Stroll through the poorest excuse for a zoo anywhere


Notice the dark patch on the thigh, evidence of effective discipline of a performing elephant, which took money, casually passing it back to trainers.

Although I never intended this blog to be a travelogue, I seem to going places and doing things that prompt a post.

Our most recent excursion from Phnom Penh was to a zoo, a lake and a nearby ancient temple.  It was a long day of seven hours, but I promise to restrain myself from going on and on and on.  Well, maybe I’ll stop at on and on.

A gang of monkeys and two animals like big deer or small elk assaulted us as we entered the first chain-linked enclosure, snatching from our hands bananas purchased for that purpose.

As we trudged through the dust in the enclosure we saw. . . more monkeys; some were in cages, others were free to wander or tail us hopefully. Then we came upon a couple of turgid ponds populated by somnolent crocodiles. Then more monkeys, in cages, a white squirrel and an iguana. So exotic!

We encountered a few more animals — a handful of bears, thankfully in cages, three elephants, a couple of birds, two relatively rare otters and no promised tigers or lions. That’s about it, except for an elephant that depressed me because of the undoubtedly cruel training it must have undergone to perform and please the zoo’s visitors.

(When I mentioned to a World Bank consultant recently from Afghanistan my evaluation of the zoo as the worst, he corrected me last night.

(The zoo there is far worse, he told me, containing some beat-up birds and a pig that was a gift from China.  According to him, there is nothing else inside.)

Perhaps my perception of the zoo, officially the Phnom Thmao Wildlife Sanctuary, was colored by the dirt road of perhaps half a mile long lined with the destitute hoping for a handout either because they looked so pathetic or because they hoped to be paid for tossing pots of water on the dust.  For all I know, they only looked destitute.

I have to say that seeing such a quantity of the maimed, blind and the otherwise impaired elderly beggars got to me in a way that omnipresent poverty mostly has failed to do until then, despite realizing that they might receive support from their families.

Did I mention that spending our Sunday on this activity was hardly my idea?

That's the shore way to the rear in this view with the wobbly path to our thatched hut.

That’s the shore way to the rear in this view, which shows the perilous path to our thatched hut.

We went onward to a lake that I wouldn’t call exactly picturesque. Balancing through the shallows on wobbly split logs at a distance of maybe 50 yards, we arrived at one of scores of thatched huts.

Children and drunks splashed into the water from the shaded decks on either side of us, but we forewent that dubious pleasure. Food vendors also rowed by, some propelled by children, and we purchased some tasty candied sweet potatoes and bananas from a women in the bow of one.

Aside from those morsels, we lunched on excellent food brought from home and delivered from the outdoor kitchens back on land. The fare included chicken, a vegetable called morning glory and elsewhere known as water spinach, beef with snow peas, chicken soup, mangos, durian and, of course, rice.

Food vendors in rickety boats ply Tonle Bati along the long, long line of huts.

Food vendors in crude boats ply Tonle Bati along the long, long line of huts.  That’s a boy paddling.

Tonle (meaning “lake”) Bati is billed as a resort, and, as you may have guessed, I’d say that “resort” doesn’t exactly mean luxury. After our hour or so drive from Phnom Penh and the zoo, it nonetheless provided a nice respite.

We stopped to admire the ruins of a temple that in no way compares in scale or quality with Angkor Wat but evokes that massive complex. Members of our family prayed there for a couple of minutes while others of us occupied ourselves with happily deciphering some of the extraordinarily detailed carvings.

Nothing says industrious like a woman selling food from a boat.

Nothing says “industrious” (or “exotic”) like a woman selling food from a boat. Nothing says “drunk” like the man in the inner tube, who heaved himself from the thatched shelter next to us to grab a fruit.

I confess that the relative tranquility of the temple and the short time our visit to it consumed made for the day’s highlight.  However, it will be a while before I’ll be willing to repeat the experience.


2 thoughts on “Stroll through the poorest excuse for a zoo anywhere

  1. I believe the elephant you saw was Sambo,who gave rides in the area around Wat Phnom for years. Animal welfare groups lobbied furiously for someone to intervene and force her owner to allow her to retire. She was very elderly (over 50, as I recall) and had foot problems that were only getting worse as she walked on the pavement. I hope the marks on her hip are old scars and that she’s leading a better life now than she was “working the streets”.

    Is the temple worth the time and effort to get to it, would you say?


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