It was an idea that could have been conceived only in a bar, when the vodka was working its magic, and a fanciful notion seemed perfectly reasonable.
Two relative strangers, both Britons and both blessed with adventurous souls, were quaffing Bloody Marys together at the St. Moritz Tobogganing Club in 1981. One was a skilled polo amateur who had played all over the world; the other owned and operated pukka lodges in Nepal and offered visitors the opportunity to trek through the jungle on the backs of elephants. Small talk was made, a basic affinity developed, and by the third or fourth drink, an idea that any sober person would have dismissed as sheer folly was taking shape as an honest-to-God plan.
This, more or less, is how the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) came into being. Since that fortuitous day in Switzerland when James Manclark (the polo player) and Jim Edwards (the lodge owner) discovered their kindred spirits, elephant polo has evolved from its whimsical bar-bet roots to become a real sport, with real rules, real stars, and real corporate sponsors—American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Mercedes-Benz, and Nokia, to name a few—that back teams as they compete along a circuit of spectacular tournaments around the world.
For anyone who has ever watched horse polo (or football, basketball, or soccer), the hows, whys, and wherefores of elephant polo are not difficult to grasp. It is just another variation on the ur-sport of advancing a ball across a rectangular field into an opponent’s closely tended goal. As in horse polo, players ride animals and wield mallets to accomplish this mission. The substitution of pachyderms for horses, however, requires that mallets be as long as minivans and that players share their mounts with elephant experts called mahouts. Needless to say, the sight of one of these mounts running full speed in your general direction is less likely to make you stand up and cheer as it is to make you stand up and flee.
Such charges, however, are infrequent occurrences. It should be acknowledged up front that elephant polo is not known for its dazzling kinetics. It is a good deal slower than horse polo—at times it does not seem to move much faster than a vigorous round of croquet. But speed and prowess are not priorities; neither are winning and losing. The matches represent opportunities for old friends to meet and compete in an atmosphere of relaxed, boozy bonhomie that marks each tournament, whether it is the world championships held each December in Nepal, the Ceylon league’s finals held in February on Taprobane Island, or here at the King’s Cup, hosted each September by Anantara Resort & Spa in the Thai city of Hua Hin, about 170 miles south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand.
The king’s cup resembles something Kipling might have dreamed up after a night of too much gin and vindaloo. Colonial nostalgia may or may not be at work here, but there is no denying that the trappings—sweltering heat, British accents, pith helmets, curry, and, of course, elephants—suggest a parallel universe in which the sun never set on the Empire. At this sporting event, there are no luxury skyboxes, high-tech Jumbotrons, or trash-talking from the sidelines. Fans either sit on folding chairs under tents or they stand. The 7-minute chukkas are delimited by the striking of a large gong. And it is customary for the members of the winning team to lead everyone in a sportsmanlike cheer for the losers—“Hip-hip-hooray!”—before dismounting their elephants and searching the crowd excitedly for the girl who brings ’round the drinks.
A brief word about drinking at the King’s Cup: It is not just for spectators. The favored post-match beverage is not water or electrolyte-replacing Gatorade, but rather a cold can of Singha, the national beer of Thailand, or perhaps a screwdriver or a Bloody Mary if it is before noon.
A wry perspective is mandatory in a sport where adversaries maneuver at speeds of less than 5 mph atop creatures weighing an average of 2 tons. The game therefore attracts its share of eccentrics and others who live, often charmingly and enviably, just outside the boundaries of what most people consider real life. Consider, for instance, elephant polo’s cofounder James Manclark, who mumbles something about “property ownership” when asked how he makes a living. Over the course of his 50-something years, he has traveled the world in a hot-air balloon, raced powerboats in international competitions, searched for lost Inca treasure, and served on the British Olympic bobsledding team. A fierce and regular competitor is Manclark’s countryman Geoffrey Dobbs, a former Hong Kong–based publisher who now owns Taprobane, an island off the coast of Sri Lanka that he has transformed into a private resort. Dobbs, in an effort to prove his theory that the Chinese could have reached the American continent before Columbus, crossed the Pacific Ocean on a bamboo raft.
American eccentricity is ably represented by Alf Erickson, a retired lawyer, bread-fortune heir, and nonplaying fixture on the elephant polo scene, whose wacky bona fides include owning what may be the world’s largest collection of corkscrews. (He has more than 4,000.) Erickson once lived for two years on the 14th floor of Bangkok’s Oriental hotel to win the heart of a woman who worked there. (His effort ultimately proved successful.) But for the 2003 tournament Erickson has outdone himself by organizing a team, the Screwless Tuskers, made up entirely of “ladyboys”—the term that Thais use to describe male-to-female transsexuals in various stages of operative transformation.
Mirthfully anachronistic, perpetually in need of a drink, and utterly genteel, elephant polo players are a colorful bunch. A week spent with them is a week that anyone, like their legendarily mindful mounts, would not soon forget.
It can be discomposing for a jet-lagged visitor to go, in the space of only one half hour, from the Anantara Resort & Spa’s sybaritic swim-up bar to the decidedly more utilitarian grounds of the Thai Royal Army’s 16th Infantry Division, just a few miles down Hua Hin’s main road. At the former, pool boys hand out freshly laundered towels and smiling, effervescent waitresses take drink order after drink order without passing any perceptible judgment. At the latter, a phalanx of grimacing, rifle-toting sentries waves visitors through the security gate and directs them to a makeshift parking space in an open field near a large and fragrant mound of fresh elephant leavings.
This is where the King’s Cup has been held since it was launched three years ago, and where all matches take place over the tournament’s six days. The event begins with a ceremonial opening parade at which young women in brightly colored garb and a line of ferocious drummers introduce the real stars of this show: the elephants. Obeying the improbably elegant choreography of their mahouts, the beasts march in lockstep across the playing field to feed on watermelon and unpeeled bananas before the first match.
“All the clichés about elephants are true,” notes WEPA cofounder and PricewaterhouseCoopers captain Jim Edwards from the sidelines one afternoon. “They really are as sweet-natured and intelligent as they’re made out to be. Obviously, because of their size, they’re potentially very dangerous if they get into a bad mood, though, so they need to understand that they’re loved.
“But they’re not as docile as people seem to think,” he continues. “If they don’t want to do something, they won’t do it. Still, they really do seem to enjoy playing. They’re herd animals, and out here they’ve got their friends—you see them touching each other with their trunks. Of course, if they encounter another elephant on the field that they don’t like, they’ll let them know by hitting them with their trunk or making a rumbling noise that’s very distinct from a friendly noise. Take the incident from the day before. That was territorial. The one elephant probably just plain didn’t like the other. It’s even possible that he didn’t like the other elephant’s mother. There’s often more to it than is immediately apparent.”
Said incident represented a rare moment of genuine panic at this or any other elephant polo tournament. Just a few minutes into the second chukka of the match between Sandalford Winery and Nokia, a young tusker suddenly and petulantly attacked another and then ran amok, flipping his mahout and leaving the player—whose boots were strapped to the normally placid animal to ensure a stable ride—frighteningly stuck. Just as the beast began to run off the field and into the surrounding hilly terrain, the rider managed to untie himself and jump off. The elephant was eventually brought under control and pacified. Play resumed minutes later, though spectators and players were visibly shaken.
“We had an elephant in Nepal, actually, who didn’t like the mahout of another elephant,” Edwards recounts flatly. “The mahout had treated him badly, and the elephant killed him the first chance he got—hit him in the back with his trunk. So we haven’t completely worked out the human-elephant dynamic yet. I own 25 of them, and they continue to surprise me.”
For the most part, players fear the elephants far less than the ignominy of defeat—the kind casually doled out by James Manclark’s Chivas Regal team, for instance, to the King’s Royal Hussars, a group of dashing young British cavalry officers blessed with impeccable manners and matinee-idol looks but, alas, not much luck on the polo field. Worse still is the mortifying position in which the Mullis Capital team finds itself on the third day of play. It is halftime, and Mullis—a troupe of high financiers led by Ken McMillan, a former Royal Marine and horse-polo maven famed for his surly brand of competitiveness—is trailing the Screwless Tuskers. Never happy to lose to any team, McMillan appears especially nettled at the prospect of being defeated by a team of giggling, pink-clad transsexuals. But McMillan and his mates emerge from their tent and rally in the second half to record the triumph. Presumably, whatever was said at their halftime meeting left them, not quite like their underestimated combatants, changed men.
In the end, it does not really matter who wins the 2003 King’s Cup. For the record, though, it is the redoubtable Mercedes-Benz team that, over the course of the week, dispatches all comers with characteristic German efficiency before dealing Chivas the death blow in a soggy and memorable final match.
The deluge arrives at precisely the same time as the special guest: the royal emissary whose duty it is to observe the championship match and award the first-place trophy at its conclusion. Rather than risk insulting a member of the king’s court by calling off the match, players and officials simply act as if the downpour, rapidly approaching biblical proportions, is nothing more than a pleasant mist, quite refreshing actually, certainly nothing that warrants postponement. On they play, slogging through the mud, barely visible through sheets of water that rocket down from heaven and explode onto the field, which by halftime will be transformed into a giant reflecting pool.
Fans lacking the good sense to get out of the flood and head back to their hotels—the real fans, that is—huddle beneath a few tents for most of the first half, watching incredulously, their whoops and hollers inaudible over the rain. But then during the second half, one of them, a fortifying Singha in hand, ventures out from under a tent onto the sidelines to lend his support to Chivas. He is soon joined by another, and then another, until the sidelines are as crowded as they were on the sunniest days. Everyone is soaked; everyone is drinking; everyone is laughing; everyone is cheering. Perhaps this scene, as much as the vision of men playing polo atop elephants, is what Manclark and Edwards had in mind that night at the St. Moritz bar.
The King’s Cup is hosted each year by Anantara Resort & Spa Hua Hin, whose 187 rooms are spread over 14 lush acres separated from the Gulf of Thailand by only a narrow swath of beach. Unlike Phuket or Pattaya, the raucous Thai beach destinations most popular with Western tourists, Hua Hin has retained the tranquillity that has long made it a sanctuary for vacationing Bangkok families and international visitors seeking a less hectic, more authentically Thai experience.
Tennis and golf are within easy reach, but certainly the most scenic way to exercise is to wake up early and stroll through the verdant, perfectly manicured grounds. Around every corner, it seems, is a fountain covered with pink blossoms, or an arched wooden bridge spanning a lantern-lit lagoon, or an intricately carved Buddhist statue. Before the sun is high, stroll the beach and watch the fishermen cast their nets as the first pink striations of morning begin to cut through the sky.
As beautiful as Anantara is, you will still want to experience the nearby town. As is the case with so many Asian cities, large or small, Hua Hin is most alive in the evening. The night market downtown is a wonderfully chaotic, three-block-long bazaar that is surprisingly low on tourist kitsch and high on quality handcrafts, silk goods, and jewelry. Every other vendor seems to be a food stall offering local favorites in intriguing combinations.
On the opposite side of Hua Hin proper is the shrine at Khao Takiap, where a six-story, gold-painted Buddha built into the side of a cliff watches over fishermen in the bay. The nearby temple is reached only by ascending hundreds of punishing steps. It can be done, but beware of the monkeys.
A half-hour’s drive farther south from Khao Takiap is Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, whose name translates to Mountain of Three Hundred Peaks. This beachfront preserve is as peaceful and gorgeous as any spot on earth, but do not make the mistake of going alone (as I did). Anantara can arrange for a guided trip, lest you find yourself hiking up a steep promontory in the lethal late-morning heat with no idea of where you are going, no trail markers to offer clues, and no one to guide you save for a small band of friendly but feral dogs. After a fruitless hour of climbing, panting, and gasping, you will remember Anantara’s swimming pool, suddenly a thousand times more beautiful than the majestic Gulf of Thailand stretched out before you.
The 2004 King’s Cup is scheduled for September 7 through 12 in Hua Hin. Once again, Anantara Resort & Spa Hua Hin will serve as host. For more information about the tournament, contact the resort at +66.3252.0250 or www.anantara.com. For information about the World Elephant Polo Association, visit www.elephantpolo.com.