South China Morning Post, September 23, 2003
Ladyboys Pose Jumbo Problem at Polo
By Dominic Whiting
HUA HIN, Thailand (Reuters) - When a team of Thai ladyboys arrived to play in the King's Cup elephant polo tournament last week, the referee faced a dilemma -- did they count as men or women?
Under the rules of the three-a-side event, female players are allowed to wield their polo sticks with two hands as they perch on the backs of their two-tonne elephants behind a mahout.
Men, however, are restricted to using one hand on the sticks.
"We look like women so we managed to persuade them to let us use two hands," said Songpol Laohawiwattana, captain of the transsexual Screwless Tuskers team.
Not that the ruling helped the Thai team. They lost to Australia but vowed to return for one of the more unusual events on the sporting calendar.
"It felt very good up there, I wasn't afraid at all," said Songpol. "I broke a couple of fingernails but I'll be back next year. We need to work on controlling the ball if we want to do well."
The third King's Cup drew 12 teams from India, Nepal, Scotland, Thailand and England to play a sport enjoyed by British aristocrats in India at the start of the 20th century and revived in the early 1980s by two friends who came up with the idea in a bar.
It was the first in a series of annual events culminating in the world championships in Nepal in November and December.
The 2003 cup was won by the German Mercedes Benz team who beat the British and Indian Chivas Regal side 5-3 in a wet and muddy final on Sunday.
Monsoon rains lashed down, sinking the six two-tonne elephants into mud while fans huddled into the hospitality tents to drink champagne.
"It's exciting, hot stuff," said jodhpur-and-pith-helmet-clad Oliver Winter, captain of the winning team which started with a two-nil lead because of a handicap system. "This is much better than winning a horse polo tournament for sure."
The games were played under horse polo rules, though with some important changes. The World Elephant Polo Association ruled that elephants must not lie in the goalmouths, pick up the ball with their trunks or stand on it.
Mahouts, or trainers, slap their legs on the elephants' sides to give directions.
The mahouts said the fastest elephants were typically small and slightly hot-tempered. One startled and angry bull charged off the pitch in one of the first games of the tournament, forcing its mahout and player to rapidly untie their safety ropes and leap for safety into bushes.
The modern game was conceived by polo player Jim Edwards, owner of a resort in Nepal, and former British Olympic tobogganer James Manclark over drinks while on holiday in the St. Moritz ski resort in Switzerland.
The first tournament was played in Nepal with soccer balls, which the elephants enjoyed bursting for the tickling sensation of air on their feet. Standard polo balls have been used since.
Organisers of the King's Cup said elephant polo was a growing sport, drawing more and more converts from horse polo. Nepal and Sri Lanka both host established annual tournaments.
Some of the money made from the tournament will go to charities which take care of elephants in Thailand.
Destruction of jungles has cut the country's elephant population to around 4,000 from 50,000 in 1950. Some 1,500 of them roam wild, while the rest are mostly housed in camps at resorts such as Hua Hin, 250 kms south of Bangkok, giving rides to tourists.
Some mahouts take their elephants to Bangkok where they sell fruit and other elephant feed to tourists. But the government is cracking down on the practice because elephant are involved in around 20 road accidents a month in and around the Thai capital.
Over the week of the King's Cup, workers collected nearly one tonne of elephant excrement for use in making paper or as fertiliser.
"I've been scooping it up here for three years," said Nangpan Sarangnam, 46, a rice farmer from Surin in northeast Thailand where a big elephant population used to work the fields but now puts on shows for tourists.
"I get paid much more for this than for farming. First of all people around here thought it was a bit strange but it's good fun."