I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why more people aren’t talking about this place. Is it because seeing huge, well cared for tigers stalking out their territory less than 3 feet away, through nothing but a chain link fence scares you? Or is it fact that you’ll see many of the nearly 70 bears that have been rescued, several with heartbreaking injuries? Sarcasm aside, if you’re going to Cambodia and wish to learn more about the country while there, this wildlife rescue center should be right up there with Angkor Wat, The Killing Fields, and Toul Sleng on your list of things to see.
Yesterday morning, I woke up to find Hugo excitedly clicking away at the laptop. As soon as he saw me stir, he pounced — “I know what we’re doing today!” Mind you, this was highly unusual. I’ve been trying to recall another time during our 8 month trip that he had actually insisted on an activity so early in the day. Our usual day planning modus operandus looks something more like this:
Me: “What should we do today?”
Hugo: “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Me: “Well, we could check out the _____. Or the _____.”
Hugo: “Yeah, either one of those sound great.”
And so on, or in reverse, until we finally basically flip a coin. But yesterday, he knew.
The big cat enclosures were much larger than those I've seen in major U.S. zoos.
Hugo’s passion is wildlife. (He worked with the Mexican government trying to stop corruption in customs related to animal trafficking, before working with the government’s environmental protection office as a lawyer.) When I started talking about potentially staying in Phnom Penh for a while, he started looking into animal protection organizations here immediately. (His search for any opportunities, even if initially unpaid, continues. So if you have any connections here please let us know!)
Given all that, you’d think the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre would’ve been at the top of our must-see list for our first three-week tour through Cambodia in March. And of course, it would’ve been! Except we never really heard anything about it.
There are lots and lots of bears. Consider getting one of the Free The Bears T-shirts, they're very well designed, and a purchase pays to feed one bear for one day.
I vaguely recall seeing a tiny blurb in a guidebook, or maybe a blog, but it wasn’t enough to get our attention. I’m fairly sure it’s because it put the emphasis on zoo — and we are not, obviously, big fans of zoos.
But, in case you haven’t noticed yet, it’s now clear to us that missing it was a big mistake. Phnom Tamao is an easy day trip from the capital, and a highly rewarding and fascinating one. I have never seen so many exotic animals up close. And although the reserve needs funding, as reflected by the state of some of the facilities, many of the enclosures are impressively large and the animals appear to be as well cared for as possible.
Perhaps what’s most impressive, and simultaneously alarming and enlightening, however, is that the animals have nearly all been rescued from the illegal hunting and trafficking trades.
There aren't many signs in English to tell you what you're looking at, but this here's an owl, I'm pretty sure.
Many are injured — like the bears missing paws, which have been cut off for traditional medicine, or because some people believe eating them will make them strong like a bear, and the storks rescued from food markets, with broken wings, bald spots and a hopeless, waiting to die gaze.
Your first stop with your own tuk tuk or moto will be the bird sanctuary, perhaps the most depressing part of the reserve, dotted with the shabbiest cages housing a few monkeys, crocodiles, and others.
Many of the animals you’ll see up close are extremely rare and/or endangered. This may be the only place you can catch a glimpse.
There were a bunch of Cambodian school kids reaching into these gibbon enclosures trying to pet them, which pretty well freaked me out.
So it’s not just the incredible numbers of tigers, lions, bears, elephants, eagles, owls, bats, storks, otters, southern serrows (a wacky goat/antelope hybrid), reindeer, crocodiles, exotic turtles, gibbons, and many others that make this a day trip worth your while. It’s also the fact that your $5 admission fee goes towards helping the center continue to rescue and rehabilitate more animals, and improve their habitats.
Otters waiting to be fed by visitors.
Not to mention the fact that the 1.5 hour ride out there is interesting and often beautiful in its own right, past rice paddies and villages, with palm trees dotting the distance.
Getting out of the city is hot and dusty, but once you're out, the vistas are lovely.