While I didn’t exactly bond with any of the animals at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, it was nevertheless the animal park of my dreams. It was the perfect half-day trip from Phnom Penh, where we spend a few days while backpacking Cambodia.
According to the centre’s website, “all of the animals have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade or are victims of habitat loss,” and now most of them are protected in massive enclosures dotting the property. The only animals we saw which had complete freedom were some of the monkeys, who constantly request or screech out for bananas.
Literally Monkeying Around
Amar the elephant, a macaque monkey, and a bearded lizard stretch their tongues out towards whatever it is you have in your hand… might it be a banana? The day after my birthday we woke up early to spend our last day in Phnom Penh, Cambodia walking around an animal sanctuary full of animals indigenous to the region. Yes, even the elephants. This visit was something we did during our week in Cambodia, and it was absolutely unforgettable!
As I said before, all of the animals were rescued from abuse of some sort. Each animal there has a story that is worth telling, ranging from misguided house pets to twisted circus attractions to victims of forest traps. Although I wish I were in possession of the time & stamina to learn each & every one, alas I am not.
All the Trip Advisor reviews we had read of the tours and of the park itself mentioned how difficult it was to get anything out of the experience unless you had a proper guide along, but we never felt bereft. We actually had some locals offer to be guides when we arrived, though we declined and still we had a small crowd follow us into the first area.
They were locals trying to sell us food to feed the animals, and they were actually quite informative, whether offering bananas for the monkeys, potatoes for the deer, or sugar cane for the elephants. Who knew elephants had such a sweet tooth? In fact, local fruit sellers were quick enough to point out some tiny monkey babies whose mothers had recently died, and would therefore be better to feed our bananas to. The little guy kept getting scared off by bigger monkeys, but the locals persuaded us to be persistent. It was useful to know, so always keep your eye out for unexpected help!
Making the Most of It
This was one of our favorite things to do around the country’s capital city during our mere two weeks in Cambodia. Even as a visitor with just one day during which to explore all that the center has to offer (though they do offer two- & three-day options in the Cardamom Mountains), it’s quite possible to have a wonderful day simply wandering around the two loops along which the animals have been placed. There was not much signage in English on the enclosures, though there was some, but for the bears and tigers there were loads of interesting facts in English. Be prepared to pose for photos at the designated spots, too.
Both maps we saw posted had names in Khmer as well as an easy-to-follow photo map of the animal you should keep an eye out for when passing by. Even though you won’t always know their background since their arrival at the center, you at least know that it has been a positive experience, and they make it easy for you to see each creature. If you choose to go on foot, just reading the basic signs and snapping pictures, this will take about 3-5 hours depending on your speed & if you miss any animals.
For most people this is enough, though if you want to recharge & came back around after a nice lunch, there are many raised canopies with hammocks under which to buy food or simply get out of the afternoon rain. However, we actually saw fewer than half a dozen other tourists in our whole day trip. This is definitely a unique day trip from the capital that you’ll feel privileged to go on.
During our walkabout, everyone we met encouraged us to feed the animals, as most of them get their food from people anyway, since many are unfit to live in the wild any longer (or it is unsafe). We were a bit suspicious at first, but after we noticed each animal coming over when they saw us, we realized that they had been trained to expect food from humans. Most likely, this is to ensure that the animals are eating and that they do trust the center’s staff, since they are the people feeding them regularly, and making sure that all their future interactions with humans stay positive ones. It’s all very kid-friendly, and I imagine children would go gaga over hand-feeding and petting the deer and monkeys and peacocks.
Every animal we met was sweet, though some of the monkeys could get aggressive if they thought you were teasing them with your basket of bananas. It’s nothing compared to Thailand, but beware of the monkeys; they’re the only animals roaming free in the area. But not all of the animals seemed thrilled to be there, especially the bears. We watched one female sun bear pace for several minutes before we left, saddened; when you’re used to endless forest, a 300m X 300m enclosure sure seems minuscule.
Practical Info: How to Arrange a Trip
Before going, the only recent information we found online included private tours at $60-$150+ per person (you could donate more, if desired, and there are steep discounts for children), the more expensive of which included one-on-one face time feeding & playing with the animals. The other option we knew about beforehand was bare bones entrance at just $5 a head. Once we arrived we learned of a local tour offered at $40pp, though that’s a price that’s still out of reach for most backpackers.
So in a move that was actually entirely out of our hands, we decided to hire a 4-seater taxi for the day at $55 total, which seemed a bit high for low season, but it was non-negotiable. The center is open every day, though I’d recommend heading over in the morning and staying until the afternoon, as it usually rains in the afternoon or evening in the low season, and during high season you’ll want to leave the heat by 1pm, anyway.
The Sanctuary is about a 40-50 minute drive from downtown Phnom Penh, depending on traffic, so this is not the easiest place to get to. But that’s what we liked about it! There is a temple nearby our driver offered to take us to afterwards for an extra $10 (we were too tired after 4 hours walking around the sanctuary, plus it was boiling hot), but otherwise this is basically a standalone day trip (and you can buy some cheap roadside fruit if you convince your driver to stop).
After a rest during the afternoon heat, you can walk around Phnom Penh or go see a show or get a massage or continue on to your next destination knowing that you’ve already seen a very unique side of Cambodia.
While it was hot and humid the day we went, we also managed to avoid rain the entire time, as well as sunburns, since the immense trees allow for consistent shade. You can get some great pictures here, but remember: don’t touch any of the animals unless you’re on a guided trip and are explicitly allowed to, as you never know what step in recovery each being is currently experiencing, or where they came from.
If you remain on-the-fence about visiting the Phnom Tamao center, please keep in mind that tourist money helps keep the center open and keep this rescue & conservation & rehabilitation work going, as well as supporting locals who live in the area; if you can afford a donation-based tour it’s an interesting way to see native species and change up your experience while exploring Phnom Penh. It’s also a humane way to see & interact with elephants, a goal many people have when visiting Asia. In fact, I had that dream, and this visit fulfilled it in a roundabout way.
The ease of traveling there in a private taxi didn’t hurt, either, and it’s definitely my recommended mode of transport, for the air conditioning, distance, reasonable price, and direct support of the local economy (always book direct when possible). I cannot imagine the horror of a tuk tuk or rented motorbike ride, though both are certainly options.
Even though we went in wet season, there had recently been a drought, so we ran into several small dust storms along the path and on well-used local roads, but we found it to be an easy walk despite this. It’s maybe 1 to 2 miles of easy walking, and I promise there’s nothing to fear; someone is always ready to sell you a cold coconut or a bottle of water.
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As of posting, the center has been able to rescue nearly 70,000 animals. Which one would you want to see first?