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Phnom Penh’s Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue

June 17, 2013

After our first day in Phnom Penh exploring some of the major sights, we decided to head 45km outside the city to Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue for our second day in Cambodia’s capital.

Established in 2000, Phnom Tamao Zoo is the only official wildlife rescue in Cambodia.  It includes over 2,000 hectares of protected land and is home to over 1,000 birds, mammals, and reptiles.  Most of the animals at the Park are rare or endangered species that have either been confiscated from traffickers or saved from poachers traps and deemed too sick or young to survive in the wild.

One of the gibbons at Phnom Tamao.

One of the gibbons at Phnom Tamao.

While visitors can get to the Park via taxi, pay the admission fee (5 USD/adult), and walk around on their own, we decided to tour the Zoo with Betelnut Jeep Tours.

We met our guide and fellow park-goers at the Lazy Gecko Cafe in Phnom Penh around 10am and headed off on the hour and a half ride to the Park.  Since WWW and I had booked the tour on rather late notice, we were put in an old four-door sedan (extra charge) that  followed the open-topped military jeep that the rest of the group rode in.  While at first we were a little bummed not to get the experience of the jeep, we were quickly thankful to be in the air-conditioned sedan avoiding the heat, dust, and noise of the open road.

Injured peacock at the Park.

Injured peacock at the Park.

When we arrived at the Park, our guide began leading us around the enclosures to see the different animals.  One of the most positive aspects of using Betelnut was the “behind the scenes” private encounters with some of the animals.  Also, the tour revolved around the guide’s expert knowledge of when the animals were most active, where their favorite hiding places were, and which ones were the most friendly.

One of our favorite experiences of the day was playing with the Park’s many social gibbons.  Gibbons are a type of small ape (which unlike monkeys are tailless) that are indigenous to the tropical rainforests of south and southeast Asia.


Our guide knew the gibbons well and many of them came up to interact with us.  One was even dubbed my “boyfriend” after refusing to let go of my hand multiple times before reluctantly relenting.

Gibbon reaching out of the enclosure.

Gibbon reaching out of the enclosure.

It was fascinating to watch the gibbons swing from branch to branch (branchiation) which they can do at up to 55km/hour.  They are also incredibly human in their behavior, and it was heartwarming to observe one new mother nurse her baby while clutching it to her breast and balancing it on her hip.

After a delicious Khmer lunch, the jeep swept us off to our next stop in the park where we learned about the plight of the Malayan sun bear (bears with black fur and a golden crescent-shaped patch on their chests).  These animals are often kept in small cages where their captors gather their bile for medicinal purposes.

Malayan sun bear at Phnom Tamao.

Malayan sun bear at Phnom Tamao.

However, perhaps my favorite “special access” stop of the day was to visit Lucky, the Park’s most gregarious elephant.  Lucky was brought to the Park when she was around six months old after being found in Koh Kong province.  It is likely that poachers killed her mother while she escaped.

Making a new friend, Lucky, at Phnom Tamao Zoo.

Making a new friend, Lucky, at Phnom Tamao Zoo.

Since coming to the Park, Lucky has been trained by her caregiver through positive reinforcement to respond to various instructions and can dance, play football, and paint.  She is extremely tender and we were able to feed her a favorite snack, cheese straws, by placing the goodies directly into her mouth.

Similar to my experience at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, this up-close interaction with an Asian elephant was extremely positive and the opposite of the many negative and harmful elephant shows for tourists in southeast Asia.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to the animals and head back to Phnom Penh around 5pm.

Betelnut Jeep Tours charges $33/person and includes transport to and from the Park, the Park entrance fee, and lunch.  Considering the behind the scenes access and loads of information we got with Betelnut and the Park’s large size and sweeping layout, I would advocate for spending the money on the tour.  Overall, this was a wonderful day-trip for those looking for more to do in and around Phnom Penh.

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