Phnom Penh's totem elephant – Sambo – survives
The speckle-eared pachyderm escaped machetes and famine, and now rests as Phnom Penh's totem of good things.
Phnom Penh, cambodia
In the center of a traffic-mobbed roundabout, encircled by the crush of cars and motorbikes, a small act of veneration regularly takes place. A small gray-haired woman buys a bunch of bananas and toddles with her cane up to Sambo, a 10-foot-tall, 4,000-pound elephant standing calmly in the urban chaos.Skip to next paragraph
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Sambo grasps the offering with her trunk, gobbling the entire bunch in one bite as the woman brings her palms together in a sign of respect for the last remaining elephant in Phnom Penh.
Once plentiful in the Cambodian countryside, elephants like Sambo were historically fixtures at the royal palace. While the animals still evoke the nation's ancient legacy of kings and warriors, Sambo also represents a more recent piece of Cambodian history. Having survived the machetes of the Khmer Rouge she has become one of the capital city's most visible cultural icons – a magnet for tourists, children, and those who venerate her as a sacred beast.
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For Sin Son, a fourth-generation elephant handler, Sambo is a beloved link to life before the Khmer Rouge regime: "For me, elephants represent God – they represent people who have been saved, who have lived a long time."
For more than a century, Sin Son's relatives kept elephants on the family's five-acre plot to transport rice, clear forests, and haul logs. Following tradition, at a time when wild elephants were abundant in the wild, they captured and trained them.
In mid-1977 Khmer Rouge cadres descended upon Sin Son's farm near Samrong Tong, a district west of Phnom Penh. They attacked the family's five elephants with machetes. Sin Son, 24 at the time, watched in horror as the Khmer Rouge seized the animals that his family had raised for generations. When the cadres struck 17-year-old Sambo – the youngest elephant – on a hind leg with a machete, Sin Son could no longer contain his anguish.
At the risk of being killed, says Sin Son, he protested, "Friend, friend! Please, do not kill her, she is so small – take pity on her!"
In his final glimpse of Sambo, Sin Son saw the wounded elephant running from her captors, fleeing into the chaos of the evacuation.
Sin Son was sent to a labor camp in the northwestern Battambang Province. He says he wept openly after hearing reports that the four older elephants had been killed.
"We took care of Sambo since she was 8," Sin Son says, describing how the elephant learned to come when he called and bumped him playfully with her trunk. "I thought of her as my blood relative, my sister."
Sin Son spent two years in the labor camp, where his parents, two brothers, and two aunts would be among the 1.7 million Cambodians who perished as a result of execution, starvation, disease, and overwork under the regime.
After the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, Sin Son returned to his village to find that only one neighbor had survived. He was astonished to hear that Sambo, too, was still alive. Sambo had been taken in by a chief cadre and was living hundreds of miles away in the Cardamom Mountains, the neighbor told Sin Son.
Sitting today with his elephant in front of Wat Phnom's ornate steps, Sin Son breaks into a smile as he tells – for the umpteenth time – the story of his remarkable reunion with Sambo.
Sin Son pedaled his bicycle for three days to get to the small farm where Sambo was being kept.
"At first they did not believe I was her owner," he says. "But when I called her name, she came out from the jungle behind their house. I was so happy, so excited – I never thought she'd be there, or that they'd give her back to me."