The Game That Attracts Wealthy Men and Lovely Ladies
By Eric Shackle
The peculiar sport of Elephant Polo, largely confined to the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, will be demonstrated in Thailand for the first time when an international three nations test series is played in Hua Hin, 238 kilometers south of Bangkok, from September 14 to 16.
Organisers say teams from Australia, Singapore Nepal, Sri Lanka, and two from Thailand will participate in what has been called "one of the world's fastest games on one of nature's slowest beasts."
The tournament will take place on a specially prepared field in a military camp. Hua Hin, on the Gulf of Siam, used to be a sanctuary frequented by the Thai Royal family and high society. So in some ways Hua Hin may have resembled the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, where the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) has its headquarters.
Judging by WEPA's website (www.elephantpolo.com), elephant polo is largely the preserve of wealthy men and beautiful women, who congregate at apres-jumbo parties to enjoy generous supplies of free liquor supplied by the sponsors.
Writing last December in the English magazine LOADED, Graham Wray said (rather unkindly) "This is toff country and no mistake. A high-class resort for high rollers. Outside, man-eating crocodiles, one-horned rhinos, Bengal tigers and leopards roam. But inside, and infinitely more scary, the place is chocca with Tobys, Tarquins, Ginnys and Jemimas. Most of them landowners (Gloucestershire in one case), Brigadiers or Major Generals. None with a chin to call their own... The whole event smacks of the English upper class having too much time on their hands.
"This year's line-up of celebrities is strictly F-list: a couple of Prince Charles's lackies, a British DJ from Nepal's only FM radio station, an Indian TV weathergirl and Miss Nepal... Apparently 25 marriages have resulted from passions that were sparked at elephant polo. [A girl told me] one night one of the drivers had sex with a very important lady on the back of his elephant."
Wray was reporting (and participating) in the 19th annual world championships at Kathmandu. The bizarre event attracted international media, including an NBC Today Show film crew, and journalists and photographers from Newsweek (UK), Brandeins and BMW magazines (both from Germany).
A year earlier, Jonathan Karp had written in the Wall Street Journal, "Alf Erickson, heir to a bread fortune and a collector of corkscrews, cheers from the sidelines as his team runs up the score against Steven Swig, a wealthy San Francisco lawyer who, when he gets home, plans to blast some of his father-in-law's cremated remains into space on a U.S. rocket...
"Jet-setters in jodhpurs, knee-high leather boots, pith helmets and Harrods riding gloves flail about on four-ton beasts, swinging 8-foot-long bamboo mallets. Some players are touching their first trunk not made by Louis Vuitton.The spectacle is prime entertainment for barefoot villagers who have gathered six deep around the field to gawk and gamble.
"'To play elephant polo,' says Jim Edwards, 61 years old and the tournament's founder and promoter, 'you need unarthritic hips, a well-padded bottom and a hip flask at all times.'
"The eight-team invitational tournament, held in one of the world's poorest countries, has become the haunt of globe-trotters who can afford the $5,000 entrance fee per team and the post-polo revelry at Mr. Edwards's $400-a-night jungle lodge. This year's clique boasts aristocrats from Nepal, India and Scotland, an Argentine-German baron and British Prince Edward's private secretary."
Elephant Polo was first played by moguls (Indian kings) but was "reinvented" in 1981 when two sporting eccentrics, an Englishman and a Scotsman, met at the St Moritz Bar, in Switzerland.
"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," Laurence Civil recounts in the August issue of Bangkok TIMEOUT Magazine.
'When Manclark discovered that Edwards owned elephants he suggested that elephant polo might be more exciting and adventurous than horse polo...
"Manclark thought no more of the idea until he read the famous telegram early in 1982: '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."
Both Edwards and Mandark are scheduled to take part in the Thai tournament. Two teams of three elephants will play two 10-minute chukkas. Players will use specially made mallets 98 to 110 inches in length, depending on the height of the elephant, and regular polo balls will be used.
Each elephant carries a polo player and a mahout, who directs the elephant by voice, hands, feet or a goad. The umpire oversees play from a wooden howdah on the back of the largest elephant.
Laurence Civil says:"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 neighbours must think."
Richard Lair, Advisor and Foreign Affairs Officer at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre and his team will oversee the tournament at Hua Hin. Lair, who has lived and worked with Asian elephants for 23 years, also directs an Elephant Art Project where elephants paint, and the Thai Elephant Orchestra.
"Thailand's 2,500 domesticated Asian elephants are the survivors of 100,000 last century," he says. "The biggest problem is to find suitable work that will enable their owners to continue keeping them. Elephants are intelligent creatures and enjoy interacting with humans, They are quick to pick up the skill of polo and in some cases have outwitted players."
Organisers face one other jumbo-size problem: "The piles of elephant poop can complicate the game," says Civil. "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.'"
Copyright © 2001. Eric Shackle Story first posted September 2001.