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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Phnom Penh's totem elephant – Sambo – survives

By Suzy Khimm

The Christian Science Monitor (

The speckle-eared pachyderm escaped machetes and famine, and now rests as Phnom Penh's totem of good things.

Phnom Penh, cambodia -- In the center of a traffic-mobbed roundabout, encircled by the crush of cars and motorbikes, a small act of veneration regularly takes place. A small gray-haired woman buys a bunch of bananas and toddles with her cane up to Sambo, a 10-foot-tall, 4,000-pound elephant standing calmly in the urban chaos.

Sambo grasps the offering with her trunk, gobbling the entire bunch in one bite as the woman brings her palms together in a sign of respect for the last remaining elephant in Phnom Penh.

Once plentiful in the Cambodian countryside, elephants like Sambo were historically fixtures at the royal palace. While the animals still evoke the nation's ancient legacy of kings and warriors, Sambo also represents a more recent piece of Cambodian history. Having survived the machetes of the Khmer Rouge she has become one of the capital city's most visible cultural icons – a magnet for tourists, children, and those who venerate her as a sacred beast.

For Sin Son, a fourth-generation elephant handler, Sambo is a beloved link to life before the Khmer Rouge regime: "For me, elephants represent God – they represent people who have been saved, who have lived a long time."

For more than a century, Sin Son's relatives kept elephants on the family's five-acre plot to transport rice, clear forests, and haul logs. Following tradition, at a time when wild elephants were abundant in the wild, they captured and trained them.

In mid-1977 Khmer Rouge cadres descended upon Sin Son's farm near Samrong Tong, a district west of Phnom Penh. They attacked the family's five elephants with machetes. Sin Son, 24 at the time, watched in horror as the Khmer Rouge seized the animals that his family had raised for generations. When the cadres struck 17-year-old Sambo – the youngest elephant – on a hind leg with a machete, Sin Son could no longer contain his anguish.

At the risk of being killed, says Sin Son, he protested, "Friend, friend! Please, do not kill her, she is so small – take pity on her!"

In his final glimpse of Sambo, Sin Son saw the wounded elephant running from her captors, fleeing into the chaos of the evacuation.

Sin Son was sent to a labor camp in the northwestern Battambang Province. He says he wept openly after hearing reports that the four older elephants had been killed.

"We took care of Sambo since she was 8," Sin Son says, describing how the elephant learned to come when he called and bumped him playfully with her trunk. "I thought of her as my blood relative, my sister."

Sin Son spent two years in the labor camp, where his parents, two brothers, and two aunts would be among the 1.7 million Cambodians who perished as a result of execution, starvation, disease, and overwork under the regime.

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979, Sin Son returned to his village to find that only one neighbor had survived. He was astonished to hear that Sambo, too, was still alive. Sambo had been taken in by a chief cadre and was living hundreds of miles away in the Cardamom Mountains, the neighbor told Sin Son.

Sitting today with his elephant in front of Wat Phnom's ornate steps, Sin Son breaks into a smile as he tells – for the umpteenth time – the story of his remarkable reunion with Sambo.

Sin Son pedaled his bicycle for three days to get to the small farm where Sambo was being kept.

"At first they did not believe I was her owner," he says. "But when I called her name, she came out from the jungle behind their house. I was so happy, so excited – I never thought she'd be there, or that they'd give her back to me."

He arranged Sambo's release in exchange for a buffalo he scrounged to buy from a neighboring farm.

"The Khmer Rouge destroyed pagodas, they killed monks and cut their throats ... but maybe they took pity on [Sambo]," Sin Son says.

Sin Son moved to the capital in 1980 to rebuild – bringing his huge "sister" with him.

• • •

Having served the powerful and elite for centuries, elephants are still venerated in Cambodia, says Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, an archeological preservation group.

At Angkor Wat, stone reliefs depict elephants carrying warriors into battle and parading in royal processions. According to legend, elephants hauled the stones for building the world-famous temple, though it's more probable that they helped create the canal network around the complex, says Mr. O'Reilly.

Though she's served neither gods nor kings, Sambo has served a newer form of authority in Cambodia: democracy. Since the country's first UN-organized elections in 1993, civil society groups and political parties have made Sambo the outsized centerpiece of their public demonstrations. She has marched to protest global child labor, to raise awareness about UN's Millennium Development Goals, and to promote children's vaccinations. During election season, she's routinely trotted out to support the ruling party – and even its opponents.

"[Elephants] are a symbol of force that helped Cambodia when we didn't have trucks and machines in the past," says Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, a rights group that has included the elephant in multiple demonstrations. "It's the animal of Cambodia."

• • •

Though city life was a huge adjustment for the farm-dwelling elephant – "[Sambo] was terrified of cars," says Sin Son, and train whistles caused her to cry deafeningly – she became accustomed to it. Eventually, the pair set up shop at Wat Phnom, a 14th-century pagoda surrounded by a park of shady trees. In 1982, Sin Son built a staircase and began selling elephant rides for 25 cents.

Sambo now ambles daily to Wat Phnom at 7 a.m. Surrounded by monkeys, incense-sellers, beggars, and snack vendors, Sambo flaps her speckled ears and waits under a tree for her visitors. On a recent day a family of Korean tourists finished a photo session as a young woman carrying her son walked under Sambo's trunk three times for luck. Pregnant women will also come to pass underneath her belly.

Though Sin Son has hired a cousin to guide Sambo to work, he still sits next to his lifelong partner each day, to monitor Sambo's condition in the heat, hose her off, and make sure she gets her 150 pounds of sugar cane and bananas.

"I feed her, she feeds me. We go back and forth, like siblings," says Sin Son, whose rate for the popular ride has risen to $15.

Such prosperity has enabled Sin Son to send four children to college; his oldest son even went to Utah to study information technology.

But while his family's partnership with its elephants survived the horrors of war, Sin Son doesn't expect his children to carry on the tradition.

"They like school, they like to study," he says. "Maybe it's finished with me."
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Cambodia, Vietnam exchange methods on protecting forests, wildlife

Law enforcement officers from two provinces in central Vietnam have completed a week-long Forest and Wildlife Law Enforcement Study Tour of Cambodia, a press release said Wednesday.

During the visit organized by WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Vietnam and PeunPa, a member of the Wildlife Alliance, officials from Vietnam's Forest Protection Department (FPD) and Police met their Cambodian counterparts, observed rangers training at Preah Monivong (Bokor) National Park, visited Phnom Tamao wildlife rescue center, and attended seminars focusing on wildlife and forest conservation, the WWF press release said.

They also discussed inter-agency cooperation with Cambodia's Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, which comprises Forestry Administration officials and members of the Royal Gendarmerie Khmer, it added.

The study tour gave participants first hand experience of regionally tested methods of forest and wildlife law enforcement, and will encourage greater international inter-agency cooperation between the two countries to suppress nature crime, the release said, adding that the chance to observe and discuss Cambodia's best practices will also help the participants consider ways to implement their own strategies for forest protection.

"Forest crime in Southeast Asia is a multi-million dollar activity that is stripping the region of irreplaceable natural heritage to the enrichment of a limited few. In Vietnam, responsibility for suppressing this criminal activity is shared between a wide range of agencies, from forest rangers to economic and traffic police, through to customs and border security forces," said Mark E Grindley, WWF Technical Advisor in central Vietnam.

"The Vietnam Government is encouraging the inter-agency cooperation necessary to address the problem, and we are pleased to support an exchange of ideas with Cambodia, where there are some highly successful models from which to learn," Grindley said.

The trip was jointly hosted by Cambodia's Ministry of Forest and Fisheries and Ministry of the Environment.

Source: Xinhua
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Cambodia's 'happy pizza' faces chop in drug crackdown - Feature

Phnom Penh - Changing times and politics in South-East Asia may finally spell extinction for one of the most famous (or infamous) fusion cuisines enjoyed by backpackers, Cambodia's "happy pizza."Legendary amongst travelers for more than a decade, this hippy's little helper version of pizza is simply the traditional Italian favourite with a Cambodian twist - the rich tomato base comes heavily laced with marijuana.

Although officially illegal for several years, locals have traditionally used marijuana in soups or medicinally. Pioneering travelers crossing the Lao-Cambodian border previously even reported a small garden of the stuff being lovingly tended by customs officials.

And then foreign inspiration transformed the drug into arguably the world's most talked-about pizza topping. Dozens of happy pizza parlours sprang up around the country as backpack tourism boomed.

But now the Cambodian government's current battle against drugs has given "pizza wars" a whole new meaning.

This week marijuana was claimed as Cambodia's first "total victory" in eliminating a drug from both domestic and export markets by Interior Ministry anti-drug chief, Police General Lou Ramin.

"Marijuana is no longer a problem in Cambodia," he declared. "We are strengthening our monitoring throughout the country and its borders."

Massive plantations which once required helicopter airlifts to clear them have been wiped out, he said, leaving the government free to concentrate on the increasingly prevalent evils of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines.

The government's anti-grass putsch began in 1999, when seven elderly women who had previously openly sold marijuana at traditional medicine stalls in one of the capital's largest markets were arrested in a police raid and 38 kilos of the weed were confiscated.

Back then, a compressed brick of marijuana sold for around 2 dollars, and a packet of 25 ready-rolled cigarettes was just a dollar, according to experts, but inflation and repeated crackdowns quickly pushed the price up to a dollar per cigarette.

Somehow, however, the iconic happy pizza survived, until now.

The spiked pizza's status as a backpacker's rite of passage has earned it mentions even on reputable travel websites such as Lonely Planet. YouTube features videos of it being made, eaten, sold - and its extremely potent side effects.

"This is my journey into Happy Pizzaland Phnom Penh. The obvious happened - paranoia, and missing two paid-for flights back to Bangkok. FOOL!!!" one YouTube poster writes of his video clip.

A former Foreigner Police officer says that tourists ingesting marijuana in pizza form often got dangerously out of hand in culturally conservative Cambodia.

"Many times I saw people take their clothes off after eating this - especially women. Some people laugh, but some cry, and some just jump in the lake," he said.

Expatriates familiar with the potent pizza grin when they tell the story of one of the capital's most famous happy pizza chefs admitting himself to hospital and spending the night on a drip after sampling a slice of his own cuisine for the first - and last - time.

For most adventurous tourists, however, "happy pizza" provided no more than a great travel yarn, insists one of the country's dwindling chefs of Cambodia's quasi-clandestine classic, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On his menu, it costs as little as 3 dollars for a small pizza of happiness.

But he agrees that life as a purveyor of happy pizza is becoming increasingly precarious and expensive.

"It is much more expensive to make now because of the ingredients," he says. "The special ingredient costs much more now, but our biggest problem is that tourists do not ask for it anymore because they are afraid it is illegal."

"We still make the happy pizza if the tourists ask directly, but we put less special ingredient now because we don't want any problems with the police if they get crazy."

So how long can the marijuana pizza last out the law?

"The government goal is that this drug does not exist any more in Cambodia," says Police General Lou Ramin. "We will only be satisfied when it is not available at all."
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Participation of int'l peace-keeping exercise good for Cambodia's reputation

The participation of 40 Cambodian soldiers in a three-week multinational peace-keeping exercise in Bangladesh will help improve the country's international military reputation, national media on Wednesday quoted official as saying.

"We are really proud of our armed forces joining this international peace-keeping exercise," Tea Banh, minister of National Defense, told English-Khmer language newspaper the Mekong Times.
"We hope the exercise will help our soldiers improve their capacity in peace-keeping for the region and the entire world," he added.

The U.S.-led mission, named "Ambassador of Peace," began this week and involved 400 soldiers from 12 countries including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nepal, Brunei, Mongolia, Tonga, Cambodia and the United States.

The drills involve checkpoint and convoy operations, patrols, search, relief mission and disaster management.

Cambodian soldiers previously took part in multinational peace-keeping exercises in Mongolia and Bangladesh as well as U.N. peace-keeping missions in Sudan.

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Cambodia lifts ban of rice exports for three provinces

PHNOM PENH, April 9 (Xinhua) -- Prime Minister Hun Sen has lifted the ban of rice exports for three provinces neighboring Vietnam due to their difficulty of processing and storing newly-harvested paddy, English-Khmer language newspaper the Mekong Times reported on Wednesday.

The premier made the decision on Monday under the request of Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh to allow Prey Veng, Kandal and Takeo provinces to export rice, while the ban still remain valid for other provinces.

Hun Sen imposed the two-month-long ban of rice exports on March26 in order to help curb the spiraling price of the staple food.

Minister Agriculture and Fisheries Chan Sarun said that the permission is being offered because the farmers in these three provinces have harvested dry-season rice and found it difficult to store.

"Cambodia will not face a problem of food security because plenty of rice is already in stock," he added.

At the end of March, as another measure to help bring down the price, the government released national stockpile of rice into the market. High-quality rice once sold one U.S. dollar per kilo, almost two times the previous price.

Experts believed that the decrease of global rice production and the over purchase by Vietnam and Thailand from Cambodia had caused the price hike on the Cambodian market.
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