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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The magical bond between man and elephant

The magical bond between man and elephant


Like man and wife

Partners for 13 years, Soy Sarin and the lady of his life, Sam Bo, have been offering tourists rides around Wat Phnom since 1985.

Regular as clockwork, at cocktail hour, Sam Bo sashays

with ladylike grace to the riverfront Globe Restaurant

for her daily snack of sugar cane, 20 kg of the stuff.

Tipping the scales at 1,500kg, Sam Bo is not concerned

about her weight.

The 39-year-old elephant has been a regular customer at

the Globe for eight months now.

"I met Sam Bo a couple months after our Aug 30

[1997] opening," says Globe owner Duncan Kilburn.

"My partner Mark Parr had owned a circus in Canada

and was familiar with elephants. He wanted Sam Bo to hold

up a can of beer in her trunk for a photo to advertise

the Globe. But her mahout wouldn't let her drink beer. He

pocketed the VB can for himself and asked for a Coke

instead. Sam Bo put the Coke in her mouth, crunched the

can and sprayed foam all over. Then she spat out the

mangled can."

From that day, Sam Bo has been stopping off from work at

Wat Phnom, where she carts tourists around the hilltop

temple, to munch sugar cane hor d'ourves at the Globe,

followed by a refreshing bath.

"When I open the restaurant at six in the morning, I

see Sam Bo walking down the riverside to Wat Phnom,"

adds Nhan Dao, Kilburn's wife. "She always tries to

turn off into the restaurant, so the mahout really has to

work to keep her walking straight."

The mahout's name is Soy Sarin, 31, and he has been

taking care of Sam Bo since he was 18 years old, feeding,

washing and being her constant companion. Becoming a

mahout - maw domrai in Khmer - is a family tradition in

Cambodia. Sarin learned the ancient art from his father

and grandfather in the jungles of Mondulkiri.

"My father captured Sam Bo when she was the size of

a 3-year-old water buffalo," Soy Sarin reveals.

"He also captured and tamed her big brother and

sister, Udom and Trakoun. Udom was later killed by a

landmine. Trakoun was taken away by the Khmer Rouge. Sam

Bo herself was almost killed by tigers."

Sam Bo's left flank and hind legs are scarred white by

tiger-claw marks. Kilburn cautions against touching them.

Sam Bo whipped him over the head with her tail once for

such an indelicacy.

"Three tigers attacked her in the jungle," Soy

Sarin continues. "She killed one with a kick from

her hind leg. I shot the second one. The third escaped.

It took three months to heal Sam Bo. Then I rode her to

Kratie and put her on a boat to Phnom Penh. That was in

1985. We've been here ever since."

At Wat Phnom, Sarin charges a sliding scale for elephant

rides: $5 for a pair of foreign tourists, 10,000 riel for

three Khmer. Chidren walk under the elephant's trunk for

good luck, and Sarin does a thriving business in curative

spells, rubbing elephant saliva on a supplicant's throat,

blowing the saliva dry and whispering magical


Since the tiger attack, Sarin has kept a keen eye on Sam

Bo's health. By monitoring her stool, he can diagnose any

illness and then apply traditional medicine for a cure.

"You put the medicine inside a banana," Sarin

comments. "Otherwise she will spit it out."

There is also a magical connection between man and

elephant. A spirit possession ceremony - involving song,

candles, incenshis e and coconut milk - inaugerates the

life-long link. "I can't tell you the details,"

says Sarin. "But we share the same spirit. That's

why I'm able to control her. When she is angry, I chant

secret words to her to calm her down."

When does she get angry?

"When I go away from her. She is very jealous. I

have to be with her all the time. I also have to behave

under the control of the spirit. I can't drink alcohol,

gamble, have illicit sex or eat turtle, snake, eel, dog

and cat. The spirit protects us both. Sam Bo has walked

through minefields, but the spirit has saved her. It's

different from owning a cow or water buffalo. A spirit

links man and elephant together."

It's like being married?

"Yes!" he laughs. "As long as I take good

care of her, give her plenty of food and wash her

regularly, she is happy. We sleep in a field near the

Sofitel [hotel]. When it rains, she loves to play in the

mud. She likes to eat sugar cane, banana trees, palm


Sarin suddenly breaks off with a yelp of rage to chase

after a lanky teenager who has just plucked hairs from

Sam Bo's tail. The boy sprints away, laughing, but sobers

instantly as Sarin's collars him, brandishing a stick.

"You stole my elephant's tail hair!" Sarin

shouts, eyes bulging in fury. "You've stolen her


The teenager denies taking the hair - a good luck totem -

but Sarin snatches up Sam Bo's tail to show tell-tale

blood spots. "I'LL KILL YOU!" he roars, popping

a quick punch into the kid's face. The kids cowers

abjectly, muttering pleas for forgiveness.

Burrowing into his shirt, Sarin pulls out a hatchet and

shakes it in the kid's face: "I'll cut you into

pieces! Get on the elephant! Now! We're getting out of


As the kid drops into a squat, Sarin chops the hatchet

next to his feet. The kid jerks upright, whimpering for

mercy. Sarin finally lets him go. The kid backs off,

bowing, pressing his hands into a sompeah.

Out of breath, Sarin returns to his conversation.

"My elephant has lost her power," he laments.

"People should never do that to my elephant."

"Do people do this often?"

Sarin pats the head of his hatchet. "Not




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