Cambodia is one of those countries full of rich wildlife. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those countries where animals are targeted by poachers, hunters, and illegal breeders. Animals that have been rescued out in the wild or who were abandoned as pets and are no longer fit to live in the wild are transported to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center.
What Phnom Tamao is and what it’s not
There are some mixed reviews online, mostly from people who didn’t know what they were getting into. Phnom Tamao is not a zoo. It’s not a place where animals are kept for the purposes of being seen by tourists; in fact, sometimes these animals are rescued from zoos where they are mistreated. Some animals are in large enclosures and may or may not be visible when you visit. And some of the animals that are outside enclosures, like monkeys, deer, and some birds are wild and have made a home at the wildlife rescue center because they know people come with food.
Though there are posted maps with listed animal sections, you shouldn’t expect to find detailed information about the animals… because, again, it’s not a zoo! Within Phnom Tamao, you’ll find a hospital and an area where new animals are quarantined for a minimum amount of time before being released into the rescue center population. You’ll see animals that are sick, injured, or disabled. In fact, the center’s most famous resident is Chhouk, an elephant who lost a leg to a snare and lives in Phnom Tamao with a prosthetic leg.
This is most definitely not a place to come ride elephants or take pictures with sedated tigers. And if that’s what you’re looking for, I suggest you reconsider your beliefs about the ethical treatment of animals.
How to visit Phnom Tamao
Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is located about an hour to an hour and a half outside of Phnom Penh, depending on traffic. There are a couple of ways to visit and interact with the animals, each with some pros and cons.
Visiting on your own
If you choose to go alone, you can take a tuk tuk or taxi from Phnom Penh and pay for the transportation (which could be up to $30) and the entrance, which is only $5 for foreigners. But without guidance or information about what animals are friendly and approachable or where to go to have the best chance at seeing the wildlife or getting to feed them, you would probably be disappointed.
The park is fairly large and without transportation or a knowledgeable guide, you would probably find it underwhelming. Or you might try to rub the wrong anxious monkey and get injured.
The Wildlife Alliance Tour
The Wildlife Alliance is responsible for rehabilitating the animals at Phnom Tamao. They offer a behind the scenes tour that lasts all day and allows you to see some parts of the park closed to the public, like the nursery where baby animals are being cared for. You’re also able to feed the elephants and accompany an elephant on her daily walk. The cost of the day tour is $150, including transport to and from Phnom Penh.
The Betelnut Tour
We opted for a friendly middle ground with Betelnut Tours. This professional tour company is headed by a Cambodian woman, Vathana, and her Dutch husband, Aram. Having worked there for years, Vathana has a close relationship with many of the animals and knows what they enjoy doing or eating, and which ones are friendly for visitors to approach.
The tour is $40 and includes transportation and a delicious meal cooked by Vathana herself. It’s the only homecooked meal we’ll have in Cambodia, so we appreciated both the thought and the experience. You get to eat together with all of your tour mates and the guides.
What to expect on the Betelnut Tour of Phnom Tamao
The tour departs from the Lazy Gecko Cafe in Phnom Penh at 9:45 am. On our particular tour, we were accompanied by the owner of the cafe, Todd.
When you arrive, you begin by walking through the enclosures that house a lot of smaller animals like monkeys, deer, crocodiles, and otters. Throughout Phnom Tamao, you’ll see the wild macaques running around like they own the place. Unlike other macaques I’ve come across in Asia and Africa, these guys are not aggressive or thieving. They follow visitors around but are generally respectful of you and your things.
When you visit the gibbons, you’ll meet some animals that used to be pets and love human attention. Though you don’t get to enter the enclosure with them, they’ll reach their hand out so you can hold it or let you pet their back. It’s a little heartbreaking to offer an animal peanuts and have him only hold your hand instead.
During lunch, Vathana heats up the food she prepared in advance while you browse the exotic birds that are being rehabilitated at the center. Because of the way the food is prepared, when you book online, you must indicate whether you have special dietary needs, like if you need a vegan lunch. Lunch is a pleasant time where you get to unwind surrounded by other people having a traditional lunch and laying out on a hammock for a nap. It’s kind of like hanging out with local friends. You’ll get a lot of good recommendations.
After lunch, you’ll take the car around the park to visit the bigger animals, starting with the elephants, who you can feed bananas and potatoes. You’ll also pass by to see the tigers, lions, and bears. Obviously, you’re not feeding these guys. But if you’re lucky, you’ll catch them playing with each other or taking a cooling dip in the pool.
These sections of the park have a bit more information, which was supplemented by our guide. So I now know what a bile farm is and why bears desperately need to be rescued from this cruel fate. You’ll also learn about some of the big residents like Dara, an elderly tiger with a heart defect.
You’ll wrap up your day just after 4 pm, and make it back to Phnom Penh around 5:30 pm.
How to prepare for your day at Phnom Tamao
Though the guys at Betelnut do a fantastic job of providing the essentials you might need, like water, you should take some precautions on your own before arriving. Bug spray is recommended, since you’ll be around areas with standing pools of water for a majority of the day. If you burn easily, you should also bring sun screen for your day, though we were pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of the walking is under the shade of trees.
Make sure that you bring hand sanitizer, since having an elephant suck peanuts out of your palm will leave your hands filthy. And the bathrooms, though they are abundant throughout the center don’t have toilet paper, so I recommend packing a small roll or baby wipes.
The walking isn’t worse than what you would normally do on a regular vacation day, so take shoes that are comfortable and that you don’t mind getting dirty, especially if there’s rain. Other than that, there’s nothing left to do but enjoy your day at Phnom Tamao!