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