A lofty sport: elephant polo in Chiang Rai

Climb into the saddle and try your hand at a familiar sport with a local twist at the annual King's Cup in Thailand.

Handout images of the King's Cup Elephant Polo. Courtesy of Carol stevenson / Anatara Elephant Polo.
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What would you do if you had a two-tonne Asian elephant charging towards you?

The obvious answer, when you are in the Golden Triangle in northern Thailand, is to take a dignified breath, dig in your stirrups and heels and aim a roundhouse-like croquet shot at the white ball on the field in front of you. Or at least that's what my instructor had told me the day before. In slow motion, however, things couldn't have gone much worse.

Following a flap of my elephant Bousi's ears, an enthusiastic trumpet from the watching crowd and with a refined arch of my two-metre-long mallet, I hit fresh air. Playing a series of dummy shots, elephant step-overs and moving around the ball as though I was aping Cristiano Ronaldo, every attempt left me spraying clods of grass at my oncoming opponent. If it was golf, my performance would have been worse than Tiger Woods' off-course antics; if it was cricket, I'd be the entire stumped-out Scottish team. But this was my first taste of elephant polo; a stupidly fun sport, minus the freshly scythed grass flavour.

What started out as a whimsical conversation between sports fanatic James Manclark and his friend AV Jim Edwards has evolved into one of the biggest dates on the Thai tourism calendar. While Manclark was a stalwart of horse racing and polo tournaments, Edwards owned an elephant camp in southern Nepal. The former suggested they should combine the two and - though not mutually compatible at the first few attempts - the rest is history.

Perhaps it would have been a different story with ice skating and swans, but 19 years later, the sport is a heavyweight fixture on the aristocratic sporting calendar and - considering an elephant's voracious appetite - a blessing to productive Asian banana growers.

From tournaments in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong to the annual Elephant Polo World Cup in Nepal and the King's Cup trophy, held at the five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa near Chiang Rai, the sport is a pachyderm paradise. Taking place overlooking the mist-shrouded jungles and humid hilltops of Burma, Laos and Thailand, the King's Cup is the grandest affair of the bunch.

In just eight years, the event has gone from a small two-day affair with six teams into a week-long extravaganza featuring 31 elephants and 12 teams from four continents. Accordingly, the tournament I saw was the biggest to date.

With a bamboo-posted pitch nestled on the banks of the mighty Mekong River - somewhat reminiscent of Harry Potter's wizardly Quidditch stadium - and beneath a flurry of banners advertising the event's luxury brand sponsors, including Audemars Piguet, Mercedes Benz and Veuve Clicquot, the scene could have come straight from the pages of a Jilly Cooper or Douglas Adams novel.

Attended by a cast of professional polo players, larger-than-life conservationists and Indian colonels, the King's Cup is also home to an off-field massage parlour, champagne tent and the best after-game black-tie events. Yet even without the pomp, parade and an elephant-blessing ceremony - where local monks fended off troublesome bad spirits - I was quickly won over by the spectacle. I was representing the UAE as part of the international press team, and I couldn't let the side down.

Similarly to horse polo, the game is divided into two seven-minute chukkas, or halves, and pits two three-man teams and their elephants against each other in a form of trunk to trunk medieval jousting. However, there are some key differences between the sports. All elephants carry a player and a mahout (elephant trainer) and ladies are allowed to use both hands when swinging the mallet. The elephants are also banned from picking up the ball in their trunks and lying down in front of the goalmouth.

As for the players, some practise by driving around in an open-top jeep swinging a golf club. James Manclark, who scored a hat-trick in the opening Elephant Polo All Stars game, admitted to practising while balanced on the top of a ladder, insisting his wife Patricia threw tennis balls at his groin.

But don't doubt for one minute that this surreal sport isn't competitive. John Roberts, the resident elephant camp director and umpire, considered introducing "rugby-type rules" for this year's competition to ensure aggressive players - and overeager elephants - would be sent to the sidelines for bad behaviour. "It gets ridiculously competitive," explained Roberts when I met him the night before kick-off. "Of course, we're all friends afterwards but in the heat of the game, the opposition is the enemy and the on-field behaviour can get quite bad.

What is also taken seriously is the welfare of the elephants. The event is crucial in raising much-needed funds to help conserve Thailand's elephants and their habitat. Anantara's camp works closely with the Thai government's Elephant Conservation Centre and National Elephant Institute, which both highlight the plight of these creatures whose numbers are plummeting. Last year, nearly US$60,000 (Dh220,000) was raised to provide medical care, employment and training. In 2006, the tournament proceeds were even used to custom build an elephant-sized ambulance.

Following the success of the tournament and the development of the province's high-end tourist camps, the area of the Golden Triangle once infamous for its poppy fields looks like it now has a bright, prosperous future. Luxurious tented resorts and three-day mahout training courses are on offer year round for those with a strong sense of humour and an even stronger set of flexible cowboy legs.

The previous morning - in order to train for my fleeting polo performance - I signed up for a whistle-stop course. Before beginning, however, I had been disturbed by something more surreal than elephant polo itself. It wasn't the extra strong coffee or my jet lag - I saw an elephant in the hotel's dining room.

The clue wasn't that it had left footprints in the butter; it was a bit more glaringly obvious than that. With a hungry trumpet from the depths of its stomach, this elephant lumbered straight across the dining room floor. Ignoring the smoked salmon and egg station buffet, it headed straight for the bananas and sugar cane. Of course, it was all a show for hotel guests, but it was an eye-opening start to my first morning learning to drive an elephant at mahout camp.

Hours later, under the instructions of Prakorn Saejaw, one of the resident camp mahouts, I mounted Bousi with ease, leapfrogging up the trunk onto her grey leather neck. What was far more challenging, however, was the trainee elephant slalom course. Like steering a malfunctioning Russian tank through a set of squashed traffic cones, I shouted pai for forward and baen for left and right. I kicked behind her ears, which probably felt more like a timid tickle, yet struggled to make my elephant respond.

"She's feeling lazy and hungry today," joked Saejaw. Feeding some bananas into her trunk, which felt like the nozzle of a wet Hoover, I managed to kick-start her into action; or into a slow lethargic plod, at any rate. Spending the rest of the morning manoeuvring my elephant around the mahout training camp and across the Ruak floodplain for a quick elephant bath, I felt confident that I was up to my sporting challenge the following afternoon. I mean how hard could elephant polo really be?

If you go

The flight 

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok cost from US$720 (Dh2,645) including taxes. Return flights on Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) from Bangkok to Chiang Rai cost from $150 (Dh540) including taxes.

The hotels 

Book a three-night stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa (229 Moo 1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai 57150; www.anantara.com; 00 66 5378 4084) and get an additional fourth night for free, including daily breakfast buffet for two people. Room rates start at US$297 (Dh1,090). Anantara Hua Hin Resort & Spa, which is located two hours' drive south of Bangkok, will host the King's Cup elephant polo tournament in September (www.anantara.com; 00 66 3252 0250). Room rates start at $176 (Dh645). Rates for the King's Cup will be announced shortly. Prices are inclusive of taxes.

The Surin Elephant Round-Up in Surin, eastern Thailand, will be held on November 20. It features elephant football, tug-of-war and a parade of pachyderms outfitted for medieval warfare.