September 1-3, 2004
The dangers of driving in Thailand ...
Asia's Unsafe Roads
From Time Magazine - Asia
As he lingers over a Marlboro and a 1 a.m. cup of coffee outside his favorite Caltex station, Anand Supapdee ponders the future of his white pickup truck and concludes its days are numbered. "It's the ghosts," says 47-year-old Anand. "We have to change our cars every few years when they get haunted." Before he can explain, a static-coated voice issues from his handheld shortwave radio. Several kilometers away on a rain-slicked stretch of Bangkok's Boromratchanee Road, a black Toyota sedan has plowed into the back of a truck carrying sacks of cement. Anand, one of hundreds of Bangkok residents who voluntarily help mop up the city's nightly street carnage, jumps behind the wheel, while his 16-year-old co-worker Jitchana Srikachang climbs into the back. The pickup tears off toward the crash site.
Over the past four decades, Thailand has built the most extensive highway system in Southeast Asia. But the roads, crammed with 26 million registered vehicles, are anything but safe. With an average of 36 deaths a day, Thailand ranks sixth in the world in road fatalities. During Buddhist New Year celebrations last April, 654 people died in road accidents in a single week in the country and 36,642 people were injured. Yet Thailand has virtually no emergency-medical services or ambulance companies. Instead, the task of prying victims, alive and dead, out of the twisted metal and carting them off to hospitals and morgues falls to people like Anand, a member of Por Tek Tung, a charitable society operating out of a Chinese Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Founded more than a century ago by Chinese immigrants to provide funerals for the destitute, its staff and volunteers form a kind of ragtag Red Cross, rallying whenever tragedy strikes: when a building collapses, when a ferry sinks, and most often, when vehicles tangle on the roadways.
Waves of water from a recent rainstorm surge up around Anand's truck as he zips past other vehicles to get to the accident. It's his third of the night. The carnage peaks after 2 a.m., Anand says, when bars expel their patrons. The worst part of the job is collecting the remains of entire families killed in wrecks. Anand is a supervisor, which means he earns a $317 monthly salary and has received emergency-medical training from the government, which he then passes on to junior workers. Helpmate Jitchana volunteers for Por Tek Tung because he was in a motorcycle accident himself: he has a scar from it on his chin. "Someone helped me when I was hurt," he says, "so I'm helping others."
The two men say their work also helps them acquire Buddhist merit, improving their Karma. There's a worldly angle, too: their organization posts photographs of crash scenes outside its Bangkok headquarters to remind the public of its good work; the more photos, the greater the income from donations, it seems. Anand, a former deliveryman, says he's never had nightmares resulting from his work despite 19 years in the gruesome job.
By the time Anand reaches the accident, about 10 other Por Tek Tung vehicles and some 40 volunteers are milling about. There's no one to save. The victim, driving a black Toyota, had swung around a blind curve into the rear of a truck, which was carelessly parked for a quick tire check. He died in minutes from internal bleeding and a head wound. The 28-year-old trucker says, "I only stopped for about five minutes." He admits he never thought about driving the extra kilometer to a service station, whose white-and-blue fluorescent sign is clearly visible from the accident site. "I had my emergency lights on," the driver insists, but no emergency lights are blinking when the crumpled Toyota is pried from the truck's rear. A policeman says the trucker will "probably be arrested." But as Anand and Jitchana wander back to their pickup an hour-and-a-half later, he is neither cuffed nor in custody in the back of a police car. "That's for them to decide," shrugs Anand. He drives back to the Caltex station to wait for the next call, realizing his truck may now be haunted by a new ghost.
Here is the latest handicapping news from the president of the Thai Elephant Polo Association, Christopher Stafford:
Subject: KING'S CUP ELEPHANT POLO UPDATE - HANDICAPPING & WILDCARD GAMES
DEAR FELLOW ELEPHANT POLO TEAM CAPTAINS & PLAYERS!!
IT IS ONCE AGAIN A GREAT PLEASURE TO WELCOME YOU TO THE KING'S CUP ELEPHANT POLO EDITION #4. IN LINE WITH THE SPIRIT OF SPORTSMANSHIP AND FAIR PLAY I WOULD LIKE TO START BY WISHING EVERYONE A GREAT WEEK IN THE DAYS AHEAD AND ALSO TO PLAY IN A SPIRIT OF KINSHIP, FAIR PLAY AND GOOD COMPETITION.
WE HAVE TWO UPDATED ANNOUNCEMENTS DUE TO PLAYER CHANGES IN TEAMS REFLECTING ON THEIR HANDICAPS ACCORDINGLY. THE TEPA COMMITTEE HAVE REVISED THE FOLLOWING HANDICAPS:-
ST ANDREWS HOUSE IN NOW HANDICAPPED AT -3 ( BASED ON HORSE POLO HANDICAPS)
MULLIS CAPITAL MOVES FROM -1 TO -2 ON THE BASIS OF AN ADDITIONAL HORSE POLO PLAYER
OTHER ANNOUNCEMENTS :- KHUN BIB WILL BE OUT INJURED AND TO BE REPLACED BY ANOTHER PLAYER TBA FOR THE AMERICAN EXPRESS TEAM - ALSO BJORN RICHARDSON WILL ONLY PLAY ONE GAME DUE WORK COMMITTMENTS HOWEVER AMERICAN EXPRESS WILL STAY AT -2 GOALS.
WILDCARD GAMES -- THE TEAM CAPTAINS OF THE SIX TEAMS IN LEAGUE "A" AND LEAGUE "B" WILL DRAW A WILDCARD GAME TO MAKE UP THE NUMBER OF GAMES. THE WILDCARD GAME WILL NOT COUNT AS POINTS IN THE LEAGUE A OR B BUT WILL MAKE SURE EVERYONE PLAYS THE SAME NUMBER OF GAMES.
ONCE AGAIN WE LOOK FORWARD TO WELCOMING ALL OF YOU TO THE KING'S CUP ELEPHANT POLO 2004 AND WISH YOU ALL THE BEST,
CHRISTOPHER E. STAFFORD
THAI ELEPHANT POLO ASSOCIATION
PS: Proof that gOD (*) is a fiction?
LONDON, England (Reuters) -- An unexplained radio signal from deep space could -- just might be -- contact from an alien civilization, New Scientist magazine reported on Thursday.
The signal, coming from a point between the Pisces and Aries constellations, has been picked up three times by a telescope in Puerto Rico.
There are other explanations besides extraterrestrial contact that may explain the signal. New Scientist said the signal could be generated by a previously unknown astronomical phenomenon or even be a by-product from the telescope itself.
But the mystery beam has excited astronomers across the world.
"If they can see it four, five or six times it really begins to get exciting," Jocelyn Bell Burnell of the University of Bath in western England told the magazine.
It was broadcast on the main frequency at which the universe's most common element, hydrogen, absorbs and emits energy, and which astronomers say is the most likely means by which aliens would advertise their presence.
The potentially extraterrestrial signals were picked up through the SETI+home project, which uses programs running as screensavers on millions of personal computers worldwide to sift through the huge amount of data picked up by the telescope.
(*) Not a 'typo'.
Tomorrow the Screwless Tuskers will drive to Hua Hin ... for 8 days of Elephant Polo. Fourteen teams will compete for this year's King's Cup; last year we came in 12th out of the 12 teams. This year ... well ... who knows. At least we (my players) were/are the most different team to take to the field. Yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail carried a blurb about our non-Olympic event and the unusual Screwless Tuskers (*) ... [see the PS] ...
NB: Golf (the team captain and the 'daughter' of my wife's best friend, Pom) bought a new swim suit for the event. It is an improvement over her 2003 bathing trunks.
Pom's hands are partially seen behind the scene ... doing the fitting bits.
(*) This idea of bringing a ladyboy team to e-polo had its seeds in our alarmingly but predictable last place finish in all previous elephant polo contests(**)....all the way from five seasons in Nepal to here. The papers ignored us completely for half a decade. It was only when we went the 'Tiffany' route that the world press clumped around and clamored for more.
(**) As the Screwy Tuskers.
A blue-blooded elephant polo tournament in Thailand offers cucumber sandwiches and champagne on the sidelines and slow-motion sport on the field
By JUDITH RITTER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, September 1, 2004
HUA HIN, THAILAND -- When Victoria-born John Mackay, an international lawyer, slid off his mount to talk to me, he compared elephant polo to hockey: "The ball is tougher to hit than a puck, and you're farther away from it. And it certainly isn't as dangerous as hockey." One thing it shares with Canada's national obsession, though, is a loyal fan base.
I, for one, jetted 14,000 kilometres for what might be the world's quirkiest sporting event: the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. This curious event took place in Hua Hin, Thailand, a small beach resort on the Gulf of Siam, where I experienced a week of sun, spas, shopping, eating and, most importantly, the pachyderm playoffs. This year, the event runs from Sept. 6-12.
The truth is, watching 24 four-tonne Asian elephants and their sweaty pith-helmeted riders lumber after a tiny white ball doesn't make for a keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your seat sports experience. Elephant polo lacks the breathtaking moments of hockey, football or baseball. Still, it does exude a peculiar charm, redolent of a defunct empire in tropical climes.
The collection of satin-shirted teams was made up of players ranging from expat Brits, Indians, officers of the King's Royal hussars (the regiment that led the charge of the Light Brigade), a smattering of Canadians living in Thailand, and the most popular players, an absolutely stunning transgender team of "lady boys." (This eccentric team, aptly named the "Screwless Tuskers," has become a fixture of the King's Cup as a result of the team members' friendship with a prominent and wealthy expat who is a major supporter of the sport.)
During a week of matches, I sat on the edge of the football-sized field under white tents shading me from 35-degree heat and drank icy coconut milk. I watched teams from places such as Australia and Nepal ride elephants that seemed to delight in chasing the ball down the field, sometimes ignoring their riders and kicking the ball themselves with their huge grey feet.
Some of the elephant polo aficionados around me studied the seven-day tournament schedule with the intensity of Las Vegas gamblers. They follow elephant polo the way Canadians follow the Stanley Cup. And, like Shirley Kennedy, a British expat living in Bangkok, they know the names of players and which teams are strongest.
Kennedy, a follower of horse polo, loves the elephant version for its lumbering suspense. "The elephants are so slow compared to the horses, and you think they'll never get anywhere. But they do, and the surprise is delightful." (The top elephant speed is about 20 kilometres an hour.)
Like some of the mystified tourists around me, I was not familiar with horse polo, so I just let the wacky event unfold. The games even got quite exciting from time to time: The animals bumped up against each other, the riders poked at the tiny ball in the dirt with two-metre bamboo sticks, trying to whack it down to a goal post at the end of the field, and the crowd roared. Between matches there was a chance to talk to the riders. Heroes of the sport, such as Angad Kalaan of India, with his Bollywood looks and aristocratic bearing, were mobbed.
Elephant polo is above all a social event. Like an upscale tailgate party, its high-society players have replaced beer and chips with champagne and cucumber sandwiches.
"Any excuse for a party -- it just has to be on your calendar," Jim Edwards said. He should know. He's the co-inventor of elephant polo, an idea hatched at the bar of the St. Moritz Tobogganing club and sealed over a champagne lunch at the famed Tiger Tops Resort in Nepal. The "must-do" King's Cup is an opportunity to hobnob with friends who you haven't seen since quail-hunting season. These folks never miss an elephant polo tournament. It's easy not to, since there are only three: one in Nepal, another in Sri Lanka and this one in Thailand.
The King's Cup, in honour of the King of Thailand, is the most stylish of the trio. While the king never actually shows up, he does give his official blessing. That means there is a ceremonious opening parade with dozens of decorated elephants, Thai dancers, musicians shimmering in silk and gold, and polo players bedecked in satin.
The royal parade was an elaborate opening for a game whose rules are as simple as those of ringette. Two teams of three elephants, the polo players strapped onto their backs, face off. The riders tussle over a tiny ball in order to get it past their opponent's goal.
In between matches, which commence with the clang of a giant brass gong, the elephants lolled around on the sidelines, tearing huge branches off trees in the encroaching jungle. Now and then they wandered to the snack tables in search of bananas, until called back by their Thai trainers. I was even invited to climb up and got to ride around. That was more exciting than even the most intense moments of any match I saw.
Though the whole peculiar and entertaining event seemed to be just another indulgence for bored jetsetters, it was really about the elephants. The competition is a fundraiser for the Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre, a group that supports projects to protect elephants. The polo and the charity events surrounding the competition were organized by the Anantara Resort and Spa. Most of the elephant polo aficionados stayed at the six-hectare garden and beach resort, a reproduction of an old Thai village. The accommodation provided many opportunities to meet players around the pool and bar.
The highlight of the social events was a gala dinner and ball, where all the guests had to wear something made of silk. That gave me a chance to go into the small town to explore the silk shops and night market.
Hua Hin is Thailand's oldest beach resort and has an aristocratic history. For anyone longing for a feeling of Indochina, before cellphones and wall-to-wall condos, this is the place. The town that hosts the royal elephant event has been the summer home of the King since 1926. The streets are lined with illuminated billboard-sized portraits of the beloved Royal Family (His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit).
The town, once a small fishing village, still has the feel of old Siam. Unlike Thailand's other beach resorts, such as Phuket or Pattaya, which mainly attract foreign tourists, Hua Hin's mainstay, since the 1920s when the railway first came here, is well-to-do Thai tourists looking for a break from the summer swelter of Bangkok. Many have stunning homes along the eight-kilometre stretch of sandy beach -- all a perfect backdrop for a week of elephant polo. "Jolly nice, don't you think?" I was asked many times over the week. "Absolutely spiffing," I appropriately answered.
Next: Hua Hin