Sambo, the only elephant on Phnom Penh’s streets, has become a symbol of the city and this week she celebrates her 50th birthday. She has lived and worked in the city for over thirty years. When Steve and I are in Phnom Penh together, one of our favourite things to do is to go down to the riverfront, sit at an outdoor restaurant and watch the world go by. Most days you can see Sambo along the quay walking to work at the National Assembly, NagaWorld, Sisowath Quay, Wat Phnom and then back home again.

Sambo was  born in 1960 in Kampong Speu province into an elephant family that roamed freely through the rolling green hills and forests of Cambodia.  When she was eight she was captured and taken to a village where she became the special companion of a young boy named Sorn, who named his new friend Sambo. She lived and worked in the village for ten years before she was captured by troops loyal to the Khmer Rouge.  Although the four other elephants from Sorn’s village were killed for food, Sambo survived and was sent off to work in the mountains.  Many wild elephants avoided the slaughter and heavy workloads that were a result of the civil war by escaping across the borders into Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

After the the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, Sorn and Sambo’s paths crossed once again when he discovered her working in the rice paddies for another village. Sorn gained Sambo’s freedom by purchasing a buffalo for the family, which was more helpful in their rice fields.  With Sorn’s village destroyed by war, the two friends, man and animal, headed together to Phnom Penh to find work. 

There were four other elephants working in the city at that time, but due to the demands of the work these patient animals are required to do and the lack of proper care from their human custodians, these others all died from exhaustion.  Sambo has survived because of the protection of her long time friend Sorn, who can still be seen walking beside her along the quay.  Many tourists continue to enjoy rides around Wat Phnom on this city’s most famous resident who will on occasion wander into local sidewalk cafes looking for peanuts.