Sam Bo, Phnom Penh's only elephant, has become the focus of both admiration and indignation since a waterfront restaurant began advertising on her.
When Wat Phnom's resident elephant, Sam Bo, takes her leisurely lope home on Sisowath
Quay each evening, she is now adorned with a curious new accessory - a bright red
sign that trumpets the logo of a riverfront restaurant.
Tassilo Brinzer, owner of La Croissette Restaurant and Bar, pays Sam Bo's owner about
$30 a month, and provides the 46-year-old elephant with a steady stream of fruit
snacks, in exchange for the placement of a square fabric advertisement.
"I saw him coming by and I heard that the elephant was fed and the owner doesn't
have a lot of money," Brinzer, 30, told the Post. "So, I thought 'Why don't
we sponsor it?'"
Sam Bo's owner, Sim Surn, 51, said he has no reservations about the opportunistic
ogling and would be open to additional sponsors.
But the new campaign - call it elephant advertising - is raising both eyebrows and
ire from riverfront regulars. What some are applauding as a savvy marketing gimmick,
others are calling a tasteless - though harmless - form of animal embarrassment.
Hurley Scroggins, owner of the riverfront's Cantina restaurant, said seeing an elephant
used as an advertising tool saddened him.
"I think it's inappropriate to advertise on Sam Bo," Scroggins said. "If
she needs help, that's another issue."
Ken Hopkins, an Australian tourist, agreed, saying it was just another example of
Phnom Penh's "mindless" tourism boom.
"I think its exploitation," Hopkins said. "I have never seen an elephant
in the wild with a banner on its back."
A middle-aged English tourist, who refused to be named, blasted the placard.
"It's a terrible idea to have an advertisement like that," he said. "You
can equate it with the same way they treat elephants in Bangkok."
But Vanaa, a waitress in her early twenties, said the advertisement was a novel idea.
"I think it's cute," she said. "I don't think there is any controversy
about the elephant."
Brinzer, a German national who purchased La Croisette three years ago, defended his
"There is only one elephant in Phnom Penh and it's privately owned. A lot of
people think that it is a public elephant, but it is not. There is only one owner,"
he said. "People argue that we shouldn't sponsor it and shouldn't show our logo.
But nobody has sponsored it except La Croisette.
"We didn't brand her on the skin, it's just a blanket. It's just a non-permanent
blanket on an elephant. That's all."
When informed of Scroggins' opinion, Brinzer shrugged.
"Maybe Hurley is looking at it like a personal quest," he said.
Suwanna Gauntlett, country coordinator for environmental NGO WildAid, said using
Sam Bo as a walking advertisement was disappointing, but not a form of animal cruelty.
"Some elephants are made to carry huge logs," she said.
Gauntlett said it was the first she had heard of an elephant being used for marketing
in Cambodia. And although Sam Bo is considered a "national treasure," Gauntlett
said elephants are not generally revered in Cambodia.
"There is no sacredness about any animal here," she said.
In 2002, WildAid field officers noticed that Sam Bo's heels were starting to crack.
They asked her mahout Surn to give her time off work to rest, but he refused. WildAid
eventually compensated him for the month and proceeded to treat and heal her wounds.
"But they have a special relationship," Gauntlett said. "[Surn] loves
her very much and is doing the very best he can to treat her properly with the means
Surn caught the elephant in the mountain ranges of Oral district, Kampong Speu, when
she was only eight.
"During the rule of Sihanouk I had five elephants but four were killed by the
Khmer Rouge," he said. "They chopped Sam Bo's legs 15 times but didn't
kill her. Then they took care of her for two years during the regime."
He brought Sam Bo to Phnom Penh in 1983 and has been making his livelihood from her
ever since. He charges customers $10 for a turn about Wat Phnom.
"Since then I have taught her to listen, lie down, stand up, and not to steal.
But her favorite thing to do is eat," he said. "She starts eating at 7
am and eats the whole day. She eats a lot more than she sleeps."