Phnom Tamao

Cambodia’s foremost wildlife sanctuary, Phnom Tamao (www.cambodianwildliferescue.org; admission US$5) is a home for animals confiscated from traffickers or saved from poachers traps. It occupies a vast site south of the capital and its animals are kept in varying conditions that are rapidly improving with help from international wildlife NGOs. Spread out as it is, it feels like a zoo crossed with a safari park. The way things are developing, Phnom Tamao is set to become one of the region’s best-run animal sanctuaries in the coming years.

Popular enclosures include huge areas for the large tiger population, and there are elephants that sometimes take part in activities such as painting. There is also a walk-through area with macaques and deer and a huge menagerie, including some rare birds from around Cambodia.

The centre is home to the world’s largest captive collections of pileated gibbons and Malayan sun bears, as well as other rarities such as Siamese crocodiles and greater adjutant storks. Wherever possible animals are released back into the wild once they have recovered and the centre operates breeding programs for a number of globally threatened species.

Cambodia’s wildlife is usually very difficult to spot, as larger mammals inhabit remote and inhospitable areas of the country. Phnom Tamao is the perfect place to discover more about the incredible variety of animals in Cambodia.

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 realized, as I made eye contact with the hulking, 185-kilo cat, I got my money’s worth.

If you don’t like zoos, you probably won’t like this wildlife sanctuary, but remember that these animals have been rescued from traffickers and poachers and need a home. Visitors that come here will be doing their own small bit to help in the protection and survival of Cambodia’s varied and wonderful wildlife.

Free the Bears (017 794291; www.freethebears.org.au; 16A St 310) has just launched a ‘bear keeper for the day’ initiative to allow visitors a better understanding of the Asian black bear and Malayan sun bear. The full day visit includes the chance to feed and wash the young bears in their care.

Betelnut Jeep Tours (012 619924; www.betelnuttours.com; per person US$30), based at the Lazy Gecko Café, offers day trips here from Tuesday to Saturday, including entry, a guided tour and a chance to meet some of the residents.