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.

Suzy Khimm
Together again: When the Khmer Rouge was ousted, Sin Son (r.), arranged to trade a buffalo for his family's last surviving elephant, Sambo.
Suzy Khimm
Tourists and children line up to take rides on Sambo (below) at the Wat Phnom temple in Phnom Penh.

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.

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."

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

"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."

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