Off the Beaten Path: Phnom Tamao

March 11, 2007

We’re in Phnom Penh now, Cambodia’s capital. After two days of the requisite palace-pagoda-museum sightseeing triumvirate, we decided to be “independent” and do something “off the beaten path” and make our way out to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Sanctuary, 45 km (about 20 miles) out of the city center.

“Independent” and “off the beaten path” are two prized phrases amongst the backpacking crowd. The worst thing a place can be isn’t expensive or dirty or unsafe, but rather “touristy.” The backpacker kiss o’ death. Well, here is my take on it. There is a reason paths are beaten to certain areas and a reason paths to others remain dusty, bumpy roads in the middle of nowhere.

It was on the latter where we found ourselves today.

I was expecting the sanctuary to be something like the Endangered Primate Research Center outside of Ninh Binh, Vietnam – lush grounds where monkeys played in their pens, a guide to show us around and explain the work behind animal rescue, or, at the very least a gift shop.

The sandy road leading up to the wildlife sanctuary was lined with beggars and weird men in 8-foot tall Carnivale-esque costumes. We arrived to a place that was dusty and brown, with little separating it from the surrounding flatlands. Entrance cost $5, exorbitant in Cambodia, especially when the locals only had to pay $1. At the entrance to the zoo, children selling bamboo hats and fruit swarmed around us and, for the rest of our time there, we were followed by the same children trying to sell us either coconuts or their guide services.

It was so stinking hot with so few trees and water that the animals went on strike. The only animals that showed some sign of a pulse were the otters, who blissfully rolled around in their murky pool of water, and the monkeys, who can always be depended upon to go bananas (har har har.)

As if that weren’t crappy enough, no “adventure” that I undertake would be complete without a mechanical failure of some sort. This excursion would be no different. On the way to the sanctuary, our tuk-tuk (an open-air wagon pulled by a motorbike) started bouncing like the ghettomobiles in Carol City. An inspection revealed not one, but two flat tires. Fortunately, a few yards down the road was a repair shop.

Perhaps that ended too easily for because on the way home from the sanctuary on the same creepy road with all of the beggars, our tuk-tuk ran out of gas. So we got out and pushed. Truthfully, I was nervous at first because I thought that again, we would be swarmed by old folks and children wanting money, but actually the beggars turned out to be plainclothes monks and nuns collecting alms. They were tickled by the sight we made: two foreigners in the scorching afternoon pushing the transportation they’d hired for the day. I admit, I even thought we made a ridiculous scene. Their cackling followed us all the way down that dusty road until we found another shop selling gasoline out of soda bottles. Our driver bought us a bag of fruit to apologize.

Lessons learned? 1) Don’t take a tuk-tuk to any location out of Phnom Penh. 2) There may be less spontaneity on the beaten path, but at least it’s paved and most of the time, dust-free. 3) Save the zoos for Singapore.


5 Responses to “Off the Beaten Path: Phnom Tamao”

  1. Keiko said

    HA. Ghettomobiles in Carol City…flippin’ switches. Love it. Anyways, don’t drink soda anymore until you smell it first.

  2. sailorjes said

    Yeah, the gasoline actually looks like Mountain Dew, which I wouldn’t drink if you paid me so I’m safe for now!

  3. geannina said

    You see Jess, it’s like this: You can take the girl outta the hood, but you can’t take the hood outta the girl. No matter where in the world you maybe, South Florida’s ambiance always creeps up.

    Much love from MIA.

    Besos y abrazos,


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