Bangkok’s annual Elephant Polo Tournament is a “big” deal in every way
From March 9th to 12th this year the 15th edition of the prestigious King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament was held at the Anantara Riverside Resort. The annual event—in aid of elephant related charities—is overseen by the World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA), which was formed in 1982, in Nepal, at Tiger Tops (where the first elephant polo matches were played). WEPA has strict rules concerning the welfare and care of any of the elephants competing under its auspices, and oversee all polo matches played in both Thailand and Nepal.
The sport was first brought to Thailand by long-term Thai resident Chris Stafford, from Sweden, while he was working for Anantara in Hua Hin (where the first King’s Cup was staged back in 2001). The Anantara group, who also founded the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation charity, has developed this event over the last 16 years, and today it is one of the most successful charitable pageants in the Kingdom, as well as one of the highlights of Bangkok’s social calendar.
For the last two years the fun and games have been held in Bangkok, on land adjoining the Anantara Riverside Resort, on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Marquees, tents, entertainment areas, and food stalls spring magically up to create a carnival-like atmosphere that attendees new and old never fail to enjoy—wining, dining, and cheering on your chosen team.
On day one the event kicks off with a Brahmin blessing ceremony of the elephants, and a traditional Thai dance performance by beautiful young Thai women. This is followed by a gigantic fruit buffet for the elephants, where tons of fruit and veg—laid out on trestle tables—are happily gobbled up by the munching pachyderms.
An elephant eats about 250 kg of food per day, and over the course of the four days the 25 elephants that came down to Bangkok by truck from Surin consumed 7,200 bunches of pineapples, 600 bunches of bananas, 9,000 sticks of sugar cane, and 12 tonnes of elephant grass! Trucks were continually arriving throughout the four days to the private compound of the elephants, away from the noise and crowds. This compound was where the team of vets, and an elephant osteopath from the UK, Tony Nevin, took care of all their jumbo needs.
In the afternoon of the first day the first matches are played. The mahouts (elephant handlers), do not speak English for the most part, and the players do not speak Thai, but there is an innovative way that they communicate with each other. The mahout wears a shirt with phonetically printed Thai written on the back so that the players can instruct him to take the elephant forwards, or backwards, and turn left or right.
Day two this year was ‘Kid’s Day’, wherein parties of schoolchildren from Bangkok and further afield came to learn all about elephants at special classes, and had the opportunity to get up close to them. The young visitors included disabled and autistic kids, who were thrilled to meet the gentle giants face to face. Meanwhile, matches continued throughout the day, and the party atmosphere was in full swing.
The third day was ‘Ladies Day’, informally known as the Thai Ascot. As you might imagine, Bangkok’s fairest were in attendance, bedecked in their finery, and showing off their stunning headwear. The dazzle they created outshone even the bright sun that day. And while polo matches again continued throughout the day, there was just as much of a competitive mood leading up to the announcement of the ‘Best Dressed (and Hatted) Lady’, which was revealed after that evening’s fashion show.
The fourth and final day featured live jazz performances, as well as the finalist teams battling it out to be crowned the 2017 champions. There had been 10 teams in the competition, but of course there could have been only one winner. Some of the teams were not really expected to win, especially when going up against experienced powerhouse clubs like King Power (champions of the previous two years), and teams such as Casillero del Diablo, who had help from Argentine experts, and team Mekhong, who had polo playing superstars Uday and Adang Kalaan playing for them.
But all teams, without fail, gave their best, especially the fiercely competitive All Blacks team of Price Waterhouse Coopers, featuring Olo Brown and Charlie ‘Don Juan’ Riechelmann. The ten teams comprised 40 players in total, coming from all walks of life—sportsmen, supermodels, celebrities, businessmen, and so on. They come to Thailand once a year to meet up at the King’s Cup, and have become much like an extended family, or an exclusive club. They give of their time for free, and are bewildered how they can have so much fun whilst still raising so much money for elephant charities. This year B4,000,000 was raised by the sponsors and the spectators (attendance reached the 5,000 mark). The overall grand total raised, since the tournaments began, now stands at US$1.4 million, and it has all gone towards helping elephants living in Thailand, and other nearby Asian countries.
Finally, after intense competition, the four day sporting event came to its nail-biting conclusion… a showdown between King Power and Mekhong. It was an exciting final match, and in the last two minutes of the final chukka the Kalaan brothers—Uday and Adang—scored three times, thereby winning it 11 to 10 for team Mekhong. The new champions were presented with their winning trophy by Royal Representative Privy Councillor HE Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukbhasuk, and the CEO of the Minor Corporation William Heinecke, along with his wife Kathy.
The spectacular King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament is now firmly entrenched as a ‘must see’ in Thailand. Clear space in your calendar now for next year—same elephant time, same elephant place!
By Robin Westley Martin