Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

 1.5 hour flight. 6 hour layover. 13 hour flight. 4 hour layover. 6 hour flight. 5 hour layover. 1 hour flight. 1.5 hour drive.

Totally worth every minute.

Our host, Darrick Thomson picked us up at the Siem Reap airport. “Do you want me to put the air on, or do what I like to do, which is ride with the doors and windows open.” We grabbed on to the inside of the van, and each other, and hoped for the best.

We drove for an hour and half down a dark, windy road with the doors and windows of the old van wide open. The air smelled like a campfire. It seems somebody is always burning something in Cambodia. Every 10 seconds or so, Darrick would honk his horn to get the dogs in the middle of the street to get out of our way.  We passed walkers, bikers, truck -loads of logs, people of all ages, and a few hopping lizards.

There were more stars than sky in this darkness. And it was so quiet.

We arrived and were met by Dino the cook, who made us an incredible vegan feast.

CWS Volunteer Quarters

Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary volunteers enjoy thatched hut accommodations with a view of elephant roaming territory.

We settled into our thatched roof open-air huts and wrapped inside our mosquito netting, tried to get some sleep.

I was the first one awake at 4AM. I wanted to watch the sun rise and take advantage of every minute of  daylight. I wandered over to see the geese, turkeys, and roosters (that had been honking, gobbling and crowing for hours).


Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary’s “Janie” stays by Allison’s side all day and night.

During the night, we had a sneaky visitor. Janie, one of the little black dogs with the ridgeback fur who hangs out at the Sanctuary, must have climbed in our “window” and hopped into bed with us. She settled in just on the other side of the mosquito netting. Some things feel just like home.

Dino prepared a delicious breakfast for us including eggs from the noisy gaggle who woke me up. Darrick joined us for coffee and asked us if we had seen his “girlies” yet.

“Girlies?” I asked him.  I assumed he was talking about the local Cambodian women who come to the Sanctuary to work for the day.

“I mean the ELLIES.” He said.

2 elephants

Arun Reah and Kamlin decide to visit with GreaterGood volunteers early Sunday morning.

And then, I saw them. Two of the most beautiful, majestic creatures quietly, and peacefully strolled up on a path from the woods. The “girlies” to which Darrick was referring were Kamlin, and Arun Reah, two rescued Asian elephants who now make their home in Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.

Arun Reah teary

Allison meets Arun Reah, a rescued female elephant at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.

Slowly, I approached them. Their mahouts, or caregivers, were with them, gently encouraging the elephants to visit with me. For years I have been passionate about elephants and the challenges they face. I hoped I might have the opportunity to be this close to the Sanctuary elephants, but nothing could prepare me for the awe I would feel in their presence. I cautiously reached out to touch Arun Rhea on the trunk, and then her cheek. She looked right into my soul with her beautiful eyes. Overcome with emotion, I looked back at her and felt the spirit of this former slave, who thinks and feels as deeply as I do. A tear dripped down from her eye in that moment. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe it was dusty and her eye was a little irritated. I choose to believe otherwise.

After a few minutes, she turned and wandered back into the forest with her mahout just as quietly as she walked up to me.


Kamlin came to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary very thin and frail. Now she enjoys a healthy diet and tasty treats like tamarind from volunteers.

Still recovering from that powerful moment, I almost didn’t notice that to my other side, Kamlin  approached me with interest. Her mahout gave me some tamarind to offer her. I am told  it is not only good for this middle aged elephant’s digestion, but a tasty treat as well. She took the treat and let me touch her cheek and shoulder gently. We’ll never know what Kamlin endured in her younger years, but here at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, she is safe and not afraid of human touch. She is free to come and go as she pleases and luckily for me, she chose to stay and share her greatness with me.

Capuchin with camera man

This rescued capuchin couldn’t resist our videographer, Lynn!

After Kamlin joined her friend in the forest, we walked down to the primate rescue enclosure where we met a few long and curly tailed capuchins, a silver langur, and a very acrobatic gibbon. The monkeys were delightfully friendly and particularly interested in our videographer, Lynn. These primates were being kept as pets in very small cages and no access to natural behavior opportunities. Our new friend, Sep, an Austrailian volunteer who came to CWS to help out about a year ago, and just never left, is charged with caring for these creatures. He hopes to see them returned to the wild some day, but for now, Sep is helping Darrick find funding to expand the primate habitat,  as they believe there are more primates being kept as pets in the area.

We continued on our walk around the perimeter of what Darrick envisions to be a 300 acre elephant territory. At one of Darrick’s other elephant sanctuaries, there are 20 recently rehabilitated elephants who are ready to live more freely.  Darrick hopes to secure the perimeter of the 300 acres with solar electric fencing which would allow the 20 elephants from Thailand to come and live safely and securely while roaming free and uncontained, with Kamlin and Arun Rhe


This area is being cleared for the future bull elephant enclosure at Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.

Not far from the female elephant territory, was 50 acres of land being cleared for a bull elephant enclosure. It is incredibly complicated to properly integrate bull elephants into Sanctuary life due to their size and strength. GreaterGood was asked to help raise funds for this enclosure. Thanks to generous donations from TheAnimalRescueSite, the RainforestSite, and, we were able to fully fund this project. The clearing is process, and plans to build are starting. It is a very exciting time for everyone involved with Cambodia Widlife Sanctuary.

dino planting

Dino and Allison planting fruit trees behind the volunteer quarters.

After lunch, I served as a volunteer for their re-forestation project. I helped plant fruit and acacia trees all over the property. I enjoyed this time because I was working closely with Dino, who is in charge of the planting program, as well as the women who find day work at the Sanctuary. We took turns gathering the well water, digging the holes, planting, and filling the dirt back in.  Don’t worry. . I was only bitten by Cambodian fire ants a few times.


Sixteen year old Lia who used to be knocked over by the wheelbarrow, now proudly and strongly navigates the property with a wheelbarrow filled with young trees. I’m told she has never been to school…..that she went for 5 days and didn’t like it.  This concerned all of us. Darrick is interested in integrating an education component into his day worker program at the Sanctuary. Before we left, we connected Darrick with our education partner in Siem Reap, Ponheary Ly Foundation.

Sadly, the elephants never wandered back to the main area before we left for the airport. I take comfort in knowing that the land is theirs, and they are free to come and go as they please. They do not exist for my entertainment. I feel infinitely fortunate that they chose to interact with me at all.

I left Cambodia on a flight to Bangkok last night, but Cambodia will stay with me forever. The Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is a raw place filled with opportunity and promise. Much is still needed for the animals, the land, and the people of this great region. I look forward to how Greater Good Charities can be a part of it all.