Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Penn to explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.
Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Standing out as one of the twentieth century’s worst genocides, the Khmer Rouge emptied the city and used a local school as a torture center before sending thousands to their deaths at The Killing Fields. Known locally as Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek, Diane and I spent a full day absorbing the horrible stories and I was planning on sharing our experience with my next post. But given relative lack of interest on my posts about The Women’s Temple, fascinating carvings with historical significance and The Cambodian Landmine Museum, I decided to write about something almost everyone likes and spare you the depression despite my feelings about learning and understanding history. Instead, I’ll tell you about one of the best animal encounters you’ll find in Southeast Asia.
About an hour outside the city, you’ll fund Southeast Asia’s largest animal rescue and rehabilitation facility. Available for visits daily, The Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is run by a fabulous organization known as Wildlife Alliance. Dedicated to protection of forests and wildlife, they founded the non-profit organization in 1995 as The Global Survival Network. Based in New York, they run programs in Cambodia, Thailand, India, Myanmar, Ecuador and Russia. Assisting the Cambodian government, they run behind the scenes tours of the facility that allow up close encounters with dozens of rescued animals. Unlike a zoo, volunteers rescued all the animals from bad situations and 80% of them are eventually released back to the wild. Sporting over 6,000 acres, a team of animal husbandry specialists and veterinarians care for over 1,400 animals across 100 species including pangolins, binturongs, civits, slow loros’, macaques, porcupines and many others.
Generally speaking, Diane and I never spend large sums of money on travel activities since retiring early after my unexpected layoff in 2013. Beset by a soft spot for animals, we abandoned this policy one time and shelled out $150 each for an all day adventure with one of the facility’s experienced guides. Normally never advocating expensive trips, we’ll go on record and say this one is worth the money and every penny goes back into the facility. Having been on some incredible animal adventures in our working years including a luxury catamaran trip to The Galapagos Islands and three-day educational eco-lodge programs in Ecuador’s Amazon region and the jungles of Borneo, we can’t resist activities that combine in-depth background with up-close encounters. Although there’s cheaper options available including self-guided visits to the facility, you’re not allowed in the animal pens if you pass up these incredible tours.
Taking groups as large as twelve or as small as two, arranging a trip to Phnom Tamao quite easy by email. Sending a quick confirmation, the friendly staff didn’t ask us for a deposit and didn’t even collect the cash until the end of the day when we carefully handed our guide US dollars that she didn’t even count. Using the parking lot of a local gas station as a pick up point, we met our guide Emma and the six others joining us for the day. Well versed in everything about the company, Emma is really into her career and describes it as her dream job. Hearing her background and the center’s mission, her knowledge and enthusiasm alone would’ve made the trip a success. But the animals are the stars of the show and she knows something about every one of them. Setting out, we stopped at one of the most authentic roadside wet markets we’ve been to in Southeast Asia. Patronizing local merchants helps the local economy and they encouraged us to spend a few minutes while they bought food to feed the animals.
Arriving at the facility, the first stop is a visit with an elephant named Lucky. Given her name, you can guess they rescued her from a horrible situation and Emma gave us some background on what to avoid if you must visit one of the many elephant farms in Asia. Confessing we had ridden elephants before which is extremely politically incorrect these days, we explained that our trip in 2009 was to one of the best elephant education centers in the Chiang Mai region and the thinking has changed a lot since then. Lucky loves meeting people and everyone gets to feed her.
Being a rehabilitation as well as a rescue center, the center is also home to a rescued elephant named Chhouk who has the world’s largest animal prosthetic. Weighing about 28 pounds, he’s adapted amazingly well and even signals when the device needs an adjustment.
Moving on, we entered the personal space of some fabulous tigers. Closer then you’ll ever get unless you’re a professional handler, the tour allows you into pens and enclosures prohibited from the public and other tour groups and Emma asked us not to place hands closer than a meter or two next to the barbed wire fence just to be safe. Unlike zoos, they’ve removed every beautiful tiger from poachers or other bad situations. Depending on the weather and their moods, you’ll see them pacing back and forth or simply playing like big kitties. With an overcast sky and occasional drizzle, our day was perfect. Please excuse the crappy quality and format of my videos; I did them all on my IPhone because it’s too hot to carry the big camera. Or so says the boss (Diane).
Also in the big cat family, the center houses several beautiful leopards. Like the tigers, guests of the center’s up and close tour bypass the standard views seen in a zoo and gets you a personal encounter. Again, it depends on their mood and most of us have seen them just lying around but they were quite active on our visit.
The leopards are opposite some of the cutest and most playful river otters we’ve seen and yes, they too were all rescued and the hope is they’ll be released some day back to the wild.
The smallest bears on the planet are sun bears. Although we’ve seen them in zoos at both San Diego and Chiang Mai, the bears at Phnom Tamao seem like they’re always smiling.
One of my favorite stops is the gibbons’ cage. One of nature’s most acrobatic and gentle monkeys, the females cream color makes them easily recognizable and if she’s in a good mood, she hangs on the fence and begs for a little rubbing. Found throughout Southeast Asia, they’re not adaptable to urban environments like the macaques we see in Penang and it’s probably a good thing because they’re so trusting.
Of course what would a rescue facility be without macaques roaming all over. Yes, even these adorably tame and approachable monkeys are former victims from somewhere and most of them get the free reign of the grounds. Much tamer than the silly monkeys we see almost daily in traffic crazy Penang, I always spend extra time getting to know them. At the lunch stop, they fed us coconut juice and I watched one of the sloppiest monkeys ever feasting on coconut juice once he figured out how to crack it open. Even funnier, every monkey has their own style of cracking open coconuts and I’ve spent countless hours in Penang watching them do this. Often they give up but sometimes they’ll spend an hour or more trying.
After lunch, we visited several other enclosures featuring some creatures not as interesting as large cats, monkeys or elephants but nonetheless they’re also part of the family and they’ve all been rescued so we gave them all a look too. I told you animals are our soft spot. Clearly the highlight of the day, the best entertainment of the day comes in the afternoon when we stepped into a large enclosure reserved for “monkey socialization school“. Victims of bad pet owners, poachers or simply abandoned, monkeys torn away from their mothers spend time in a special enclosure and learn how to be monkeys. Needing to acquire social skills if there’s any hope of releasing them, trainers and handlers teach the adolescents what’s acceptable monkey behavior. Entering the enclosure, Emma warned us ahead of time how they’d crawl all over us as they handed us bananas, cucumbers and other treats. And run amok they did!!
For Diane and me, there’s not many things better in life than monkeys sitting on your head or shoulders enjoying some quality time. Cuter than anything you’d see all day, it’s hard to get video because they go absolutely nuts when you enter and there’s not much time to pose because they can’t overfeed them. Emma told us they use reward-based positive reinforcement to help them learn right from wrong and never punish any animals. With such a large percentage of animals released back to the wild, it’s hard for the staff to see them go but it’s also one of the most successful programs of its kind anywhere in the world.
Never turning down any animal, the facility is very large and has lots of room to grow should the need arise. Often getting over 5,000 local visitors on weekends, they don’t run tours on Sundays due to park volume. Embracing the center, it’s awesome to see so many Cambodians take an interest in wildlife preservation given how they often struggle just to make ends meet. Wildlife Alliance also runs an even more amazing trip in the remote northeastern jungles of Cambodia where you’ll get close up with sun bears, monkeys and birds just before their release into the wild. Offering overnight accommodations, they have private bathrooms and modern showers. Getting an opportunity to set up and check camera traps that monitor elusive wildlife, Diane and I most will certainly do this before we leave Asia and at only $120 a night for the first night and $80 a night after that, it’s affordable as well as rewarding.
Hoping everyone reading this gets an opportunity to enjoy wildlife as much as we do, please consider contacting this incredible organization if you have the means. We’re off to Canada via a two-day stop in Hong Kong on Sunday so I’m guessing I won’t get to finish detailing our entire Cambodian experience but I will try to post periodically in via Ipad since it’s way too cold in Canada to go outside.