Free the Bears: Volunteering as a Bear Keeper in Cambodia

Whenever I travel to a new country, I like to spend a day doing volunteer work with animals.  Not only does it help support them, but it also gives me the chance to meet rare species and learn more about the culture of the country I’m visiting.  In Thailand I signed up for a program at the Elephant Sanctuary, and I just recently visited the Cleland Wildlife Park in Australia.  While I was researching animal programs in Cambodia, the Free the Bears volunteer program really caught my eye.  In this program, you will become a bear keeper for the day and get the chance to meet some extremely fascinating Cambodian Sun and Moon Bears!

About Free the Bears

Free the Bears was founded in order to help bears that had been neglected throughout Asia in “coffin-size” cages and milked for their bile, which could be used as an ingredient in medicine.  Fortunately this cruel practice is becoming illegal, but many bears are still being held in captivity.  This program helps educate volunteers on what we can do to save them, and also gives its participants to safely interact with them.  In addition to Cambodia, there are also other locations in Laos and Vietnam.  The Cambodian location is within Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, and free transportation is included when you sign up for the program.

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Several Moon Bears feast on a nutritious lunch of vegetables and honey.

Itinerary

When I accepted to the program, I was sent the following itinerary via email:

09.30 to 10.00 – Arrive at the centre and have introduction and welcome.
10.00 to 11.00 – Guided tour around the bear sanctuary and introduction to the bears.
11.00 to 12.00 – Preparing bear enrichment.
12.00 to 13.00 – Lunch.
13.00 to 15.00 – Tour of other animals at the centre.
15.00 to 15.30 – Helping keepers put out enrichment, feeding bears etc.
15.30/16.00 – Leave centre and return to Phnom Penh by approximately 5.00pm.

Being a Bear Keeper for a Day

My day began with a cheerful tour around the wildlife center.  I lucked out because I was the only person on the tour and that gave me the chance to ask a lot of questions.  All of the staff was very friendly and spoke English.  I got the chance to meet several of the bears and they all seemed well-treated and happy.  Unfortunately you are not able to pet the bears, as their claws can be quite sharp, but you can get pretty close to them and take pictures with them.

After I met all of the bears, we started preparing meals for them.  I chopped up some vegetables and stuffed them in bamboo and plastic balls.  After the meal prep, I was guided to a fence where I could toss the food balls over to them, and pass them the bamboo sticks through the fence.

Watching them eat was extremely adorable:

We also took bits of food and scattered them across their playground.  This gives the bears a chance to exercise their bodies, and they actually looked like they really enjoyed going on the hunt:

I learned that sun bears are actually the smallest and rarest of the bear species.  My favorite bear was this extremely rare one that looks like a lion:

However, all of the bears I met were extremely cute!  I thought that some of them may be in rough condition, but all of the ones I saw had no visible injury or scarring.  They looked like they were living a happy life, and that made me extremely grateful.

Meeting the other Animals

In addition to bears, Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre is home to many other species of animals including gibbons, tigers, elephants, and more!  This was my first time ever seeing a gibbon, and I was extremely impressed seeing them climb and swing with their long arms.

In addition to the gibbons, I also met the most beautiful tiger in the world:

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Who knew such hidden beauty existed here in Cambodia!  Seeing this tiger was absolutely breathtaking.

Overall Review

I was overall extremely satisfied with my experience with Free the Bears, and would recommend the program for all animal lovers.  It doesn’t matter how much previous volunteer experience you have, because being a bear keeper here is actually quite easy!

The program costs $90 for which is a bit expensive, but you receive a free T-shirt which is actually quite stylish, and lunch and transportation is also included.  If you put things into perspective, Cambodia is an under-developed country, and these bears are in need of help so this is a good investment.  I took my money here rather than shopping at the night market, and feel extremely enriched because of it.

I really liked traveling in Cambodia, and I am happy that I made my money count here.  If you have any questions, feel free to ask me!

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Aesthetic Adventures in Cambodia

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Although I have just returned from Australia, I’ve already decided where I’m traveling to next in order to celebrate my birthday; the historic and tropical areas of Cambodia!  I chose Cambodia as my next destination because it has a similar climate and activities as Vietnam and Thailand, which were two of my favorite vacations because of their laidback beaches and inexpensive lodging.  I will be staying in Cambodia for a total of 10 days, though 2 of them will be travel-heavy due to layovers.  I will be bringing my Nintendo Switch and playing Fire Emblem to keep me occupied during these times.

I am most excited to try the local cuisine, explore the famous Angkor Wat temples, and even volunteer to be a bear keeper for a day!  I will also be flying to the tropical island known as Koh Rong to soak up some sun and party on the beach.  Then I will be flying to the capital to learn about the sad history of the killing fields and visiting the memorial.  I hope to keep a good balance of exploring and taking part in cultural events here to make the most of my experience.

My planned itinerary (so far) is listed below:

Tokyo → Siem Reap → Angkor Wat → Tonle Sap Village → Siranhoukville → Koh Rong → Koh Rong Samloem → Phnom Penh → Killing Fields → Siem Reap ↺ Tokyo

Oct 1st: Arriving to Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the cheapest city to fly to from Tokyo, so I booked a $450 flight through Vietnam Airlines from Narita Airport.  This is a discounted flight that includes a 3 hour layover in Vietnam, but from my experience, this time usually goes by quickly (especially if you pregame in the airport).  Since it is my birth week, I will not be holding back on indulging.

Once arriving to Siem Reap, I plan on hitting Pub Street and trying the infamous happy pizza.  I will be posting my own review to let everyone know about my experience.  I have extremely high expectations for it, but even if it’s not “happy”, there are tons of other restaurants and bars around to explore.  I definitely want to try the bar Angkor What? not only because of its hilarious name, but also because I will be visiting the historic Angkor Wat (temple) the next day.  If there’s time, I plan on visiting the Old Market too.

I will be staying in a private room at the Jasmin Hotel for less than $20 a night.  I chose this hotel because it is close to the center of the city and has a pool, so I am excited to go swimming here since it was too cold to during my Australia.  I already know this is going to be an awesome trip!

Oct 2nd: Exploring the Angkor Wat Temples

This will be a travel-heavy day as I explore the most famous temples on a sunset tour I booked from GetYourGuide.  This tour is highly rated and only costs $19 to go with a group of people, so that will give me a good opportunity to meet fellow backpackers.  We will be heading deep in the jungle to see the main Angkor Wat temple, and also trekking to the other aesthetic Buddhist temples around it.  The tour last for 10 hours, but I am more than ready to go hiking again!  I think it will feel like going through ruins in a videogame, which makes me feel a little like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider.

Oct 3rd: Sailing through the Floating Tonle Sap Village

In the morning I plan on waking up early and jogging through the city to see the famous Preah Ang Chek & Preah Ang Chorm temples.  I also want to try some street food and familiarize myself with more of the local shops and parks.  Maybe even do a little souvenir hunting too.

In the afternoon, I booked another cheap tour from GetYourGuide to see the the floating village on the Tonle Sap lake.  This is a fishing village that is similar to Ine that I visited in Kyoto, and looks very relaxing and interesting to see.  I love being out on the water and feeling the wind in my hair!

Once the day comes to an end, I will be taking an overnight bus from Siem Reap to Siranhoukville that I booked through 12goAsia for $25.  Though this is a 10 hour trip, it’s way more cheap than flying, and I really want to experience it at least once.  The reviews on the website are quite mixed, but I had a pleasant time riding buses in both Malaysia and Singapore so I think I will be okay on this trip.  It will be an adventure, at the very least!

Oct 4th – 7th: Partying at Koh Rong

From Siranhoukville, I will be taking the very first ferry to Koh Rong so I can begin relaxing and partying on the beach!  I booked a single room at Treehouse Bungalows right near Police Beach where all of the parties take place.  My room is less than $30 per night and is in a real treehouse!  I am so excited to take pictures and see the beautiful view of the oceanfront.  There are many bars and hostels around the area, so it’s extremely easy to make friends on this island.  I have been to the Fullmoon Party in Thailand before, so I already know what to expect here.

I also plan on sailing to Koh Rong Samloem, which is another beautiful and more private island that is easy to get to by longboat.  It has the gorgeous Saracen Bay to explore as well as a variety of other nightlife options.  I might also attempt a jungle trek to Long Beach on the main island if I have enough energy.  Basically I’m just going with the flow to see where life takes me!

October 8th: Visiting the Killing Fields

To reach the capitol city of Cambodia; Phnom Penh, I will be taking another inexpensive bus from Siranhoukville that I booked through 12goAsia.  This trip will only be 6.5 hours, and I’m sure I will be tired from my island adventure so I won’t mind the travel time.

Once I arrive, I will be going on the Killing Fields tour I booked through GetYourGuide.  I do not know much about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge Regime, but I do know it is a tragic part of the history of this country and I would like to learn more about it so I can write a proper article.

During my stay in Phnom Penh, I will be staying at a place with the hilarious name of Lovely Jubbly Villa.  Once again, this is a conveniently located accommodation with a beautiful pool, so I had to book it.  I expect to have a “lovely” time here!

October 9th: Freeing the Bears

As I have said before in my previous blog entries; whenever I travel to a new country I like to volunteer with animals.  I have been accepted to the Free the Bears Bear Keeper Program, and am excited to help rare species of bears in Cambodia!  This program also has other locations in Thailand and Vietnam.

While being a bear keeper, I will be preparing food for the bears, cleaning their habitat, and grooming the ones that are friendly.  I am always happy to contribute to the well-being of endangered animals, as I am lucky to have a lot of things in my life already.  I hope to look for more programs like this in the future if it goes well!

October 10th: Exploring the rest of Phnom Penh

Before taking my late night flight home, I plan on exploring the city of Phnom Penh and see all that it has to offer.  Some of the places I’m interested in seeing are: The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, National Museum of Cambodia, Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh Night Market, The Russian Market, and of course experiencing the night life.

At the end of the day, I will have to fly from here back to Siem Reap, where I will take my overnight flight to Tokyo.  I hope to sleep well after all of this travel!

October 11th: My Birthday

For the last few years of my life, I have always spent the day of my birthday on tropical islands, but this time I really want to spend it with my friends in Tokyo.  I am leaving this day open for spontaneous shenanigans to ensue, but I know for sure that on October 12th I will be going to a footwork party called Battle Train Tokyo CLIMAX in Ebisu!  My favorite underground DJ Carpainter is playing, and I know that it will be an awesome event.

I am extremely excited to turn 26 this year because each year that passes I am able to experience more of the world and learn more things about myself.  Overall I will always feel very young at heart and still plan on traveling as much as I can!

Bathing in the Mud with Elephants at the Sanctuary (Phuket, Thailand)

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Volunteers jump in the mud to wash rescued elephants in Thailand.

I never dreamed I would be swimming through the mud in a giant elephant bath during my first day in Phuket, but as soon as I heard that the elephants were in need of protection, I signed up to be a volunteer at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.  There are a total of 4 parks in Thailand you can visit to help save the elephants (Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Samui, and Phuket) that all offer an educational hands-on experience with them.

The day starts with a free pickup from your hotel (from most locations) to the sanctuary.  After listening to a presentation on why it is important to protect the elephants, you are handed a knitted shirt and are given directions on how to feed them with corn stalks, bananas, and sugar cane.  The elephants are extremely friendly and approachable, and the English-speaking guides will tell you each of their stories.  You can tell that each one has been through a lot by the marks on their bodies.  They seem much happier in their natural habitat than anywhere else!

Most of the elephants I met were rescued from a harsh lifestyle of show business.  Due to being forced to lift heavy equipment and be trained to do tricks, some of their ears were worn from leather harnesses and and straps.  Additionally, their skin was discolored from being away from the mud for so long.  It is evident that elephants used for riding and for circuses are lacking in hygiene and not taken care of properly.  This is why we must do what we can to collectively help them and spread awareness.

A very important lesson to learn is: elephants should never be ridden.  The elephant’s spine will degrade overtime from the weight on their backs and it can cause permanent damage to their bodies.  One thing that upsets me with tour companies in Thailand is that they often feature both an elephant sanctuary and and elephant riding course.  Elephant riding should be discouraged as much as possible to tourists and permanently removed from the tour companies because it is extremely harmful to them.  Even though elephants look strong, they are fragile creatures that should be treated with respect.

After our feeding session, we headed to the mud bath where we happily washed and played with them!  The mud is extremely important in nourishing elephants’ skin and you can tell that they really enjoy it.  I’ll admit that I was a bit nervous to get in, but the group of friends that I met here encouraged me to so I took the plunge!  I am so happy that I decided to do this because I feel like I understand the elephants a lot more now.

You can choose from a half day and full day course with them, and an overnight course is available as well.  I decided to try the half day course just to see what it was like for 2,500 baht.  All of the money is used for medicine and maintaining the elephants in the sanctuaries, so I felt like this experience was well worth it.

After you bathe with the elephants, you will be able to take a shower and feast on a delicious Thai buffet meal,  I enjoyed my experience here very much because I feel like I learned a lot about them, and I even got to hug one at the end of the tour!

For those looking to volunteer, please look at the volunteer page, and cherish the moments you are able to spend with these precious animals.