During our time in Cambodia, we spent a week at Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. Located approximately 100km north of Siem Reap, this sanctuary is virtually unknown to the world of eco tourists. We initially planned to spend a week volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Upon discovering they were fully booked up over a year in advance, we had to make other arrangements. We came across Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary through the Elephant Nature Park website, as the Save Elephant Foundation has partnered up with the sanctuary.
There were five other volunteers with us during this week, and we quickly became friends. Along with our volunteer co-ordinators, it was a great group to spend the week with. As we mentioned earlier, this place isn’t very well known to travellers, and so volunteer groups are usually pretty small. This is a good thing for you, as it becomes a more intimate and personal experience (and less people to share the elephants with).
In this post we will detail our thoughts on the sanctuary, how we spent our week, and if we think you should go there!
Meet the elephants:
There were four elephants at the sanctuary during our time there; Di-Poh, Sarai-Mia, Arun-Reah, and Kham-Lin.
Kham-Lin worked in the logging industry for over 40 years before she was rescued. She was blind in both eyes and had digestive problems due to her age and health. Save Elephant Foundation was able to buy and rescue her in 2013. Unfortunately Kham-Lin passed away a few months after our visit. We feel extremely happy that she was able to spend the last few years of her life at the sanctuary.
Arun-Reah arrived at the sanctuary at the same time as Kham-Lin, as they had been rescued from the same area. When she arrived, she had wounds on her back from a saddle, wounds on her leg, and her right eye had been previously damaged.
Sarai-Mia arrived at the sanctuary in 2017, along with Di-Poh, and was also rescued from the logging industry. She became quick friends with Arun-Reah, and the two share an enclosure during the night. These two make a very cheeky pair, especially when there’s food involved.
Di-Poh was still getting used to being at the sanctuary when we arrived. On some days, she would have a chain around her leg attached to a long piece of rope. The rope was not tied to anything, and she was free to move around. The reason for this was due to the fact that she had spent so many years of her life chained up, she would become anxious and agitated if she didn’t have something around her leg. It was a sort of comfort blanket for her. We were happy to see on one of our last days that she was roaming freely with nothing around her leg.
Accomodation here is very basic. Like, VERY basic. The two of us were in our own hut, in which there were two beds and two mosquito nets. That’s it. Power is run through a generator, and therefore is only on between 6-10pm. Bucket showers, I think they explain themselves. Recalling all of this now, we realise that this description could put some potential volunteers off. We may have even been put off if we knew this before we booked. However, what it lacks in luxuries, it makes up for with amazing experiences. After the long, hot days we actually began to look forward to our cold bucket showers! Also, the food is amazing.
Collecting and preparing food:
We would split into two groups and alternate days for these activities.
Collecting the food involved jumping on the back of the truck, riding to a nearby farm, and loading the truck up with sugar cane. Sometimes we had it easy and only had to move the sugar cane onto the truck, and other days we would be handed a machete and have to cut the sugar cane ourselves. The sanctuary buys the sugar cane from a number of different farms in the area, which in turn supports the local community.
Preparing the food involved cutting up the sugar cane, which we sucked at to begin with! Once we got the hang of it, we came to really enjoy swinging a machete. There was one elderly elephant that couldn’t eat the sugar cane due to her health, so we would make rice balls for her.
Everyday after we prepared the food, we got to spend time feeding the elephants. It was an intimate experience each time, as there were only seven of us feeding four elephants.
Jungle walk with elephants:
This was one of our favourite experiences during our week here. It’s hard to explain the feeling of walking through a jungle, turning around, and seeing an elephant walking less than ten meters behind you. Elephants are huge, but they are SO quiet when they walk. Sometimes we didn’t even know they were there until we turned around. The elephants would often branch off whenever they saw something they thought looked yummy, which was all the time. At the end of the walk, we were able to chill out and watch the elephants roam.
Visiting a local school:
The group of volunteers visited a local school one afternoon as part of the programme. The school itself was very small. A wooden building split into two classrooms, one for the younger kids, and one for the older kids. We spent a few hours with the kids, doing a short English lesson and playing lots of games. We were inundated with drawings, hugs, and kisses from the girls. The kids were having so much fun and their energy and happiness was truly infectious. One of the volunteers had bought his drone along and the kids absolutely lost their minds when they saw it flying up in the sky and chased it everywhere! We would return to this school in a heartbeat if the opportunity arose.
Monkeys and Gibbons:
The sanctuary also houses a number of monkeys. Most of these animals have been rescued by the tourist trade and spent most of their lives prior to the sanctuary chained up or in cages. And we can’t forget about Gib, the gibbon! Gib is still relatively young, and the sanctuary hopes to make him semi wild as he gets older. He is visited frequently by a wild gibbon that the sanctuary has named ‘Gab’. It was amazing to see them interacting and playing in the canopies. Seb, an expat who has been at the sanctuary for nearly six years does a great job caring for these animals.
There were seven dogs living at the sanctuary when we visited. They were all part of the same family and were all extremely adorable.
A couple of expats from the UK, Lucie and Jack have been at Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary for over seven months. These two are doing a lot for the dogs both at the sanctuary and in the community. They are providing education to people living in rural area’s surrounding the sanctuary. They educate locals about correct nutrition, and how to prevent diseases such as Parvovirus, Distemper and Rabies. Alongside the work they do in the community, they also provide a safe home for dogs in need. They currently have 28 dogs living at the sanctuary (way more than the seven when we were there!) These dogs have either been abandoned, hit by cars, rescued from the dog meat trade, malnourished or abused. The work they are doing is really incredible.
This was a unique activity which gave us some insight into the beliefs of the local communities. In Cambodia, the belief is that if you chop down a tree that has been blessed, you will have a lifetime of bad luck. We took cloth that had previously been blessed by monks, and drove out to the jungle bordering the sanctuary. A huge amount of trees had already been blessed, so we has to go searching for some trees to bless. It was a really cool to see that religion could play a part in preventing deforestation!
We had so many amazing experiences packed into our week at Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. This is a genuine sanctuary that is doing amazing things not only for these elephants, but for countless other animals in the community.
Lucie and Jack also have a Facebook page specifically for the work they are doing with the dogs. You can check that out here.