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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.

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He arranged Sambo's release in exchange for a buffalo he scrounged to buy from a neighboring farm.

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"The Khmer Rouge destroyed pagodas, they killed monks and cut their throats ... but maybe they took pity on [Sambo]," Sin Son says.

Sin Son moved to the capital in 1980 to rebuild – bringing his huge "sister" with him.

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Having served the powerful and elite for centuries, elephants are still venerated in Cambodia, says Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, an archeological preservation group.

At Angkor Wat, stone reliefs depict elephants carrying warriors into battle and parading in royal processions. According to legend, elephants hauled the stones for building the world-famous temple, though it's more probable that they helped create the canal network around the complex, says Mr. O'Reilly.

Though she's served neither gods nor kings, Sambo has served a newer form of authority in Cambodia: democracy. Since the country's first UN-organized elections in 1993, civil society groups and political parties have made Sambo the outsized centerpiece of their public demonstrations. She has marched to protest global child labor, to raise awareness about UN's Millennium Development Goals, and to promote children's vaccinations. During election season, she's routinely trotted out to support the ruling party – and even its opponents.

"[Elephants] are a symbol of force that helped Cambodia when we didn't have trucks and machines in the past," says Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, a rights group that has included the elephant in multiple demonstrations. "It's the animal of Cambodia."

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Though city life was a huge adjustment for the farm-dwelling elephant – "[Sambo] was terrified of cars," says Sin Son, and train whistles caused her to cry deafeningly – she became accustomed to it. Eventually, the pair set up shop at Wat Phnom, a 14th-century pagoda surrounded by a park of shady trees. In 1982, Sin Son built a staircase and began selling elephant rides for 25 cents.

Sambo now ambles daily to Wat Phnom at 7 a.m. Surrounded by monkeys, incense-sellers, beggars, and snack vendors, Sambo flaps her speckled ears and waits under a tree for her visitors. On a recent day a family of Korean tourists finished a photo session as a young woman carrying her son walked under Sambo's trunk three times for luck. Pregnant women will also come to pass underneath her belly.

Though Sin Son has hired a cousin to guide Sambo to work, he still sits next to his lifelong partner each day, to monitor Sambo's condition in the heat, hose her off, and make sure she gets her 150 pounds of sugar cane and bananas.

"I feed her, she feeds me. We go back and forth, like siblings," says Sin Son, whose rate for the popular ride has risen to $15.

Such prosperity has enabled Sin Son to send four children to college; his oldest son even went to Utah to study information technology.

But while his family's partnership with its elephants survived the horrors of war, Sin Son doesn't expect his children to carry on the tradition.

"They like school, they like to study," he says. "Maybe it's finished with me."