Elephants have quite a history in Cambodia. From the stone carvings throughout Angkor to the famous parade of elephants, the importance of elephants can be seen throughout Cambodia’s history. The reality is that the plight of these magnificent elephants in Cambodia is very real.
Indigenous highlanders in Ratanakiri, have captured, tamed and worked with elephants for 2000 years. Elephants were the heart of their culture and are quickly disappearing. As we consistently encroach upon the elephants traditional home grounds for farmland and deforestation, the number of elephants drops. In the past decades it was not uncommon for a village to have a dozen or more elephants. Now most villages have none, and those that do only have a few.
In 1296 a Chinese diplomat named Zhou Daguan arrived in Angkor and wrote a detailed report on life in Angkor. His portrayal today is one of the most important sources and understanding of historical Angkor and the Khmer Empire. He recorded a royal procession of Indravarman III who carried a sacred sword in his hand standing on an elephant.
When the king goes out, troops lead the escort; then come flags, banners and music. Palace women, numbering from three to five hundred, wearing clothes decorated with flowers, with flowers in their hair, hold candles in their hands, and form a troupe. Even in broad daylight, the candles are lit. Then come other palace women, carrying lances and shields; then the king’s private guards; then carts drawn by goats and horses, all in gold. After that ministers and princes mounted on elephants, and in front of them one can see, from afar, their innumerable red umbrellas. After them come the wives and concubines of the king, in palanquins, carriages, on horseback and on elephants. They have more than one hundred parasols, flecked with gold. Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant’s tusks are encased in gold.
One’s imagination can picture what this outstanding performance would look like.
When you travel to Cambodia, make sure to see the Terrace of the Elephants. The Terrace was used by Angkor’s King Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to view his victorious returning army. The 350m-long Terrace of Elephants was used as a giant reviewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. You will also find the 12th century temple Bayon has superb elephant bas-reliefs carved along all four of its walls.
Although the current situation of Cambodia’s elephants seems dire, there is a great effort from the Cambodian government and International NGO’s to preserve these majestic creatures. Elephant Sanctuary Cambodia in Phnom Kulen National Park, about an hour north of Siem Reap in a Tuk Tuk is doing a wonderful job at rescuing elephants and planning a sustainable future for them.