"Does the elephant hold the mallet in its trunk?" asks a friend as I set off to the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. The best place in the world to witness elephant polo is Hua Hin during the annual tournament organised by the local Anantara Resort.
"No elephant may lie down in front of the goal mouth. To do so constitutes a foul." With rules like these, it's hard to take elephant polo seriously at first. But watch 12 tonnes of thundering pachyderm and six windmilling mallets charge from one of the field to the other in a melee of dust, trunks and mad exertion, and it’s soon very clear that this is a serious "game”.
With players, male and female, from Europe, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UK, Pakistan, Australia and Argentina — representing institutions with sepia names like the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association and the Siam Polo Club — there's a whiff of old Raj about the four-day festival.
Yet once the riders get lashed to the back of their two-tonne steeds and hear referee John Roberts signal "Bully off!" — Start! — the post-colonial posturing drops right away. For seven minutes — the duration of each polo "chukka" — the 100-metre pitch is a swirl of cracking mallets, under-trunk shots and trumpeting beasts. After a 10-minute breather between the two chukkas, the teams swap ends and mounts, and it's on again.
"Elephant Polo is like horse polo, but without the horses," Diana Moxon, former PR for the event, once told me. Plus, of course, a Thai mahout riding forward of the mallet-wielding rider. Diana added, "You wouldn’t believe how many people ask, 'How does the German team get their elephants to Thailand?' I used to think they were joking — but, no. So, I’d just say, ‘By jumbo jet, of course’."
The teams battle their way through quarterfinals and semis to reach a grand final that’s played in front of the King’s representative and ranks of ramrod-backed, white-starched Thai Army officers.
This year will see defending champions, Thailand’s King Power squad go head to head with rivals that include a New Zealand Rugby All Blacks trio and team of Tiffany Show transvestites, who will play to win as well as performing at the final Gala Dinner.
Now in its 12th year, the Kings Cup Tournament has become one of Thailand’s largest charitable events and has raised almost US$600,000. The festival will have a spectacular opening parade, celebrity matches, Chang Noi Day (Children’s Day) and Ladies Day.
If you’re wondering about the finer points of elephant polo, the final rule states, "Sugar cane or rice balls shall be given to the elephant at the end of each match, and a cold beer or soft drink to the driver — and not vice versa."
|Pics: John Borthwick|
King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, Suriyothai Army Base, Hua Hin. August 28—September 1. Free admission. www.anantaraelephantpolo.com.