into the fur, Asian medicine, and pet trade. Betelnut Tours promised us unfettered access to some of the most popular animals, all with an expert guide who once worked in the center. Plus, we got to ride in an animal print Barbie jeep.

Phnom Tamao

When we arrived at the designated meeting spot we found out we would be getting a private tour from the sweet and bubbly guide. Score! Oh, except the guide’s boyfriend was coming along as well. Who she hadn’t seen in a year. I naively thought they were kind of cute together and we hopped in the Barbie jeep for the hour long trip through the countryside.

Phnom Tamao

Betelnut’s website warns, “This is not a luxury air con tour. You will spend a lot of time in the sun, you will get dirty and sweaty… this trip is not for everyone.” When I read that I thought, well, sign me up! I’m not one of those whiny tourists! I’m one bad ass bitch!

Then we pulled over at a roadside butchers. When I realized we were buying lunch, I reconsidered my tough girl routine and briefly considered throwing up. I’m still not quite used to being inches from a butchered cow tongue. Well, at least we’d be eating fresh.

Phnom Tamao

As we pulled up at Phnom Tamao, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a monkey had escaped from its cage. Wait, more than one! Like, a whole enclosure’s worth!

My urgent attempts to relay this disaster to the driver and guide was meant with laughter. Those were wild monkeys. I basically did the equivalent of going to the Bronx Zoo and going bonkers trying to alert the staff to some escaped squirrels.

Phnom Tamao

While Phnom Tamao doesn’t have the signs or enclosures that a Western style zoo might have, it does have all the best intentions. All animals are former victims of the illegal pet trade, or were rescued from poachers and traffickers hoping to sell them for their valuable pelts, skins, or body parts. Traditional Asian medicine falsely relies on many endangered animal organs such as tiger bile or sun bear liver. I’ve read horror stories of medicine men trying to cure mental illness with orally ingested tiger feces.

The Cambodian deer pictured below has been hunted almost to extinction for it’s antlers, believed to increase strength when turned into dust. The peacock only has one leg left after being caught in a bear trap.

Phnom Tamao

This iguana, named Lipstick, was kept as a pet before it turned too large and violent for the owner to care for. Unfortunately, the double date tour was starting to go in a weird direction.

Phnom Tamao

“Sweetie, look at the monkey!” “Sweetie, look at the babies!” “Sweetie…..” Freya and I cracked up faux asking each other if we could look too, though I must admit it was a bit awkward feeling like we were crashing their private zoo date. Plus, we were having to pull information out of guide rather than her offering it. It was obvious from her answers she was very knowledgeable about the animals and the center, she simply was very distracted by her long lost boyfriend.

Phnom Tamao

Whatever, at least we had these cutie monkeys to hang out with. This is the closest I’ve ever been to a monkey, and it was shocking to observe them up-close and see how human-like their features and actions are. They accepted a certain plant leaf that they like to snack on (but not any other plants), made eye contact, and even held our hands.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

It was a really special moment.

Phnom Tamao

Next, we went to the otter enclosure. I’ve always loved otters but never seen them up close and personal. Well, these guys were practically breaking through the fence in an effort to get to some rather cruelly placed fish, sitting just outside reach of their grubby little hands.

Phnom Tamao

We were even allowed to give them a few special treats, which they accepted with a high pitched squeal and a retreat back into their pond.

Phnom Tamao

Their beady little eyes and chunky little bodies were hilarious. When they realized they weren’t getting any more treats they actually sighed and settled into their default arms out position. It’s probably a bit what I would look like if you put some Bruegger’s Bagels on one side of a fence and me on the other.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

Then it was back to another monkey enclosure. The top priority of The Wildlife Alliance, which runs Phnom Tamao, is to rehabilitate animals and return them to the wild. Over 90% of the animals that they take in are! But some are too injured, too ill, or have simply spent too long in captivity, like these  gibbons who were held as pets before growing too large and aggressive and being abandoned by their owners.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

When left to our own devices so that our guide and her boyfriend could whisper sweet nothings in each other ears prepare lunch, Freya and I discovered the most amazing sighting of the day:

Phnom Tamao

Yup. Bring us to an animal refuge full of lions, tigers, and bears, and what do we obsess over? Butterfly sex.

After what turned out to be a delicious lunch, we headed to the sun bear enclosure. This part of Phnom Tamao is run by an organization called Free the Bears. This is the world’s largest Sun Bear sanctuary (though I can’t imagine they have too much competition). It’s also the one part of Phnom Tamao that resembles a Western style zoo in that it has great displays, beautiful enclosures, and most importantly, photo ops.

Phnom Tamao

The bears here have survived hard times. They have been rescued from restaurants where they would have been butchered and served as bear paw soup, confiscated from hotels and restaurants where they were caged for the amusement of tourists, seized from the black market where their gallbladders would have been used for traditional medicine, and saved from poachers selling orphaned cubs as exotic pets or status symbols.

Phnom Tamao

If you are interested in learning or doing more, Free the Bears run a Bear Keeper for a Day program where you can spend a day learning more about the bears and the program. Prices start at $70 per person and go down depending on the group size. They are also always looking for volunteers.

Phnom Tamao

It was really encouraging to see these bears living free and having such a good time. They were one of the few animals we couldn’t observe too closely, but we were able to see what amazing creatures they are.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

As we were leaving the bears, we heard an unreal noise in the distance. It was a lion’s roar! I’ve never heard such a thing in my life. I can see why they are the kings of the jungle. Our day was also peppered with the beautiful call of the gibbons boomeranging through the trees.

Phnom Tamao

Normally at zoos I find that many of the animals are sleeping or very sluggish. I’m not sure why but at Phnom Tamao the animals were extremely active and alert. I’ve never seen snakes move like that before.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

The center is a popular local tourist attraction and it was nice to see families out enjoying the enormous grounds. Have you ever been to a zoo that you can drive a motorcycle through?

Phnom Tamao

Finally we were reaching the part of the day where our behind the scenes access kicked in: the tigers.

Phnom Tamao

I was fascinated that we could get so close to an animal normally kept far away from zoo visitors. Unfortunately the tigers were the one animal we saw that day that seemed stressed and unhappy in their environment.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tamao

We approached the back door of the tiger keeper’s enclosure and with a quick baked good bribery, we were in. The tigers that were resting inside looked up in curiosity and we were warned to stay a meter away from the fence.

Phnom Tamao

Freya got quite a fright when the tiger looked up and gave a roar! The next photo in the roll was of her shooting backwards into the camera. It’s an instinctual reaction. I’m sure I’ll never be so close to another tiger again. Again, fantastic experience.

Phnom Tamao

Our last stop of the day was to be the highlight of the trip. When we walked to the elephant enclosure we found it empty. “Lucky must be out for a walk,” our guide explained. When we turned around and a massive elephant was sauntering towards us, I nearly died of excitement.

Phnom Tamao

I’ve always hoped to visit an elephant camp one day in northern Thailand, but lately I’ve been reading more and more about how hard it is to find a program that isn’t doing more harm that good. It’s been a bit discouraging and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever end up doing it, fearing sad and abused animals. Now, I’m no Dr. Doolittle, but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that this is a happy elephant:

Phnom Tamao

Many animal activists vehemently oppose the popular South East Asian tourist attraction of riding an elephant. I’ve done it once, and while I didn’t have a bad experience, I know many who have. Perhaps this elephant was so happy because he had no job in life other than to go for long walks and be fed cheetos by Betelnut Tour participants.

Phnom Tamao

If you are looking for a guilt free way to get up close and personal with a well cared for elephant, this is your chance. This was one of the highlights not only of the day but of my entire trip to Cambodia.

Phnom Tamao

Phnom Tameo was a great experience. I got to see animals in a way that I never have before, and feel good about how the animals got there and what the intentions of the organization holding them were. Just don’t expect a developed world style zoo. I highly recommend animal lovers visiting Cambodia to come here.

Phnom Tamao

If you go: Betelnut Tours is not cheap at $33 per person. That’s many travelers’ daily budget through Cambodia! But they do provide amazing behind the scenes access to the tiger and elephant enclosures that we wouldn’t have received with other tours, plus there is the whole leopard print Barbie jeep thing. We were pretty disappointed with the whole crashing our tour guide’s date thing, but after reading through reviews on Tripadvisor and other sites it seems we simply had an unlucky circumstance. It’s a shame the standards weren’t kept up during our visit.

You can also arrange your own transport for about $25 for a tuk-tuk (though it would be a rough journey in a tuk tuk) or $35 for a cab plus $5 entrance fee per person, but keep in mind that the park is enormous,  too large to traverse on foot, and there are no maps and very sporadic signposts. So this is a rare case where I don’t recommend the self-catering option. I saw tours being offered in travel agencies in town for about $15 per person, though these wouldn’t include the behind the scenes access we received.

Phnom Tamao

What’s the best zoo experience you’ve ever had? What’s your favorite photo from the day? I don’t think I could pick just one, though the monkey’s hands and elephants eyes make me smile every time.

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24 Comments...
  • Zoe
    December 1 2011

    Amazing photos, Al! I love them, your shots are awesome. This looks like so much fun.
    PS who is your cute friend? I’m getting BFF envy…you know how I can get…

    • Alex
      December 1 2011

      Did you notice the uptick in photos lately? I’m learning to take criticism much better than I did at Pratt 😉 Cutie friend is Freya who you won’t meet because she’s back in the sunny UK for Christmas! BFF envy is never needed from you, dear. xo

  • Kathryn
    December 1 2011

    Alex, these photos are simply extraordinary…very moving and they convince me that animals have spirits every bit as real as those in humans.
    Actually, theirs are superior…they only kill for survival, and humans kill for sport and/or profit.

    • Alex
      December 1 2011

      True, though it doesn’t make it any easier to watch those safari wildlife programs! But that is a very moving compliment about my photos, thank you.

  • That is the most amazing place ever! I HAVE to go there!!!!!!!!!! So jealous re: the elephant pics. And the butterfly sex pic, wow!

    • Alex
      December 1 2011

      You would absolutely love it Andi, I know how you feel about elephants! 🙂 It sounds like someone needs to start planning a trip to Cambodia…

  • Olivia
    December 1 2011

    This is my favorite post you have ever done! That ELEPHANT— omg! and the little birds with the highlighter beaks… So incredibly jealous.

    • Alex
      December 1 2011

      Wow that’s quite a compliment! And yes the elephant was definitely one of the coolest things ever.

  • Melanie
    August 28 2012

    If you’re wanting a volunteer experience with a legitimate elephant organisation (rather than an elephant camp), may I suggest WFFT (Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand) or ENP (Elephant Nature Park). These are two of the very few legitimate sanctuaries for elephants in South East Asia, and volunteering up close with the elephants is an amazing experience!

    • Alex
      August 28 2012

      Hi Melanie, thanks for the suggestions! I’ve heard of Elephant Nature Park but not the other. I’ll be sure to check them out when I return…

  • Sebastiaan
    August 20 2013

    I know my comment is being posted years after you took thiss trip but I’ve been trying to search for information in regards to this zoo now and what I’ve learned so far is that you learn more from reading blog reports from tourists than from “official” sources. I actually read the entire report and laughed at the “sweetie” comment. Cheers for posting this, I will definitely have a look at Betelnut tours.

    • Alex
      August 21 2013

      Glad to share Sebastiaan! And I always love to see people commenting in my archives, reminds me that all my posts live on 🙂

  • chamroeun
    August 30 2013

    Hi there. I research about the zoo, and found your article. I have to say the post and pics are great! I like to hear you mentioned a moment of realisation that animals are human-like. It seems a very special moment indeed, especially the photos of those guys reaching out their hands, making eye-contact, etc. Well done.

    • Alex
      September 5 2013

      Thank you, I’m glad this post struck a chord with you 🙂 I hope you get the chance to visit Phnom Tamao as well!

  • Caitlin
    November 29 2013

    I know this is many years past, but I did this tour a few months ago and just came across your blog post. The tour guide and her long lost boyfriend are now married and he helps run the tours. Thought it was a fun tidbit you would enjoy! I loved Phnom Tamao just as much as you did…definitely a must-see in the Phnom Penh area!

    • Alex
      November 30 2013

      Wow, that’s amazing! Thanks for giving us the update, Caitlin 🙂 They were pretty darn in love that day… happy to hear it lasted.

  • Co Visser
    December 31 2013

    I was looking for reply’s of betelnut tours. And then i saw your blog.
    The funny thing is that the guides boyfriend, is my son.
    they married in april 2012.

    • Alex
      January 2 2014

      Another commenter mentioned that, what a funny coincidence. Congratulations to the happy couple 🙂

  • Colin & Rachel
    April 3 2014

    We did the wildlife center tour with Betelnut and can’t say enough good things about them. The wildlife center is great by itself but we wouldn’t have gotten half as much out of it without the knowledgeable guides at Betelnut.

    This tour was one of the highlights of our 3 month honeymoon in SE Asia. This is definitely a must do if you’re in Phnom Penh.

    • Alex
      April 3 2014

      Glad you guys enjoyed the tour! And great choice for a honeymoon location 🙂

  • Danielle
    January 28 2015

    Awesome write up! I’ll be there in a couple days and you totally just sold me on this place (I am so wary of anything animal related). Thanks!

    • Alex
      January 28 2015

      Great Danielle! Let me know how it goes — haven’t been there in years now and would love to hear how it’s holding up.

  • Mike
    September 6 2015

    Just casually came across this whilst trying to research how legitimate the sanctuary is – I think you’ve sold us!

    Just to reiterate an earlier post – if you like your pachyderms, then seriously consider ENP near Chiang Mai – the memory of the day we spent there will be etched in my memory long after I forget my own name.

    • Alex
      September 10 2015

      I’ve been to ENP, Mike! You can find the post in my archives 🙂

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