Trunk routes

Ele­phant polo truly is big busi­ness at a north­ern Thai­land re­sort, re­ports Barry Oliver

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Pukka pachy­derms: Com­pet­ing in the King’s Cup Ele­phant Polo Tour­na­ment at Thai­land’s Anan­tara Re­sort Golden Tri­an­gle in­volves car­ry­ing big sticks and tread­ing not so softly T’S un­likely to make the Olympics but ele­phant polo has its dra­matic mo­ments, for spec­ta­tors and play­ers alike. Such as when one of the an­i­mals treads on the ball. Rules also state ele­phants aren’t al­lowed to lie down in front of the goal or, heaven for­bid, pick up the ball with their trunk, though it must be tempt­ing.

Nat­u­rally, ref­eree John Roberts — he’s on foot — stands for no such shenani­gans at the King’s Cup Ele­phant Polo Tour­na­ment, staged each year at Thai­land’s Anan­tara Re­sort Golden Tri­an­gle, 60km north of Chi­ang Rai. ‘‘ He takes no non­sense. He’s a tough cookie to deal with,’’ warns the re­sort’s pub­lic re­la­tions di­rec­tor Mar­ion Walsh. Roberts’s prime con­cern is the wel­fare of the ele­phants and he is not be­yond or­der­ing one from the field if he feels it’s un­der stress or not hav­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate amount of fun.

‘‘ Only young ele­phants play be­cause they en­joy the game more,’’ says Walsh. ‘‘ We never use ele­phants more than 20 years old. Like us, when they get older they don’t see so much fun in chas­ing a ball around.’’

Aus­tralia, not well known for its ele­phant pop­u­la­tion, en­tered a team last year but will be ab­sent this year when 12 pro­fes­sional teams bat­tle it out from March 23 to 29 on the banks of the Ruak River, which di­vides Thai­land and Burma. Bri­tain, the US, Spain, Ger­many, Scot­land and Swe­den will be among the coun­tries rep­re­sented. Two other Thai teams — from Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle and Four Sea­sons Tented Camp — will play only friendly matches.

A bless­ing cer­e­mony is held be­fore the open­ing game, in which monks sprin­kle holy wa­ter over play­ers and an­i­mals to en­sure a suc­cess­ful tour­na­ment. There’s also a pa­rade in­volv­ing bands, dancers, ele­phants decked out in the finest silk, hill-tribe vil­lagers in tra­di­tional cos­tumes and colour­fully dec­o­rated ele­phant spirit men; each team proudly car­ries its coun­try’s flag.

For the matches there are two peo­ple on each ele­phant: a Thai ma­hout, or han­dler, and be­hind, a player, usu­ally lashed on, wield­ing a 2m-long mal­let. Men use one hand but women can use both, ac­cord­ing to the rules laid down by the Nepal-based World Ele­phant Polo As­so­ci­a­tion.

The ma­houts, wisely per­haps, pray be­fore get­ting on the ele­phants and ride bare­foot. The play­ers don’t pray but opt for shoes. Walsh says in three years she has never seen

Shoul­ders to ride on: The open­ing pa­rade an in­jury to man, woman or beast. There are three ele­phants to a team and matches, on a 100m x 60m field, are di­vided into two sev­en­minute chukkas, though Walsh says that with stop­pages for bro­ken sticks, un­ruly ele­phants, not to men­tion play­ers, and so on, a chukka can last up to an hour.

Last year’s stand­out was Jenny — an ele­phant, not a player — who earned the nick­name For­mula One Jenny. ‘‘ She was so nim­ble, a real star,’’ says Walsh. The name King’s Cup is no idle boast: the King of Thai­land’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive at­tends the open­ing cer­e­mony and the fi­nal, which last year re­sulted in a home victory, with Mercedes Benz Thai­land tri­umph­ing 11-8 over Chivas Re­gal Scot­land.

Most play­ers are more ac­cus­tomed to con­ven­tional horse polo but that doesn’t re­ally mat­ter. ‘‘ The player con­cen­trates on hit­ting the ball and giv­ing in­struc­tions to the ma­hout,’’ Walsh says.

Teams in­clude all sorts: mil­i­tary types, re­tired or oth­er­wise, sport­ing grand han­dle­bar mous­taches are not un­com­mon; the Duke of Ar­gyll is among pre­vi­ous com­peti­tors. It may sound a lit­tle ec­cen­tric, but to the play­ers it’s a highly com­pet­i­tive busi­ness. There’s also a se­ri­ous side to the event, which raises money for the coun­try’s Na­tional Ele­phant In­sti­tute in Lam­pang.

Dur­ing its first five years, the King’s Cup was based at Anan­tara’s beach re­sort at Hua Hin, south of Bangkok, mov­ing to the Golden Tri­an­gle in 2006.

In seven years it has grown from a small, two-day event with six teams into a week­long ex­trav­a­ganza that last year fea­tured 12 teams and 40 play­ers from 15 coun­tries.

More than $300,000 has been raised for the ele­phant in­sti­tute, which pro­vides med­i­cal care, sus­te­nance, em­ploy­ment and ma­hout train­ing. In 2007, pro­ceeds from the King’s Cup bought an ele­phant am­bu­lance (a custom-built truck with a winch). This year’s event will help set up a milk bank for ba­bies, who at present are hand fed with an ex­pen­sive pow­der for­mula brought in from Sin­ga­pore. Money raised will also sup­port a pro­gram that en­cour­ages autis­tic chil­dren to in­ter­act with ele­phants.

Set within a lush bam­boo for­est on the Anan­tara Re­sort Golden Tri­an­gle’s 65ha es­tate, the prop­erty’s ele­phant camp is home to 26 jum­bos res­cued from a grim ex­is­tence in cities such as Bangkok. Their ma­houts are em­ployed by Anan­tara and a silk-weav­ing project has been es­tab­lished to pro­vide a liveli­hood for their fam­i­lies.

It is es­ti­mated that Thai­land has about 2500 do­mes­ti­cated ele­phants and 1500 wild ele­phants, down from 50,000 in 1950 and 100,000 in 1900.

A visit to the ele­phant camp is a spe­cial treat for the re­sort’s guests. The more ad­ven­tur­ous can join a three-day ma­hout train­ing course, which in­volves feed­ing the an­i­mals, learn­ing to get on and off, and teach­ing them to go right or left. But Walsh says most pop­u­lar is bath time.

‘‘ It’s like a candy store when the young ele­phants get into the river. Every­one loves it.’’

For­get Robert Red­ford: the Anan­tara has its own ele­phant whis­perer in Khun Lord, the most se­nior ma­hout, who trains baby ele­phants with a mix of song, tick­les and whis­pers. ‘‘ He is truly amaz­ing,’’ says Walsh.

Check­list

Anan­tara Re­sort Golden Tri­an­gle has a num­ber of pack­ages based on the King’s Cup Ele­phant Polo Tour­na­ment. Overnight stays are from 13,000 Thai baht ($570) for a dou­ble with break­fast, buf­fet lunch at the the polo and trans­fers to the games; roundtrip trans­fers to Chi­ang Rai are in­cluded for stays of four nights. More: www.anan­taraele­phant­polo.com; www.slh.com.

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