Today I got to live out one of my childhood dreams: going behind the scenes at a zoo. Technically Phnom Tamao isn’t a zoo, but a wildlife rescue center and sanctuary which is even better. You’ll find mixed reviews on Trip Advisor, because if you’re expecting a zoo you’ll be disappointed. But everyone who joins their guided tour, myself included, has nothing but good things to say.
If you visit on your own, you won’t find a map, or signs, or information about the wonderful conservation work being done by the Wildlife Alliance and Cambodian government. If you go with the guided tour, you’ll participate in positive reinforcement training, get painted by an elephant, go behind the scenes with tigers and baby animals at the nursery, feed the friendly baby macaques, and so much more. You’ll also get to learn the personal histories of many of the sanctuary’s residents and the successes Cambodia has had with wildlife conservation.
Your day starts with being picked up in Phnom Penh, driving to the sanctuary, and stopping to buy fruit for the animals. Phnom Tamao chooses to buy fruit from local farmers rather than grow their own in order to help support the local economy. We happened to arrive when Lucky, the star elephant, was out on her morning walk. We stopped to feed her and say hello, and when we were out of bananas she decided it was time to head back home for more food. On this particular day she was so happy and excited that she took off running, tail wagging, weaving back and forth across the road and stopping briefly to inspect the van.
The Cambodians who happened to be visiting the park got quite the surprise when this joyful elephant came running around the corner towards her enclosure! The group of about a dozen men, women, children, and monks took off running down the street themselves, with one woman climbing a tree to safety. Of course they were never in any danger, Lucky was just running to where she does her daily painting/gets rewarded with more treats. But these poor visitors just saw a charging elephant headed straight towards them.
Once there, Lucky waited patiently as we donned rain ponchos and blank t-shirts for her to create her masterpieces. Some painting elephants have been forced into the craft through inhumane methods, but Lucky is lucky. She was rescued as a baby and raised by humans. Because of this she is docile enough to go on jungle walks and interact with the public. She has learned “painting” and “dancing” through positive reinforcement training and clearly enjoys the mental stimulation. If she doesn’t feel like performing, she’s never forced to. She simply gets food rewards for desired behaviors and then less food at dinner to account for her earlier food rewards. The other elephants have been trained the same way so that they can have medical examinations. Chhouk even has a prosthetic foot that gets changed twice daily, while he stands patiently waiting and eating his fruits and veggies.
I should mention at this point that all 1,200 animals at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary are there because they cannot be released into the wild, or are currently being rehabilitated. Some animals are injured, many were separated from their parents at such a young age that they don’t know how to survive in the wild. Some posed a danger to humans by encroaching on towns, others are in danger from illegal poaching if they are released into the wild. But not a single animal is there to merely be on display for the public. If they can be released, they are. If they can’t, they’ll live out their days being well cared for at Phnom Tamao.
After hanging out with the elephants, tigers are up next. As part of the guided tour, you get to see the dens where the tigers spend the night, and if you’re lucky, one will be enjoying the cool concrete or protection from the rain so you can get up close and personal. You’re not going to touch a tiger, because they are dangerous, wild animals after all, but you’ll be two feet away. Interesting fact about tigers: there are about 3,200 tigers left in the wild worldwide but about 5,000 in captivity in the United States!
Next stop on the tour are the moon and sun bears. Free the Bears, an Australian group working throughout Southeast Asia, is responsible for the care of these animals. You’ll notice newer signs and some upgrades to the bear enclosures for this reason. All of these bears have been rescued from traffickers who sell them for traditional medicinal remedies and bear paw soup. Because of the lucrative trade, it’s not safe for these bears to be released. If you’re a bear lover, you can be a bear keeper for the day through Free the Bears. At $70 it’s cheaper than the guided tour with Wildlife Alliance, but you only see the bears and don’t get to touch any animals (because bears are too dangerous, unlike baby monkeys).
We continued the tour through a variety of other animal enclosures, leading up to Preah Vihear, the Pileated Gibbon who likes back scratches and was rescued from the illegal exotic animal pet trade. No treats are needed on this lady, she just climbs down, puts her back against the fence, and waits for scratches. Usually gibbons would groom each other, but since she was raised by humans she’s imprinted on them. When they tried to introduce her to a male companion she freaked out, so she she enjoys her own large enclosure and daily back scratches from visitors and staff instead. If you stop scratching to take a picture, she’ll stare at you and then reposition herself until the scratching resumes. A close look at her ankle reveals the scars of where she had been tied up as a “pet”.
A traditional, vegetarian lunch breaks up the day, with a little hammock time afterward to digest. Then it’s back to join Lucky for her afternoon walk. If the tour is running late, miss Lucky will stand at the gate shaking the lock to remind the keepers what time it is! She really is one of the world’s luckiest elephants to have landed in such a nurturing environment where she can be an ambassador to the Cambodian people.
Baby animal time is up next! The nursery is off limits to the general public, but included on the guided tour. I had hoped to hand feed some of the cute babies, however all are candidates for reintroduction to the wild and human contact would jeopardize that. It may have been slightly disappointing, but it’s a sign that they take their conservation role seriously and I can appreciate that.
There are a few baby animals that can be hand-fed, a group of baby macaque monkeys. To us they were adorable entertainment, to them we were literally a jungle gym! We had monkeys climbing and jumping on us, running circles around us, eating apples from our hands, and biting on our cameras/looking at themselves on our camera displays. It’s no easy feat taking a selfie with a baby macaque that wants to get face to face with macaque it sees in your phone!
Our day ended with rinsing off from a hose and meeting the only hairy-nosed otter in captivity. Thought to be extinct due to water pollution issues, a few have been found in the wild, changing their status to a critically endangered species. Since they’re so susceptible to water quality problems, this little cutie gets purified water from Phnom Penh on a daily basis to fill his pool, just to be safe. River water and even rain water which are used throughout Phnom Tamao may contain trace amounts of pollutants that could pose problems to this sensitive species.
As an avid animal lover, spending the day behind the scenes at Phnom Tamao was worth every penny of the $150 I spent. Especially since all of the funds from the tour go directly toward operating costs for the sanctuary. But also, this is something you could never do in a “developed” country, too many liability, health, and safety issues. My day at Phnom Tamao may truly be a once in a lifetime experience.
If you take a bus or taxi to Phnom Tamao, it will cost a small fraction of the guided tour, but you’ll never know all of the amazing histories of the animals. Quite honestly, you’ll probably get lost and not even find half of the animals I’m telling you about. So save your money on food and lodging in Phnom Penh, and splurge on a behind the scenes tour of Cambodia’s largest (in number of animals) wildlife sanctuary. You’ll sleep well at night having had a day packed with unforgettable experiences and knowing that your donation is helping protect these native creatures who now call Phnom Tamao their happy home.
* Phnom Tamao is owned by the Cambodian government and operated in partnership with Wildlife Alliance and Free the Bears.
* Wildlife Alliance successfully worked with Cambodian government to make animal trafficking illegal in the early 2000s. Cambodia now has a dedicated task force with the authorization to confiscate these animals and deliver them to sanctuaries (it’s the only country in the region with this type of program, a good sign for Cambodia’s future).
* There is trash in the park, the most common complaint on Trip Advisor, but this is due to the troops of wild macaques who open trash bins and take everything out in search of snacks on a daily basis. The park is working on designing monkey-proof bins to prevent this problem.
Wildlife Alliance’s guided tour $150 and the best way to experience the park
Free the Bears bear keeper for a day $70 and only bear
Betlenut Tours $40 tour with local Cambodian company that will show you the special animals, but not get you behind the scenes