Elephant Polo (Yes, Really)
Or maybe it doesn’t care. Its seemingly systematic and purposeful ramming continues, until the Toyota Hiace resembles the last cream cake at a Weight Watchers Christmas party spread.
The YouTube clip I’m watching, amusingly called Elephant Attack – Part Deux, features this explanation – ‘Here in sunny Sri Lanka, we may love our cricket but feel it is a tad too tame for our sensibilities… we take the game of polo (known as the sport of kings) and ratchet up the danger factor… by introducing elephants… of course you run the risk of this happening…’
So here I am at the Kings Cup Elephant Polo Tournament 2010 at the Anantara Golden Triangle resort in Chang Rai, Northern Thailand. The view from my room takes in two rivers and three countries – Laos and Burma converging right here – and as the mist rolls gently across the forested hills, the only discernible sound is the trumpeting of elephants. It is as serene as any place in rural Thailand.
For centuries, the only viable method of getting here was up the Mekong by longtail boat – or, if you had the time, by hard working elephant.
The question already troubling me is whether the sport I’m here to witness is actually humane or not.
I can report that the elephants are kept in very good conditions. The alternative to chasing a ball around a park would be logging in forests or working the city tourist trail for those far less caring and far more mercenary.
The Golden Triangle resort itself hosts the most northern extension of the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. This assuaged some of my namby pamby middle-class guilt over what I had initially perceived as an exploitative novelty.
The story of what is now considered a legitimate association sport, played across Asia, starts with an inventive, adventurous ex-pat, A.V. Jim Edwards. Considered the father of eco-tourism in the region, Jim initially pitched up in early 60’s Nepal, arriving in a Saab he’d driven from Europe. Having developed prestigious eco-resorts such as Nepal’s Tiger Tops and been introduced to plain old pony polo by his friend James Manclark, Jim was keen to find a way to combine conservation and his love of the sport. In 1981, following a legendary epiphany over a late night drink or three, they founded the World Championships at Meghauli, Chitwan, in the Himalayas. Born as much out of his sense of humour as his acumen. Elephant polo attracted many celebrities and further promoted Tiger Tops as well as raising funds for many charities.
Still played there, every year, the circuit still takes in Thailand and Sri Lanka.
James Manclark is present at this Kings Cup tournament and actually took part in the matches, despite recently reaching 70. He himself has a fabulously Boys Own history, taking in world record-breaking balloon attempts, Olympic toboggan runs and exploring Ecuador in search of the legendary Tayos gold.
Riding a charging elephant that’s chasing a chukka is, literally, a walk in the park for this man.
The evening dinners are glamourous, themed affairs, usually in fancy dress (colonial eccentrics LOVE dressing up). We weren’t informed of this, so we turn up looking like complete stick in the muds.
Getting to meet the players, I soon realised that they were mostly professional horse polo riders. Like most touring polo pros, they all looked supremely fit, rather dashing and admitted to a life of constant travelling and associated partying.
The resort itself is, as you may imagine, elephant themed. Having watched the elephants hose themselves in the river, I feel it only appropriate to mimic them, by relaxing in the resort’s infinity pool (in the world’s top 20) and spas for as long as I can justify.
So. How does one play Elephant Polo? Firstly, you’ll need to get over the sheer surrealism of the spectacle.
Six huge beasts, nimbly striding about the pitch, their sheer bulk dwarfing the Polo riders and their assisting Mahouts. The Mahouts are local elephant keepers and the real brains of the operation. Their instructions actually guide the jumbos into position.
The player actually sits at the rear and tells the mahout where he wants to be. Obviously guiding an elephant is harder than it looks. And it looks bloody impossible.
Whilst this all looks like a disaster waiting to happen, it certainly appears to work – no reticent elephants refusing to budge or dashing in the wrong direction. The French football team have a lot to learn. Maybe this is because of the fearsome metal hooks the Mahouts are brandishing…they also kick the backs of the elephant’s ears to signal left and right hand turns. Since an elephant’s skin is several centimetres thick, one would have to believe that they hear, rather than feel the blows. The French football team management have a lot to learn.
The pitches are, by necessity, big. 100 metres by 60 metres. The ball is, however, a standard polo variant. Originally footballs were used, but the buggers tended to stand on them and cause them to burst. The local Clive Tildsley drones through a painfully tinny PA, a commentary that basically consists of improvisations around a theme – ‘an elephant is approaching the ball and a man with a long stick has hit said ball’. Congratulations to him for actually making this all sound exciting. Though not the fastest sport in the world, there is, as always in games of skill, a captivating elegance to the movement and dexterity of play.
And it’s all terribly civilised, of course. A sumptuous buffet lunch is provided daily, overseen by Anantara’s top chef, who has been flown in for the occasion. A full complimentary bar is, however, disappointingly short of complimentary Verve Clicquot. The widow was obviously in ungenerous mood, having already sponsored the event. Plus, one imagines, the less free booze the players are exposed to, the safer the local Toyota Hiaces will be.
The highly impressive list of other sponsors reflects the contacts and good will that Jim Edwards and James Manclark built over the years. Chivas Regal, Mercedes Benz, Price Waterhouse Coopers, IBM and, sponsors of the winning team – Audemars Piguet. One would therefore expect to be fighting for a seat in the corporate box, milling with well-fed board members, gently perspiring in their Ralph Lauren. They are nowhere to be seen, leaving myself, the locals and the old colonial money to the fun. Maybe the sponsors had also been watching ‘Elephant Attack – parts une – huit’.
There was no way I can participate as a player – I have only a basic understanding of the two functional ends of a horse – but I can kick a bit. It’s time for Mahout training.
The back of the world’s largest living land animal is, as you may imagine, an unnerving place to find oneself. The resort’s probable fear of litigation rests in one’s mind as some source of comfort as you pull away. After all, Americans come here. In the Elephant village, where the Mahouts and their families live, we learn to mount in three different ways, disembark and steer.
The joy of channeling Hannibal is palpable, until you click that your hairy steed has a bored look in her eye, has seen this all before and is doing it on autopilot. So much for innate mastedon talent.
After an hour of mastering the relevant Thai commands, we set off for a long walk to the river for elephant bath time. My pachyderm, who at 46, was blind in one eye from a logging accident, is balletically nimble, using steps carved for humans to climb a steep hill. The bath itself is as messy and spectacular as you can imagine. I feel like Tarzan. In better trunks.
Northern Thailand is a very different experience from the more popular southern beaches. Once central to the opium trade, it’s now making a real effort to promote itself to the international travel market. The Anantar Golden Triangle is a jewel of a resort, a wonderfully peaceful base for the tournament and for longer treks into the jungle. It’s lure maybe too strong, however. I did miss a few matches, due to intensive spa research.
The word Anantara means ‘without end’ in Sanskrit. Alas, for myself, this wasn’t true. It was time to go home. The elephants had behaved impeccably. No more Toyota Hiaces (or any other reasonably priced Japanese leisure vehicle) had met an ignominious end and I had discovered what a very pleasing, entertainment the game is. Even the elephants seem to enjoy playing. The car crusher must have been throwing a strop over being substituted.
As luck would have it, I travel back on my birthday, so I make sure the First Class staff at EVA Airlines are aware of the fact. Whilst I didn’t get to sit on the captain’s knee and fly the plane (bloody 9/11), I was treated like a king and put on a stone in weight thanks to lashings of champers and Häagen-Dazs.
Just as well I’d left Anantara. A Mahout may have jumped on my back. Now where’s that Toyota…?
Al Fox stayed at the Anantara, Golden Triangle in Thailand, more information is available at goldentriangle.anantara.com. Information on flights with EVA Airlines is also available at evaair.com.