Elephant polo the sport of kings

Players line up for elephant polo in Thailand.
Players line up for elephant polo in Thailand. Contributed

IT makes you want to say “jolly hockey sticks” or something just as old-fashioned and heartily British.

Except we're not in England and it's not hockey sticks that are involved. It's polo sticks. Being wielded by pucker-looking riders on elephants rather than horses. However, even though we are in Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle in the north of Thailand, it's still all terribly British.

That's mostly due to the glorious toffee-nosed accent of the commentator and the spiffy polo gear of the players. The field is crowded with leather boots and tight cream pants. It's all very good looking.

The spectators sitting on lounge chairs sipping gin and tonics might be few, but they add to the exclusivity of the event. There is no doubt this is especially for the privileged.

Indeed, our commentator has advised us over the blaring microphone that a Texan billionaire has just landed her private jet nearby and will be joining us other non-billionaires shortly.

This is the annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, an elite event held each year in the grounds of the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, presenting a series of matches that have devotees in a lather, and others (us) having a giggle.

Twelve teams from all over the world have come to Chiang Rai to compete for the coveted King's Cup. Some of the teams' names will give you an idea of the prestige of the event: Mercedes Benz; Veuve Clicquot; Tourism Authority of Thailand; PricewaterhouseCoopers and Anantara Golden Triangle.

No-one even attempts to deny this is about the well-heeled indulging themselves, but there is a much appreciated charitable side.

Proceeds raised from the tournament go to the National Elephant Institute to assist elephant welfare: medical treatment, on-going care and mahout (elephant keepers) training.

Over past tournaments these suave players have raised well over a quarter of a million dollars for the institute, and judging by their enthusiasm on the field today, there will be no end in sight for future tournaments.

Being a mere spectator with no true appreciation for the skill and intricacies of the game, I watched the elephants lumber gracefully on to the field with their mahouts steering them while the players challenged each other.

I took photos of the local cheerleaders chanting and shaking home-made castanets (empty pebble-filled beer cans) and thoroughly enjoyed the feisty spats between players.

I revelled in the snooty accent and unbridled annotations of the commentator, loved all the mallet wielding, cheered every time a goal was achieved and, after a short while, did what all the other non-devotees did – retired to the massage marquee.

The Anantara Golden Triangle Resort's gracious spa therapists, fully aware there is more to this polo gig than just polo, had come to the game to gently administer foot, neck and back relief.

After a relaxing half-an-hour, on refreshed feet and legs, I headed to the champagne marquee, said “tootle pip” as I downed some bubbles and finished off the game with an elegant salad in the lunch marquee. This is my personal (and recommended) approach to elephant polo.

In the evening I attended a gala polo dinner hosted by Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, ate seafood and drank champagne with the Texan billionaire (very pleasant she was too) and did my tiny part to raise money for the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and National Elephant Institute.

The King's Cup Elephant Polo has gone from a small two-day event with six teams into a week-long extravaganza with the 2010 tournament featuring 12 teams from four continents, encompassing 40 players from a least 15 different countries. Jolly hockey sticks it all was too.

Ann Rickard was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

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