Elephant Polo

7 May

Elephant polo? Yes, you read that correctly. Elephant polo, as in the game of polo played on elephant-back. Back in March, one of the fancier hotels here in Bangkok, the Anantara, hosted the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. The tournament is meant to be a fundraiser for the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. We had mixed feelings about attending the polo matches; it seems odd to exploit elephants for tourists to raise money to rescue elephants from being exploited for tourists. On the other hand, any sort of elephant conservation is a good thing, and the tournament promised the polo-playing pachyderms were well treated, so off we went.

Kristi, Jen, and I made the long trek down to the Anantara Riverside via taxi, and then a much shorter journey to the polo fields via complimentary tuk tuk. Our tuk tuk driver had a grand old time with us, IMG_1720taking our picture and making vroom vroom noises as he drove. We were pleasantly surprised to find the polo grounds uncrowded. Tents were set up with food and beverage vendors, and the elephants had lovely shady spots reserved for them away from the field. The actual polo field wasn’t that large. Normal polo has four players a team, but since elephants are more sizable than ponies, they played three on three. The field was roped off, but one could stand directly next to the field and be up close to the action.

Elephant polo was highly entertaining to watch! Each elephant had a mahout (the elephant’s trainer and guide), and a farang polo player mounted on top. The mahouts were barefoot; they ride the elephants with their feet tucked behind the giant ears, using foot nudges and verbal commands to steer the elephants. The western polo players were completely strapped down and wearing traditional polo gear – they must have been broiling in the hot sun! It was obvious that the polo players were accustomed to horseback; the lumbering pace of the elephants clearly frustrated a few of them. There was one elephant however, who seemed to be IMG_6372truly enjoying the game. He/she ran laps around the other elephants, moving at a spritely pace for an animal so large. As a result, D2’s player scored the vast majority of the goals. I don’t want to naively put human emotions on to an animal, but either D2’s mahout was exceptionally organized, or the elephant was actually enjoying him/herself. The polo elephants are normally working elephants, so perhaps a weekend spent playing polo was a welcome change of pace. I heard later that they used to use soccer balls instead of real polo balls for the matches, but the elephants found it amusing to pop the balls and kept stepping on them on purpose. 🙂 Here is a little montage of the elephants in action!

Aside from watching the matches, we had a lovely time socializing and wandering about. An additional fundraiser involving artistic elephant statues (a.k.a. the Elephant Parade) was in progress, and some of the elephants were quite colorful and/or wacky. For a couple million baht we could have purchased our own Chang beer themed elephant statue! Jen found one that was color coordinated with IMG_4528her dress, and I found one painted with American landmarks. Attending a polo match calls for sundresses, fancy hats, and classy beverages, and many members of the crowd were quite dressed up. Unfortunately, none of us had fancy hats, so we made up for it with the beverages!

The final event of the day was a feast for the elephants. As the matches came to an end, a full fruit and veggie buffet was laid out on tablecloths for the elephants. With their mahouts aboard, the elephants lined up at the table and gobbled mangoes, string beans, corn, lettuce, and other tasty items. The spectators were allowed to stand on the other side of the table and hand nibbles to the elephants. I was tickled pink that I got to feed them! I found one that was partial to papaya and fed him/her about a zillion. I offered a red cabbage at one point; the elephant popped it into its mouth, then reached back in with its trunk and unceremoniously tossed it aside. Cabbage rejected ~ bring on more papaya! I still have mixed feelings about the treatment of the elephants, and the event overall, but I have to say I left the venue feeling fairly positive. Would elephants naturally be playing polo? Clearly not. Were they miserable? No, I don’t think they were. If the event raised funds to actually help some elephants, then I think it was a day well-spent.

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One Response to “Elephant Polo”

  1. Elaine McCormick June 6, 2016 at 7:16 pm #

    Gayle would have absolutely loved to be at the Elephant Polo match with you; I will be sure to share this with her. I am so excited about my visit in August; see you then!

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