The Elephant of Wat Phnom
By: Moul Jetr. ( June, 2001 Volume 1 No.2 )

At Wat Phnom there is a congenial and ancient mode of transportation guaranteed to make any tourist feel majestic. An elephant ride around the picturesque Wat Phnom, far above the madness of speeding cars and motorbikes can be quite an experience. Sambo, the friendly female elephant has been taking 'passengers' around the popular tourist spot for a good many years. A picture of health, her rewards come in the form of bananas, watermelons and sugarcane fed to her by her Satisfied Customers. "Many locals and foreign tourists have ridden on her. I think they have all enjoyed a feeling of going back in time, rocking back and forth on the back of this big animal," said her mahout, Mai Vanny. His uncle, Mr. Sin San, owns the animal.
"Sambo turns 40 this year. She is 15 years older than me and she weighs five tonnes," Vanny, originally from Kandal Province, explained.

"She and a sister, Sok Chea, originally came from Aural Mountain in Kompong Speu. My uncle first came across them in 1962 when they were still babies. After the war, they were reunited and came to work with my uncle at Wat Phnom in 1990. In 1993 her sister was sold to a hotel owner in Siem Reap but Sambo stayed behind and has been working here ever since." Vanny himself only began working with Sambo five months ago. He says over the years, their business has had its ups and downs, but since he has been working with Sambo, he has noticed the number of visitors who come to see her increasing week by week. "The first three weeks of April during the festivity of the Khmer New Year, Sambo had hardly any time to relax as the Park was always crowded with visitors but the freak weather in later part of month had driven almost everybody away. Sometimes, not even a single visitor comes to visit Sambo, but I think the cooler months ahead will be busy for both of us," he said.

A ride around Wat Phnom cost US$5 for foreigners (not more than two persons at a time are allowed) and 10,000 Riels for Cambodians (not more than three persons at a time). The owner says this is because Cambodians are usually of a smaller build. Sambo the elephant gives an average of 10 rides per day, usually in the mornings and late afternoon hours when the temperature is cooler. The tariff has not changed for many years and the good news is that the owner has no intention to increase the price. Hawkers around the vicinity of the elephant 'depot' agree that Sambo has been doing a good job bringing joy to those who visit her.

It is said that she understands many words in Khmer and is very intelligent. Sometimes people just stop to have their picture taken with Sambo, rewarding her with her favorite foods. Sambo is used to posing for the cameras. It is as if she knows the exact poses to please her guests. From within that gigantic body of hers exudes a sweet, quiet nature that warms the hearts of everybody who stops for a ride or to pose for a photograph with her. Her owner feeds Sambo well. Everyday she receives two cyclo-loads of sugar cane as her staple, happily gobbling her food down, oblivious to the spectacle she creates in the process. Her excrement is cleaned away daily after the dark by cleaners employed by the Wat Phnom Park authorities and used to fertilize the plants around the park. After her chores, she ambles down the Tonle Bassac at night to rest on the vacant piece of land near the Cambodiana Resort in the Samdech Hun Sen Park. Such has been her routine for many years. However, her owner soon will have to find her an alternative 'bedroom' as development on the plot of land where she now rests is scheduled to begin in the very near future. Sambo's owner is reportedly now trying to raise US$10,000 to find Sambo a mate from Takeo Province. We wish them luck and perhaps the next time you visit, there may be two elephants instead of just one amusing visitors at popular Wat Phnom Park.