Jumbo Games

by Julie Miller

It only took seven minutes for me to become addicted to elephant polo – one chukka of pachyderm madness that would forever change my life. From the moment I slid from a bamboo tower onto a makeshift saddle, legs akimbo across my friendly jumbo’s back, I was hooked; it was simply the most ridiculous, craziest and coolest thing I had ever attempted.

I’m no sportsperson, mind, but it’s amazing how the competitive spirit took hold as I flailed wildly at the little white ball; my trusty steed plodding into the enormous fray, two-metre-long bamboo mallets clashing amid a logjam of grey wrinkly flesh.

To the casual observer, this so-called sport, not surprisingly devised over cocktails by two drunken colonials, is the slowest, stupidest game on the planet. But being on the back of an elephant, challenging body and mind with a task requiring concentration, hand-eye coordination, gumption and balls (of the testosterone-creating variety) is up there with the all-time great adrenaline-pumping thrills.

One saved goal, a few pathetic hits and bucket-loads of sweat later, I retire to a thatched shelter to cool off with a cleansing Pimms, chuffed with my success and newfound addiction. And now the real fun begins – conversing with my fellow elephant polo aficionados, an eclectic mix of professional horse polo players, B-grade celebrities, English toffs, ballerinas and adventurers. Every one of them is bonkers, plain and simple, with the common trait of not taking life too seriously. Because let’s face it, when your main claim to fame is world elephant polo champion, you need a sense of humour.

Held in the lush Golden Triangle region of northern Thailand, the annual Kings Cup Elephant Polo tournament is not only an excuse for a jolly good party, but it’s also a notable charity event. This is the serious side of the sport – raising awareness and funds to support various elephant projects. In 2007, the funds raised by both the polo event and a charity auction went towards buying an elephant ambulance; while in 2009, the money was used to rescue five street elephants, retraining them to work with autistic children in a ground-breaking therapy program.

While the idea of chasing a little white ball around a paddock is not every pachyderm’s idea of fun (though having said that, many of them love it, trumpeting with glee, trunks held high as they charge down the pitch), the two weeks these elephants spend at the tournament are in effect a working holiday, a world apart from their usual life plodding the streets of Bangkok, begging for tourist dollars.

This is the real aim of the event – to showcase a better life for the elephant’s mahout owners, encouraging them to give up their life on the streets for a more worthwhile, sustainable and happier livelihood such as working in the tourist industry.

It’s a win-win for the elephants, their owners … and for happy players, like me. Tally-ho! (or whatever polo players say)…

WHEN: The Kings Cup Elephant Polo is held every year in March.

WHERE: The event is hosted by the Anantara Golden Triangle near Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.

FURTHER INFORMATION: www.anantaraelephantpolo.com

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