Friday, August 30, 2013

The Elephant on the Pitch

Pachyderms power up the pitch during the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament.

I went to the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Hua Hin this week. Elephant polo is a real thing. It’s like regular polo except it’s played in elephants instead of horses. There’s an annual elephant polo tournament in Hua Hin, about 3 hours south of Bangkok. 

The tournament is sponsored and hosted by Anantara Resort in Hua Hin, it’s a fund raiser for elephant rescue and to help abused elephants. 

Traditional polo (played on horses) was developed in Persia (Iran) more than a thousand years ago as a training regimen for elite cavalry units. Elephant polo was developed in Nepal about 30 years ago by a couple of guys who I’m guessing had too much to drink. 
Thai dancers get things started at the opening ceremony of the tournament. Music was provided by a local high school marching band that played the Marine Corps Hymn

Elephant polo is played by teams of three. 

There are two people atop each elephant. The player and the mahout. The player’s job is to 1) stay on his or her elephant and 2) whack the ball when ball whacking is required. The mahouts are local elephant  handlers who know how to make an elephant go in the right direction. Many of the players also play horse polo and very competitive, but riding and guiding a horse is a lot different from riding and guiding an elephant, hence the mahouts. 
Player and mahout atop a pachyderm. 

An elephant polo pitch (field) is about half the size of a horse polo field. Which makes it very easy for the photographers on the sidelines to run up and down the field and photograph the game, which is pretty slow. For one thing, elephants are not as fast as horses. Then there are the players, who are sort of lashed to the elephant on a saddle that’s little more than a blanket and ropes. The mahouts ride more or less bareback.  The elephants don’t gallop up field as much as they do trundle around the field. 

It’s a bizarre spectacle. On one hand, the competitive polo players take it quite seriously and are there to win. On the other hand, it’s polo on elephants. 

I enjoyed photographing the elephant polo. It was completely different from anything else I’ve done in Thailand. The closest thing I can compare it to you is water buffalo racing in Chonburi. The people at Anantara were great hosts and the tournament supports a good cause. 
A mahout decorates his mount. 

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