Days of the Raj relived in Thailand

By Graham Reid

The English invent the most stupid of sports," says John. He should know, he's English and we've been talking about cricket.

We are sitting at the poolside bar in the sumptuous Anantara Resort and Spa near the coastal town of Hua Hin, three hours south of Bangkok.

We have just spent the day watching elephant polo.

At the Somdej Phra Suriyothai military camp half an hour down the road, heavily sponsored teams battled it out in scorching heat before a tiny audience of corporate guests, a contingent of international media which almost outnumbered the participants, and a few bemused locals and soldiers.

The whole thing has been utterly absurd, but ponderous pachyderms suddenly become as agile as ponies under the guidance of the local mahouts and the players, who carry 3m-long sticks and aim for a ball which can often be trampled into the dirt under very large feet.

It all feels very quaint and British Raj - and indeed one of the older hands is the handsome Colonel Raj Kalaan from India, known as the Silver Fox for his thick white hair.

During the sweaty tournament in tropical heat plenty of water is drunk, but so are gallons of Chivas Regal thanks to one of the sponsors. And by night these people who play hard - 14 teams including one of former All Blacks Stu Wilson, Bernie Fraser and Steve McDowell - party even harder.

Elephant polo is not the sport of the common man: teams at last year's event were sponsored by Mercedes Benz, American Express, British Airways and, in the case of the former All Blacks (who embarrassingly almost lost to a team of Bangkok transvestites, the hilariously named Screwless Tuskers), PricewaterhouseCooper.

It also isn't for the faint-hearted. The elephants can get up a fair bit of pace and if you've ever been atop one you know it can be a bumpy ride even when they dawdle. Add to that swinging a long stick at a tiny ball, the searing sun, and chukkas (halves) which last well over the allocated seven minutes because of stoppages and you have a game which is ... well, as John said, pretty damn stupid. But also a lot of fun.

The supporters in the tents - one of which serves a never-ending and ever-changing menu of Chivas cocktails - bay with delight as the massive animals gallop around the park followed by a small army of cleaners who collect the small mountains of dung an elephant leaves when in a state of high excitement.

 

The World Elephant Polo Association which organises this annual event established the rules in 1982 and has its headquarters at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in the Royal Chitwan Park in Nepal. It is a registered Olympic sport with the Nepal Olympic Committee.

The major tournament is played on an airfield in Nepal, but in 2001 two new competitions were launched: this King's Cup tournament in Hua Hin, and another in Galle, Sri Lanka, in February which was cancelled after the tsunami ravaged the area.

The rules are similar to horse polo but the field is about a third the size, each team has three elephants, no more than two may be in the D (the area demarked by that pitch marking in front of the goal), and elephants may neither pick up a ball nor lie down in the goalmouth.

Sugar cane or rice balls packed with vitamins (molasses and rock salt) are given to the elephants at the end of each match, and a cold beer or soft drink to the elephant drivers.

Over the week it can be hilariously engaging - I never thought I'd be shouting, "Elephant in the D!" with such fervour, let alone know what it meant. But better is the fact that this curious sport is peopled by larger-than-life characters.

Margie McDougal from Nepal is a fierce and longtime competitor in the Bangkok Bank Ladies' team. She delivered this accidentally ambiguous innuendo to the ladyboys in the Screwless Tuskers after some on-field shenanigans: "If you want to be ladies, play like ladies. No hooking."

Oliver Winter is a skilful player - who imports polo ponies from Germany, Argentina and Brunei and who tried to drive his Mercedes Benz team to victory for the third time.

After a week of heats by day and parties by night at the Anantara Resort the Sunday afternoon final was between Australia and Winter's Mercedes Benz Thailand in front of a huge crowd of tourists and locals who had heard the hometeam were contenders. They got the perfect result, the first Thai victor.

The English finished well down the rankings, above the All Blacks.

But the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament is almost incidentally about elephant polo. It is about having a good time.

Peter Prentice of the Chivas team - now into his 18th year playing - is a man for whom life is a party. His occasional commentary on the games was punctuated with shameless plugs for the sponsors and as the day progressed his hyperbole inflated accordingly. During the final game he described the players as the ultimate athletes - to loud guffaws and applause.

"It's not pretty, but it is elephant polo," he shouted. And, when the young Australian team took to the field - after the numerous pre-match photographs which seem obligatory - he bellowed, "The whole of Perth, actually the whole of Australia, is watching these wonderful young men today."

It added a farcical and self-deprecating touch to what is otherwise taken seriously: collecting money for a good cause.

The event raises funds for the Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, northern Thailand, which provides welfare, sustenance, medical care and employment for the kingdom's 1500 wild and 2500 domesticated elephants.

The event has so far raised around US$65,000 ($91,000) and people are prepared to dig deep, especially at the Saturday night auction which followed another long dinner for a couple of hundred at the Anantara and plenty of drinks.

Up for auction are return flights to the UK on British Airways (another sponsor), mobile phones (from Mobile Easy Thailand) and paintings by elephants. All of them realised bids beyond their market value - although it was admittedly hard to assess the value of a painting by an elephant. More than US$200 ($280), as it turned out.

On the final night John and I are back in the poolside bar in the Anantara.

We laugh about the absurdity of this game which has obviously been invented by rich people with too much time on their hands. "You were right the other night," I say. "It's a bloody stupid sport, but a lot of fun. Especially the post-match parties."

"Yes, we invent stupid sports," he says turning glum. "Then everyone beats us at them."

* Graham Reid flew to Thailand courtesy of The Small Luxury Hotels of the World

* The King's Cup Elephant Polo 2005 tournament runs from September 6-12, at the Elephant Polo Field, Somdej Phra Suriyothai military camp in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan province, Thailand.

Further information: www.thaielepolo.com

Anantara Resort & Spa, Hua Hin www.anantara.com

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