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Elephants in Asia

Updated on July 20, 2019
aesta1 profile image

Mary lives in Cambodia, a few months each year, working on education projects.

An Asian Elephant with His Mahout

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

An Asian Elephant Called Sambo

Weeks ago, an Asian elephant called Sambo with a history of commendable behaviour, finally took one swat too many from his foul tempered Mahout and utterly lost it.

He instantly shifted from being a decent villager into a nightmare that gave Mon Village in Kampong Speu a real scare for a few weeks. First, Sambo, stomped the mahout (owner and driver) into a Persian carpet and enjoying his new found freedom, fled to the nearby jungle for the bamboo and banana smorgasbord.

From his hiding place, he'd peep out once in a while and trash local farms destroying crops and laughing insanely at the terrorized villagers in a level of anarchy last seen in the French revolution. He didn't hurt anyone else but his victorious trumpeting and flagrant social errors, left on the main village paths, finally attracted the attention of the local 'phunt" experts.

How long would this go on? Was Sambo nuts or having a mid life crisis? There were talks about putting Sambo down until the Forestry Administration intervened and placed him under its care. In a Bob Newhart like management approach, they gave advice and directions to the villagers by phone but soon arrived in the place to take Sambo out.

Sambo has almost human-like senses but was stressed and frustrated

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

Sambo, our rampaging Asian elephant

According to the Forestry Administration, Sambo, our rampaging Asian elephant, will be sent to Phnom Tamao Zoo for re-education and some serious discussions. First, he was tranqed to give the villagers a break.

The Forestry Administration expert said that Sambo seemed to have "almost human-like senses". After 800 years of elephant behaviour observation and endless books, our local experts finally figure this out! Sambo went bananas because his owner tortured him and the village people constantly disturbed him.

According to experts, Sambo suffered mistreatment and was terribly under stress. He lived his life in chains, with little exercise and had no partner. This was a seriously frustrated 'phunt' who finally just lost it. No surprise.

Sambo will be introduced to Srey Pao, a 45 year old Asian female elephant

Asian Elephant
Asian Elephant | Source

A New Home for Sambo

So, now, 50 year old Sambo will have a new home in Phnom Tamao Zoo and the director will situate his living quarters near that of 45 year old Srey Pao, a female elephant.

As they have not met before and Srey Pao also had a history of being aggressive, they will not put them together immediately in one enclosure. They will first make sure that they like each other before they do this. Close, but not close enough, until the authorities see that they really want to be together. Their hope is that Srey Pao will calm Sambo down.

The director hopes "that after Sambo stays with Srey Pao he will be happy, his stress will be sorted out, and his mental condition will improve in the future, and finally, he can be a nice elephant again." (Phnom Penh Post, December 17, 2010).

The January Phnom Penh Post reported how happy Sambo is in his new home. He is now even tempered and enjoys being with other elephants. Other than Srey Pao, he has met Lucky, Chamrouen, and Narann all enjoying his loving attention.

As for the stomped Mahout, several of life's great lessons have been displayed and various regional politicians might well see the metaphor of prodding and poking passive monsters once too often!

The Curtain Falls on Sambo

Valentine's Day

The lonely bull elephant Sambo passed on and chose just the appropriate day, February 14. After he was sedated so they could readjust the chains around his legs, Sambo just passed out. Those who have helped him since his rampage were grieved by the news. For them, this is huge loss as there are now only 121 elephants in Cambodia and one is lost every few months.

Asian elephants have incredible memories - They laugh, play and cry


Rituals among elephants

Elephants are fantastic. They have greeting rituals and they all caress their young when they cry in discomfort. They grieve when one of their close relatives die. This is usually true of female elephants who often live in groups and take care of each other.

Elephant mothers upon the birth of their babies choose co-mothers to help them care for the little guys as they nurse them. The males are often more independent and spend their time showing each other their masculine prowess. Trees take a beating as do irresponsible Mahouts.

The Other Sambo, the Wat Phnom Asian Elephant on Duty

Sambo of Wat Phnom.
Sambo of Wat Phnom. | Source

Sambo, the beloved elephant in Wat Phnom

While Kampong Speu had the rampaging Sambo now, it used to have Sambo, the now beloved elephant of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city. Sambo was born in Kampong Speu but was taken out of there during the Khmer Rouge time.

Sambo is a well loved elephant that Phnom Penh has given a special place to call home close to the River. There he lived with his long time friend and mahout, Sin Son, and together, they go to work in Wat Phnom, one of the oldest temples in Phnom Penh. It is not unusual for tourists to see him walk in the street going to work and coming home each day but also in Wat Phnom where many tourists feed and ride him. Sin Son has his wife and four kids to feed as well so Sambo and he work very hard.

Sambo Giving Rides to Kids

Sambo at Work in Wat Phnom.
Sambo at Work in Wat Phnom. | Source

Wat Phnom Sambo's Mahout and Old Time Friend, Sin Son

As an example of their extraordinary memory, Wat Phnom Sambo was born to the family of his current mahout, Sin Son. Sin son was only 5 then so they grew up together as children. Sin son was about 5 years old when Sambo was born. Then they were separated during Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia as were a great many families. Sin Son's parents were killed and Sambo's as well. Sambo took the fancy of an important military officer so he was saved.

One day, he and Sin Son ran into each other each other peeking from behind trees and stealing bananas, and Sambo remembered his long lost family. Now, you can see them in Wat Phnom promoting their tourist service and hustling bananas on a professional basis. These lifetime relationships are built on trust and conversation and you really smile when you see the two "animals" together.

Ya gotta love a great elephant story!

Asian elephants at work in Angkor Wat - They work hard to feed themselves

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customersThe elephant giving the tourists their roundMore tourists taking an elephant rideElephants work hardElephants giving tourists a ride to the temple
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customers
The elephants and their mahouts waiting for customers
The elephant giving the tourists their round
The elephant giving the tourists their round
More tourists taking an elephant ride
More tourists taking an elephant ride
Elephants work hard
Elephants work hard
Elephants giving tourists a ride to the temple
Elephants giving tourists a ride to the temple

Asian Elephants' Royal Past

Oudong, Cambodia

About 150 years ago, when the French traveller, Henri Mohout, attributed for the first written account on Cambodia visited Oudong, the old royal capital, he narrated that the then king gave him elephants for his journey towards Kampot, the nearest port.

He found that only the King and the wealthy could feed the elephants and they were valued at that time. Owners have the duty to donate their elephants to the King's army in times of war. There was a special legal code for elephants and owners pay special tax. They even have an owner's association. That was how much elephants were valued at that time.

Asian Elephants Work

Asian Elephant at Work
Asian Elephant at Work | Source

Asian Elephants Work

Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos have many elephants and many of them have to do tourism work to eat. So, in Mondulkiri, we met three of them: Chiban, Chibay and Pok To. They carry tourists on treks to the jungles of Mondulkiri and they live with their Phnong mahouts. Chibay is very old, maybe between 70-80 years old so he is very calm and just gets about his business.

Chiban is only about 50 years old but he is just as laid back as his mahout, Pukda. Pok To, on the other hand, shows he won't take any heffer-dust from anyone. His mahout is kind to him and sings him songs all the time as they trek the jungles so he does not want any nonsense from any other mahout. He never lets clumps of bamboo go by without having a taste of it and as the trail is narrow, this creates major traffic jams of pachyderms butt to nose. Berry bushes get hammered, streams snorted and explosive digestive events terrify birds and other wild life.

Watch Asian elephants work for their food - Elephant trek

Asian elephants live up to 80 or more

They are not very forgiving and they never forget

Elephants reach puberty at around 13 to 14 years and have children till they are 50. Most of them live up to 80 or more. They have become the symbol of wisdom as the largest living animals in the planet. While elephants have always been iconic symbols of good behaviour in many children's fiction, elephants can be very dangerous as seen in Sambo from Kampong Speu. They can go into rage often seen as vindictive acts. They have destroyed villages and killed many villagers. Remember, Water for Elephants. Elephants are not very forgiving so beware.

Asian elephants in Mondulkiri - They are happy bathing in the river

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Elephant crossing a riverElephants going for their bathsMahouts washing their elephantsElephants after their bathElephants getting a good wash
Elephant crossing a river
Elephant crossing a river | Source
Elephants going for their baths
Elephants going for their baths | Source
Mahouts washing their elephants
Mahouts washing their elephants | Source
Elephants after their bath
Elephants after their bath | Source
Elephants getting a good wash
Elephants getting a good wash | Source

Elephant Valley Project

On International Women's Day, one of Cambodia's largest women, Ning Wan, was welcomed in her new home, the Elephant Valley Project sanctuary in Mondulkiri, where she will reunite with her former colleagues, Happy Lucky and Buffy. They used to be together in O'Raing District and on March 8, the 16 villagers who owned Ning Wan decided she now needs to enjoy a more relaxed life.

© 2010 Mary Norton

What do you know of Asian elephants? - Have you been on an elephant in Asia?

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    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Yes, Lora. Elephants are amazing. In Asia, they are work animals.

    • Lora Hollings profile image

      Lora Hollings 

      20 months ago

      I really enjoyed your awesome article, Mary, on Asian elephants. How magnificent elephants are! I can't imagine a world without them. In addition to the amazing things you cite in your article, these animals respond to music showing their enjoyment of it and also paint if given brushes and paint. No wonder poor Sambo became aggressive. Look at all the terrible mistreatment he had to endure all those years! They certainly show amazing intelligence, memory capacity, empathy and sensitivity. How fortunate we are to be able to share the planet with these remarkable animals.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Elephants have good memories and just like us, they can only take so much.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      20 months ago from Fresno CA

      What fascinating beasts. I have never been nearer to one than at a zoo. I can only imagine treating one so badly that he is forced to strike back. Wow.



    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      20 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you so much, Patricia. Yes, these elephants are working ones.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      21 months ago from North Central Florida

      This is quite informative. I was not surprised that Sambo reacted as was reported here. I think I would have done so much sooner. Thank you for sharing this with us. I would love one day to visit the elephants in this area. As a little girl I always kept asking for a calf (elephant calf that is). and of course the answer was always 'no. Sending Angels your way this evening ps

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      21 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      Not really compared to Thailand. It doesn't have the resources.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      21 months ago

      Interesting article about these amazing animals. I didn't realize there were so few elephants in Cambodia. Does Cambodia have an active breeding program?

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      That's a beautiful story Mona. Those elephants that run amuck were mistreated and often even in humans, anger makes one do things to the perpetrator.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 

      2 years ago from Philippines

      This is an information - packed, well told story. I love elephants but now I have so much information about them to be grateful for. I remember a true story about an elephant and a dog that were best friends. When the dog was sick, the elephant stayed near the hospital until the dog was well. It came to mind when you spoke of the memory of elephants. It was also very interesting that you started out with an example of how an elephant is dangerous, but continued to talk afterwards of their wonderful qualities. Just as we are all human and not always perfect, elephants are all elephants.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you MelRootsNWrites. It seems, elephants have very good memories.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 

      6 years ago from California

      Thank you for sharing the story of the two elephants named Sambo. I felt bad for the one but was happy to see the other was well loved. I think elephants are intelligent and sensitive. I remember watching a documentary where they would return to their graveyard to grieve. It was very touching.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      6 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Mary for your kind words. It'll be one year next Tuesday.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Kristen, I am sorry about your loss but I am now in Phnom Penh and will greet Sambo for you.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      6 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      This was a great hub about the treatment of Sambo. I love elephants, my family's emblem, especially for my mom before she died last spring. This tugged on my heart-string, since I'm against animal cruelty in any form. Voted up!

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you again Susie. I am now back in Phnom Penh and will see my favourite Sambo.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      6 years ago from Minnesota

      I just saw this hub in my feed, and remember reading some years ago.

      I love elephants, they are awesome creatures.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you Elsie. Yes, there always is a breaking point even for elephants.

    • aesta1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Mary Norton 

      6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      That must have been quite a picture.

    • peachpurple profile image


      6 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i once make a donation to the elephant fund at Thailand and they sent me a photo of the elephant itself. SO happy!

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      6 years ago from New Zealand

      This is a very interesting article about elephants in Asia, any animal can not stand being treated bad, there's always a breaking point, thanks for sharing with us.

      You have very nice photos, lucky you, having spent time with such a wonderful animal.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I've never been on an elephant. I read the book Water For The Elephants and it made me cry. Fascinating site here.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I just LOVE elephants! We got up close and personal with some at the Burnett Park Zoo in Syracuse NY when we were there 2 summers ago!!! So rough (their skin) !!!! But soooo sweet!

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image


      8 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      I love your writing style here, especially in your intro. I really enjoyed your Elephant tales.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Been a while since I stopped by here. I really love this lens and shared it on FaceBook and refreshed the blessing. :)

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      8 years ago from United States

      In celebration of Friendship Day 2012, I am returning to some of my favorite lenses for fun, sharing and renewed blessings :) Friends Still Make it All Worthwhile!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Elephants are wonderful. It's sad to see them mistreated though.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Elephants are great creatures. They are smart and they give joy to the people. But it is sad to know how bad they are treated and how rigorous their trainings are. Beautiful lens.

    • Anthony Altorenna profile image

      Anthony Altorenna 

      9 years ago from Connecticut

      Elephants are majestic creatures, and it it sad to see them mistreated in circuses and for other human activities. Hopefully, the nations where these amazing animals still roam freely in the wild will step up their efforts to protect the remaining populations for future generations.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      9 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I haven't been on an elephant in Asia, but I did see them in Thailand, and they are wonderful animals. It's sad to see them abused and mistreated. This is a wonderful lens, and it has my blessing.

    • profile image

      orange3 lm 

      9 years ago

      Wow! Incredible story. Elephants are amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    • dogface lm profile image

      dogface lm 

      10 years ago

      Elephants are nice animals. I remember having a presentation on elephants at school several years ago.

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 

      10 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      awesome lens. photos, vids and informations are great. nicely presented lens.

    • PromptWriter profile image

      Moe Wood 

      10 years ago from Eastern Ontario

      I think they are amazing creatures but like anything have their limits. They put up with a lot -- especially when it comes to humans. I watched some of the elephant gone wild footage and it was horrific but not totally surprising to me. They have considerable patience for us for the most part. I don't even have that much patience.

    • norma-holt profile image


      10 years ago

      Magnificent animals and beautifully crafted lens. Very sad story as well. *-*Blessed*-* and featured on Angel blessings for Dogs on Squidoo - Other animals

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      10 years ago from United States

      I am glad Sambo was given an opportunity for peace and happiness before his death. I am only sorry that he had to suffer so much before he was rescued. Thank you for sharing his story with us all.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      No, I have not been on an elephant in Asia. I would guess it would be an amazing experience. Even the most passive of being has a breaking point and there are consequences that nobody will like. My heart broke for Sambo. Wonderfully and sensitively shared. Almost immediately, I thought I would have to get this featured on my elephant lens and I just saw you have it here ~ you are such a friend! I'll remember Sambo on Valentine's Day each year


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