Inside the area where the Siberian tigers feed, the metallic smell of blood wafted up from gnawed carcasses strewn across the cement floor. I thought about the massive disclaimer I would have to sign back home in the United States in order to stand in a narrow corridor lined with tiger cages, a few iron bars away from turning into one of those lifeless lumps of meat.
One of the benefits of Betelnut Tours, which takes groups through Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge Centre outside Phnom Penh, is that your guide brings you into areas usually accessible—for good reason, probably—only to a zookeeper. For that alone I realised, as I made eye contact with the hulking, 185-kilo cat, I got my money's worth.
My boyfriend and I paid $30 each for the daylong trip. At 10 a.m., we met our group at The Lazy Gecko on street 158 near the Palace, and owned by our guide, the indefatigable Barb. In addition to running a restaurant with weekend roasts and a popular quiz night, she provides care to the animals, hosts fundraisers to benefit the refuge, and runs thrice-weekly tours out to the centre. Betelnut is not the only way to see the refuge. For about $7 per person round trip, you can pick up a share taxi at the station near Central Market, although prepare to squeeze seven bodies into a five-seat sedan. Entrance to the park costs $2 for foreigners.
Along with four Australian girls, all here working for various NGOs, we climbed into the back of an open-topped military jeep covered in cheetah-print decals. After a dusty, bumpy, 45-kilometre ride south with complimentary kramas wrapped over our faces and hair to ward off the dirt, we arrived at the long entrance to the refuge, where beggars stood at each speed bump holding alms bowls. Once inside, we jumped off the truck and headed into the bird sanctuary, led by our guide, sweet, knowledgeable Sun.
Giant, stork-like birds called adjutants stood statuesque, occasionally lifting their stick-like legs, which bent in reverse, and taking a slow, graceful step forward. With a jowl and a bald head to match its graceful body, the bird is one part heron, one part vulture, and looks like some kind of beast from a Tolkien novel. One stood with its right wing jutting out at an unnatural right angle—like many disabled animals at the refuge who would've never survived in the wild, it now lives out its days in comfort. The organisation is part of Wildlife Alliance's Care for Rescued Wildlife programme designed to house animals that cannot be reintroduced to the wild. On the refuge's 2,300 hectares of government-owned regenerated forest, there are 1,100 animals, including 93 endangered or threatened species.
Next, we visited the monkeys. Chattering macaques run freely around the grounds, climbing on each other and scouring rubbish bins for snacks. The less domesticated monkeys, like the gibbons, live inside cages. The mischievous monkeys have affinities for tourist items like baseball caps and cameras, and with a lightning-fast manoeuvre can stick their hands out through the fence and snatch your prized Canon, so watch out. They also express their displeasure by pressing their anus up to a hole in the fence. Charming.
The highlight of the day was the trek with the elephants. Chhouk, a three-year-old pup, is a veritable celebrity in Cambodia. He was found abandoned, scared and emaciated in Mondulkiri province last year, his foot severed and caught in a tiger trap. An NGO rescued him and brought him to Phnom Tamao. Now, his footless leg has healed, but with one leg shorter than the others, he hobbles.
Various fundraisers in town are working to collect the $30,000 it costs to buy a custom-made prosthesis for an elephant. Along with his adopted big sister, Lucky, we accompanied the elephants on their daily trek through the forest to their swimming pool. Chhouk's euphoria as he splashed in the water, all his weight lifted from his disabled leg, was contagious. He and Lucky climbed over each other, playing like any siblings might, spraying each other (and us) with bright green, elephant poop-coloured water.
At lunchtime, we climbed onto elevated wooden pallets, covered in rattan mats and lined with hammocks, and ate. The meal, a tasty assortment of Khmer dishes, is included in the price. After binging, we all took a shot of rice wine. Then Barb passed out betelnut chips, the root chewed for its stimulant effects by stained-teeth elderly Cambodians. We wrapped the nut in leaves lined with a chalky pink substance, and chewed. Immediately, mass quantities of red saliva started flowing. It made me feel a little warm and tingly, but goes firmly into the category of things I tried once and needn't ever try again.
In the afternoon, we visited the tigers' pen, where the animals eat after a tiring day of strutting around the enclosed grounds where they live. Cages lined a strip of cement only a few metres wide, and vertical bars were wide enough for a disgruntled cat to stick out its paw and, with one swipe, maul an unsuspecting foreigner. After watching the animals feed, with one consistently growling at us as a warning not to touch her meal, we shuffled out, single-file.
"Beers with the bears," the last activity of the day, was a bit contrived but endearing. Barb handed us each a can of Angkor and we walked around the perimeter of the grounds where the sun bears live. These animals, small and thin with a trademark golden ring of fur around their necks, had an anthropomorphic quality to them, as they sat upright on their hind legs, nibbling coconut. They seemed indifferent to the fact that we were having beers with them.
Lightheaded from a single beer after spending the day in the sun, I climbed back on the jeep with the group, and we bumped our way back to town, with the sun setting over vast rice fields. Happily covered in elephant snot, faecal water, and monkey germs, we headed home looking forward to taking well-deserved showers.
By Claire Duffett
Last updated on 19th May, 2015.