We'd been trekking through the jungle for almost half an hour when I suddenly started to worry about land mines. I'd read the warnings in the guidebooks and web sites: stay on well used paths. Yet, despite having educated myself into the state of affairs in post war Cambodia, here I was haphazardly wandering through the jungle where there was no path, in the hopes of finding an elephant. It was at times like these that I questioned my driving motivations behind these adventures as well as my sense, or lack thereof, of safety and self preservation.
I looked ahead to Etienne and Alain who were rushing intently ahead of me, seemingly unconcerned for the peril we might be in. Either that or they had more faith in our guide, who claimed to know where he was going, but would stop every few minutes and look around as if for the first time. Earlier that morning I had thought myself incredibly fortunate when the French documentary duo asked me to join them for the day. Now I wasn't feeling so lucky. We had run out of water and the 35+ degree weather was anything but refreshing.
When we did eventually come to the hide out, a part of me wished we hadn't. The elephant was chained to a tree with almost no room to move and out of reach of the nearby stream. I had to admit, however, that he looked healthy and well fed. He also seemed at ease with his keeper who gently undid the chains and leading him to the stream, helped him cool off in the water. The translator told us that the man was afraid his elephant, which had been in his family for four generations, might be stolen and that that was why he kept him hidden and chained. Apparently, elephant thieves were common in these parts and I paused to wonder what one might look like.
In past generations such precaution was unnecessary and domesticated elephants were allowed to roam in the jungle as they pleased. They were trained to come to the sound of a special horn, called a dong, played by their master when they were needed. Each elephant responded to a different song, one that it was taught from a young age. The art of playing this musical instrument is a dead one, we were disappointed to find out. Etienne and Alain had hoped to locate someone who still trained their elephant in this way since this was to be the focus of their documentary.
My disappointment, fear and irritation faded when I got closer to the majestic beast. It was the first time I had been so close to an elephant without a fence separating us; this was the first working elephant I met. He moved his head slowly to look at me standing by his side and then bowed it forward to let me pet his forehead. His gray skin was tough and thick and covered with sporadic, bristly hairs. He was such a gentle, quiet soul and I was surprised when he carried four of us through the jungle with ease.
Obviously owning an elephant in the countryside is a sign of wealth because to provide for an elephant is no easy or inexpensive task. A family might loan out the use of their animal in exchange for food and wares as well as using it for work. At the nearby elephant market, I was informed that day, an elephant runs about 40 cows. I didn't inquire into the prices of a cow, but I estimate it to be in the range of 150-200 chickens or ducks, but don’t quote me.
Ever hitchhiked an elephant? Wanna try?
The first time I saw Sombo I was in a euphoric state to begin with and her surprising presence only served to heighten my mood. I was with three new friends, sitting at a small river side restaurant in Phnom Penh. We were a tangled group of lovers and friends, four corners of a love square, ecstatic because our bond had seemed improbable only a few days earlier. Sombo's apparition made the afternoon more magical and surreal.
For Phnom Penh locals, the sight of an elephant in mid-day traffic was normal. To visitors it is anything but. The four of us stared at her, wide-eyed, mouths agape, as she walked towards us, moving her legs slowly but covering great distances with her long stride. Someone muttered about having had too much to drink and having visions, but without wasting time, we wove our way through the chaotic swirls of traffic to get a closer look. She stopped and let us touch her, looking at us with her sad eyes.
I saw Sombo often after that first encounter and she always reminded me where I was. Some nights, at sunset I would see her walking along the river side, past my second story apartment. While everyone else down below looked small and far away, I could almost reach out and touch the man on her back. Her massive bulk waded its way through the sea of human bodies and they parted before her. They seemed like insects flying around her body, trying to annoy and distract her, but she always walked with the utmost calm. As the hundreds of motorcycles and cyclos rushed past her body, polluting the air with their noise and exhaust, she would gently sway her trunk, looking at the world around her sadly. Reservedly.
I have always thought that elephants have a sad look about them. Sombo definitely was.
Like all living creatures her age, Sombo was a survivor. Before 1975, Sombo had been part of a circus along with the rest of her family. After the Khmer Rogue took over the nation, she was used by the soldiers to sweep for land mines. The elephants went without food for days and like their fellow human prisoners, most died of starvation, disease or over work. When her current owner, the son of her original keepers, found her in 1981, she was suffering from malnutrition and wounds which had been inflicted into her body for sport.
Sombo recovered in the kind hands of her new master, but they lived in poverty. In 1995, they moved to the nation's capital and began to offer rides to tourists at Wat Phnom. Every night they walk through the city to an empty lot by the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to spend the night. Every morning, they walk to work as the city awakens. They earn enough to get by
Lovely Wat Phnom Elephant Desperately Seeking a Mate
It was one of the strangest singles ads ever, but such was the headline in the Cambodia Daily one March day. Sombo was still young enough to have offspring and her owner wanted her to start a family. There were no suitable males in the Phnom Penh zoo, or anywhere close enough for the pair to travel. There was also not enough money to import an elephant or travel great distances. Sombo awaits in Phnom Penh for a suitor. If you should happen to know of an interested elephant, send him her way. I can vouch for her loveliness.