The Trunkvestite Wars

November 2003

Phruts Phungsai tosses her luxuriant mane of jet-black hair, brushes a fresh gob of elephant booger from her hot pink top, and flips open a mirror to check her make-up. Then utters a piercing shriek: "My earring! It's gone!"

Within seconds the leggy beauty, who happens to be, technically, a man, is stepping delicately amongst steaming heaps of pachyderm poop, uttering distraught little sobs. Three cohorts in matching skin-tight jerseys emblazoned with the legend "Screwless Tuskers" look up from their copies of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, hurriedly confer and then rush out onto the field to join the search.

They hop and prance and poke clods of turf, but to no avail. The rest break is over, the second chukka (polo-speak for a ten-minute round) is looming, and Phruts is just going to have to live with a naked earlobe. She sashays over to a wooden tower with two of her fellow players in tow, clutching an outsized mallet, ready to be strapped to her massive mount.

It's a strange introduction to an odd pursuit: elephant polo one of the few sports, along with tiddlywinks and perhaps synchronised swimming, where the hunt for missing jewellery can be considered a highlight. Indeed, to the uninitiated, elephant polo can appear a treacly, lumbering affair that proceeds in its own weird kind of slow-motion. By the third or fourth chukka, it's a blur of flailing mallets, grubby jodphurs, spit-polished leather and two-ton behemoths bumping off each other like wrinkly dodgems. Add a touch of sun and several ales, and it becomes so much visual valium for the casual observer.

It looks like the kind of lark cooked up by a bunch of public school types after a few too many gin and tonics which, of course, it is. "We were pissed," admits one of the sport's founding fathers, Jim Edwards, proprietor of Nepal's pukka Tiger Tops jungle lodge. "It's hardly the sort of thing you'd think up if you were sober."

Aficionados claim to appreciate the sport's finer points, and can spend hours engaged in passionate, well-lubricated debate over arcana such as off-side backhand shots, line drives, and which society matrons are shagging their mahouts.

Tournaments are held at erstwhile outposts of empire, or anywhere civilised enough to be within hollering distance of a cucumber sandwich and a Pimms: Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and, in this instance, Hua Hin, the sleepy beach resort south of Bangkok that is a holiday haunt of well-off Thais and the favoured residence of King Bhumibol Adulydej. The rules are relatively simple: two seven-minute chukkas, three players and three elephants per side, teams switch elephants at half-time. Longer versions of the polo mallet are used to whack a polo ball through a set of goalposts.

Teams comprise of the idle rich, the titled rich and the just plain filthy rich, leavened by a moustachioed smattering of military types; double - and triple-barrelled surnames abound, and players assume noms-de-polo like "Bombay Sapphire", "the Silver Fox" and "the Dark Horse of Delhi".

At least, that was until this year's King's Cup, when the face of elephant polo was forever changed with the appearance of the sport's first ever team of transsexuals.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the second chukka is about to begin," announces the commentator over a crackly PA system. "Please put your hands together for the Screwless Tuskers and Wepa Nepal." The latter turns out to be none other than Edwards' team, comprising the old campaigner and his two sons. "Kristjan Edwards," the program informs us, "is a keen sportsman known for his prowess on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. He also sails, plays tennis and horse polo and has been riding elephants since he was a child. Tim has just left Harrow School, is on his gap year, and spends most of his holidays in the jungles of Nepal searching out tigers, rhinos and other game."

Up against them are four leggy and glamorous creatures of indeterminate gender assembled by an eccentric Floridian, retired attorney and scion of a baking dynasty named Alf Leif Erickson.

"Do your best, girls," urges Erickson, as his charges - katoeys in the local parlance, pre-operative transsexuals to their doctors, ladyboys to you and me ascend a rickety ladder to a platform and are one by one strapped by tight ropes onto their beasts. Given the elephants' ridged and knobby spines, and the certain degree of, ahem, tucking and splashes out in pursuit of his passions, namely hot air ballooning, collecting rare corkscrews, and assembling elephant polo teams. None are pursuits for the pauper: to enter a team in the King's Cup, for instance, will cost you US$10,000, and that's before you factor uniforms, accommodation and entertainment into the equation. Not to mention, in Erickson's case, a surprise pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong to take his team shopping.

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