Bangkok TIMEOUT Magazine, August 2001
The elephant has played a vital role in the history of Thailand and has become a symbol of the kingdom. It's believed to be a symbol of good luck both to HM the King and the Kingdom. But in today's changing world elephants like humans need gainful employment. One such opportunity could be the introduction of Elephant Polo that will be first played in Thailand this September.
Elephant polo was first played in 1975 by the Maharajah of Jaipur. However the World Elephant Polo Association was born when two sporting eccentrics met over Martinis at the St Moritz Bar, Switzerland in 1981. James Manclark, a Scottish landowner, international polo player and former British bobsleigh champion was introduced to Jim Edwards, the executive chairman of the Tiger Mountain Group, who had just completed his first Cresta Run. In the course of their conversation when Manclark discovered that Edwards owned elephants he suggested that elephant polo might be more exciting and adventurous than horse polo. What crazy ideas we have in bars! Manclark thought no more of the idea until he read the famous telegram early in 1982 that read 'Arriving Katmandu 1 April, have long sticks, get elephant ready.' What could have been taken as an outrageous April Fool's joke was in fact how the sport was born in Nepal.
The first WEPA championship was not a brilliant success, as the elephant took great delight in stamping on the soccer balls used in the early days, enjoying the sound of them bursting. Several of the players found it difficult to remain on the cushions strapped to the elephants' backs. But the seeds of the sport were planted and it just needed a little fine-tuning. The rules were revised, the use of an ordinary polo ball, a leather saddle with rope stirrups and an oversized girth were introduced.
Now the sport is coming to Thailand with the first international three nations test series to be played in Hua Hin on 15-16th September. "The Hua Hin Hotel Association were looking for new ways to promote the destination," said Christ Stafford GM, of Anantara Resort & Spa. "They came up with the idea of Elephant Polo. As this will give a positive role for elephants in the kingdom, the Thai Elephant Conservation Association in Lampang is lending its name to the event and 50% of the money raised will be donated to their charity. In addition there will be an auction of Elephant paintings, elephant polo sticks and other memorabilia to raise funds for the association at the elephant Ball." Before the start of the Polo Ball there will be a buffet for the elephants. They shouldn't miss out on the party.
"The even will be held at Military Camp 16, a few kms south of Hua Hin heading towards Pranburi," said Stafford. "It will be played in accordance with WEPA Rules on a field 120x70 meters, about a third the size of a normal polo ground. The four three-man teams will play each other on a league table basis on Saturday. The finals will be played on Sunday between the top two teams, with the other two playing for 3rd place."
"We have eight elephants based in Hua Hin," he continued, "and an additional four from the same family being trucked from Surin with their Mahouts. Col Raj Kalaan who was involved in elephant polo in Jaipur, will be coming to Thailand to train the elephants, mahouts and two teams representing Thailand. The visitors from Nepal and Sri Lanka will also have to familiarise themselves with Thai elephants. During the nine days training period Col Raj will have the opportunity to assess the skills and weaknesses of all the players, mahouts and elephants, allowing him to allocate the elephants fairly into four teams. The smaller elephants are used in the attacking role while the more solid elephants play in defence."
Jim Edwards compared Elephant Polo to "trying to play golf from a slow moving Land Rover," although one disillusioned lady said it felt more like being strapped onto the roof of a double decker bus with a flat tyre.
The mahouts are critical to each team's success, as the players are completely dependent on getting them to maneuver the elephant close to the ball. Team captains have been known to offer incentives to their mahout to ensure a good day's play. As they only speak Thai, the Kingdom's team will have an advantage with communication. This should help to compensate for the fact that none of them have ever played Elephant Polo before.
The secret of winning at Elephant Polo is getting a fast elephant and keeping on good terms with the mahout. "Elephant Polo is like sex or war - one per cent action and 99 percent maneuverability," explained one player.
"Quite simply," says Jim Edwards, "it's hilarious." You really can't take it too seriously, as the elephants control the game. But it's competitive, too, and as teams from all over the world ask to play we can afford to choose a fun mix. But the nice things is that it's the game that's most important, not winning."
Mallets are 98 to 110 inches long; more than double the length and weight of an equestrian polo stick. New players often complain that their wrists ached when they first play polo. Many bandage their wrists to provide that little bit more strength for the under trunk shots. Originally the mallets were styled on the traditional polo mallet but were found to be too whippy when playing from an elephant. With the new mallets the upper section is bamboo for stiffness with cane for the lower section to allow for flexibility.
As part of their fitness preparation some players stand in their swimming pools swinging a golf club one handed through the water to strengthen their wrists. Ladies are allowed to hold the stick with two hands. As part of her preparation one lady hangs over the balcony of her house hitting a tennis ball with a broom. I wonder what the neighbour must think.
The piles of elephant poop can complicate the game. On one occasion the ball landed between two sizably large piles of elephant dung. Raj Kalaan, a former five goal Indian polo player, technical adviser to the tournament and Captain of the Sri Lankan team, took aim and not only hit the polo ball but sent generous portions of elephant dung sailing into the face of a member of the opposing team. An objection was lodged, but when the umpire checked there are no rules prohibiting such inadvertent behaviour. The verdict was an 'act of nature.'
The tournament will be played under the rules of the WEPA in Hua Hin with two minor changes, each team has three rather than four players and elephants will not be changed at half time.
"In equestrian polo, 70% of success depends on the speed of the pony," commented Oliver Winter, the man responsible for the re-introduction of equestrian polo to Thailand and Captain of Thailand A Team. "With elephant polo the equation is different: 30% elephant, 40% mahout and 30% the player. All of the players from Thailand have experience of the game on horseback but none of us have played the game on elephant-back.
"The challenges we face are communicating with the mahouts and leaning out far enough to hit the ball. Riding a polo pony is like driving a fast sports car. We have total control of how fast and where we are going. I see the elephant experience as being chauffeured around in a large 4x4.
"For me it's not so much a challenge but a great sense of royal pageantry. Rather than wearing my normal polo helmet with visor - that would be at home on the baseball field - I will wear a 30 year old pith helmet from India and traditional brown lace-up polo boots. I hope they might convey a sense of the British Raj in India and Burma."