“Let’s face it: Elephants are boring,” I emailed a friend from my BlackBerry during a sluggish, scorching day at the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Hua Hin, Thailand. Despite the creative ways tourism and elephants intersect in the country—there are rice paddy excursions, splashy river baths, even a romantic wine tasting tour of a Thai vineyard atop a four-tonner—it’s hard to jazz up the pachyderm.
A week after my jaded message, I found myself humbled—staring down the barrel of a nine-foot cane mallet and scrambling to stay atop Jenny, a young, sassy, 6,000-pound elephant with a fondness for food.
Elephant polo sounded totally obnoxious to me at first, and attending a match in resort-y Hua Hin confirmed some of my preconceptions—gin-blossomed Brits and wealthy Aussie blowhards hobnobbed and swapped “ellie” safari stories. The Thai mahouts, or elephant trainers, went largely ignored. But when a friend told me you could learn to play elephant polo in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Burma and Thailand converge, I was intrigued enough to head to the misty bamboo forests along the Mekong River.
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is a 250-acre camp near Chiang Rai, jointly run by the Four Seasons and Anantara Hotels. The camp provides a sanctuary for 30 former street elephants—domesticated animals once dragged around city streets areas by mahout beggars.
I stayed at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, an enclave of 15 luxurious guest tents situated in a tall bamboo grove along the silty Ruak River, a Mekong tributary. Each room is fitted with hand-hammered copper bathtubs and overlooks the misty mountains of Burma and Laos; guests arrive by long-tail boat.
My first morning, as I stumbled out of my tent and down the foggy path to the dining terrace, I saw a large blur of gray moving in the mist ahead of me. I heard gentle, low-frequency bellows. Four other hotel guests, it turned out, were feeding fresh bananas to a mother and baby elephant, just five feet from their own breakfast tables. It was the first in a series of events that would make me fall for elephants all over again.
Monsoon season had flooded the regular polo pitch, so we played on a temporary one, double the size of a typical suburban lawn and landscaped with bamboo. Class starts at 9 a.m. Any earlier and it’s too misty; any later and it’s too hot. The first thing you learn about the sport is that you’re not the only one on board. The mahout acts as translator and pilot, guiding the animals with commands like “pai,” which means go forward, “soak” (go backward) and most important, “how,” or stop.
My mahout, Scug, sat on Jenny’s neck, facing her back and wielding a large sickle-like tool, which resembled no polo gear I’d seen before. It suddenly seemed wise to be respectful of the mahout. Nobody likes a backseat driver, I reminded myself, and 10 feet off the ground is not where you want things to go wrong. The elephants sense you more than you realize. This is the second thing you learn.
Scug helped me mount Jenny—no easy task. The elephant laid down with her legs crossed in front of her while I awkwardly climbed into a bizarre saddle contraption. Her skin was coarse and covered in stiff hair. Before Scug could get my seatbelt on, Jenny stood up and began to lumber forward. “Map long, map long!” shouted Scug, which I presumed meant something like “how.” But Jenny had other plans.
“She’s eager to play,” I said to my mahout, who spoke no English and found the situation humorless. Jenny was heading directly toward a pond, but pulled up at what must have been a very appealing tree. Everyone thinks elephants move slowly, but when you’re atop one like Jenny bee-lining towards a snack, it feels pretty speedy. “How, how, how!” yelled Scug. Try as they might, the mahouts know that only one thing really motivates these animals: food. Jenny chewed on a mouthful of leaves while Scug scolded her. I was delighted—Jenny was a rule-breaking glutton. We were clearly made for each other.
I competed against Vikas Arora, the Four Seasons’ assistant camp manager, also playing for the first time. I was pleased to see that Mr. Arora, a Mumbai transfer, mounted his elephant with no more grace than I had. With that, the match began.
The gist of elephant polo is the same as in regular polo: Hit the ball towards your goal. In elephant polo, however, your mallet is an unwieldy nine-feet long, and it’s easy to lose sight of the ball under the massive animals. But the biggest challenge, so to speak, is staying on your “vehicle,” especially while focusing on the ball. I kept sliding off Jenny the way a pat of butter rolls off a stack of pancakes. Nevertheless, I was able to take a few swings with the mallet and, after a while, knock the ball into the goal. I nicked Jenny’s thick, wrinkled legs a few times, but she didn’t notice—or maybe she did, but forgave me because we were winning.
Some cite India as the birthplace of elephant polo. The World Elephant Polo Association, as ancient as it sounds, only came about in the early 1980s and has its headquarters at the Tiger Tops camp in Meghauli, Nepal. For those who think the sport cruel, it’s important to note that the elephants in the Golden Triangle were rescued from the harsh streets of Bangkok; and unlike at other camps, the foundation has strict rules regarding the sourcing and treatment of the elephants. “Some mahouts are known to catch wild elephants and sell them to non-profit groups,” says John Roberts, director of elephants at the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation. “We ‘rent’ the elephants and offer a place to live for both them and their mahouts.”
On the pitch that morning, I managed to rack up a few more points, and eventually scored in a way that would have made Nacho proud. Hospitality might prevent Vikas from revealing a shred of disappointment, but I sensed his defeat. I patted Jenny, who had been motionless for a few minutes, and said “good girl,” assuming she was gloating too. Looking down, I realized she was too busy eating the bamboo goal post to care.
The Lowdown: Chiang Rai, Thailand
Getting There: Mae Fah Luang-Chiang Rai International Airport receives several flights from Bangkok each day. Kan Air offers charter flights between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai with aerial views of the Thai highlands. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation is about 40 miles from the airport; the Anantara and Four Seasons offer shuttle service for guests. The drive by car from Chiang Mai is about four hours and no less beautiful than the flight.
Where to Stay: The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle has 15 guest tents nestled into a lush bamboo forest overlooking the Ruak River (from $1,950 per night, all-inclusive, fourseasons.com). The 77-room Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa is a lodge decked out in teak furniture and surrounded by Bill Bensley’s famed gardens (from about $275 per night, goldentriangle.anantara.com).
Where to Eat: The coconut curries and BBQ dishes are standouts at Salungkham Cuisine (834/3 Phaholyothin Rd.). Locally grown and roasted coffee and homemade pies, cakes and sweets compete with mountain views at Sweetmaesalong Café (41/3 Moo 1 Maesalongnok, sweetmaesalong.multiply.com).
How to Play: The Four Seasons and Anantara can arrange elephant activities. Rates at the Four Seasons are high but include meals (even breakfast with the elephants), drinks, spa usage, activities, airport transfer and elephant polo. Anantara offers a one-day mahout training course for $157 per person. Those not staying on either property can visit the foundation during off-season. helpingelephants.org