Phnom Penh is a concrete jungle in a lot of ways; in the core, clustered cement buildings line many of the streets. Each block is a connected mass of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, machine shops, phone repair stalls, and so on. The streets are packed throughout much of the day and scatters of social gatherings are commonplace at all hours of the night.
Many locals speak English, especially the younger ones. It made a world of different in terms of how we interpreted the culture. Many people simply engaged us in conversation no matter where we happened to be, often curious about our lives, occasionally using it as an opportunity to try to sell us something. Either way, with the local population so willing to learn and improve upon their English, it was a great way to share in one another’s culture.
Everyone who worked at the White River (where we stayed after leaving the 6 stories of staircases) was young and approachable. There was a pool table out front, plenty of cushioned chairs to chill on, a TV, and a bar. Many of the workers partook in the half dozen or so spirits the bar carried, having as much fun with guests as the guests were with them.
One of them was the guy who hooked you up with everything: transportation, excursions, bikes, etc. The same day we arrived at the White River, I got my trusty scooter and off we went.
Outside of downtown, the streets become more and more dirty. A reddish tinge starts to embed itself in every broken piece of gravel that now makes up the wide roads. Row upon row of motorcycles clamor for a place up front. I loved riding like this, but my eyes and throat were choking on the plumes of dust that swirled around us constantly. Teresa, bumping around on the back, could close her eyes and cling on tight. I had to see where I was going. I remember picking large chunks of dirt and sand out of my sore, bloodshot eyes; it burned like all hell.
It was worth our destination, though. A lot of the times, when looking for a particular site, the instructions would become increasingly vague as we neared it. We were on our way to the Phnom Tamao wildlife sanctuary, about 45 km south of the country’s capital. The stony buildings, sides caked in dust from the daily rush of street traffic, made way for a greener backdrop.
Wooden shacks were peppered along the roads now as we made our way beyond Phnom Penh’s borders. At this point, we didn’t know exactly what we were looking for, but eventually found our way. A five mile driveway to its entrance was lined with forest, and a half dozen or so elderly beggars meandered here and there, or sat cross-legged, hands outstretched.
It was at the entrance to the wildlife center that Teresa dropped her iTouch in the toilet, out back where an older couple were selling bottled water and snacks. They immediately put it in a bag of rice where we trusted it to them during the time we’d be in the sanctuary. Besides the crack in the screen from another drop, it works fine to this day.
The animal sanctuary was essentially a zoo locked into the jungle with a feel unlike anything I’d experienced. I don’t care too much for the zoos I went to growing up, they are too depressing. To me, the animals just seem out of place, not in an environment that is natural to them. Especially if the zoo is in a climate that is counter to what a particular animal is built to survive in. With such a wide variety of animals in many big city zoos, it’s impossible to avoid this.
This was a lot different. Many enclosures were enormous in size and many of their inhabitants exhibited vigor, and determination. We approached a jaguar’s enclosure and the moment it saw us, it immediately approached and began pacing back and forth in our immediate vicinity. The look in its eyes was one of purpose; there was no doubt what it had in mind if it could access us.
The lions were no different. A separate entrance to their cage was accidently left open, but Teresa, myself, and a group of 5 or 6 Chinese travelers didn’t know any better, so we walked right in. Here, we had very close access to the lions, close enough where we could stick our hands directly in with no other barrier if we had chosen.
Initially, of the two adult females and one large male, they were all asleep. Then a female awoke, glaring in our direction before emitting an angry roar.
The male was startled awake, his massive back to us. He turned on a dime and charged the cage with a roar, causing the whole group of us to jump back with alarm as the entire side of the cage shook. It was the most surreal experience I’d ever had with an animal like that. At the zoos I’m used to, I normally notice a level of subdued docility. Not that they wouldn’t attack if you entered the cage, but I’ve definitely never seen a lion or tiger approach the viewer and begin showing signs of wanting to maul them.
After being escorted out of the area, finally, by a group of workers who acknowledged the mistake in this particular gate being left open, we made our way back up the path. A large variety of exotic animals are housed at Phnom Tamao, from different kinds of primates, pythons, crocodiles, sun bears, different kinds of oxen, and tigers as well.
The tigers were the most fierce, without a doubt. Their enclosure was by far the most massive, stretching a couple of acres I would imagine. The tigers themselves looked powerful, and no less determined than the stalking jaguar or charging lion.
One in particular took note of us and followed our every movement. This guy growled and grunted, reminding us that without the thin 15 foot cage that separated us, we were nothing compared to him.
He’s built to outthink and kill his prey with a combination of brute force and calculated precision. The movement of him was intense, a feeling that still creeps up in my thoughts from time to time as I consider how long it would have taken to jump on our motorbike together and speed off before he caught up to us.
Please excuse the way I sound, we were both nervous and exhilarated at the time, but I couldn’t hold this one back.
We left with a very positive feeling. We never thought a zoo could be a place that allowed animals who were once vulnerable in the wild live out their lives in as comparable an environment as they were once used to. Many are victims of poaching attempts and would have stood little chance in nature. With numbers already dwindling in a variety of exotic creatures, the necessity to maintain them at an active level is crucial to their survival.
As we drove away, we felt as energetic as the inhabitants of the sanctuary seemed to us. It was actually an adrenaline rush to see the potential might, bubbling under the surface, dying to burst out like it once could.
The following trip out would leave us with quite a different feeling, our heads hanging low, wondering how some things in this existence are possible.