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.