Elephants are much more competitive than you might think. At least that’s the impression I got sitting pitch side during the King’s Cup, an annual series of polo matches played by Babar types in the southern Thailand beach town of Hua Hin.
What happens over the course of the four-day games—a fundraiser for a Chiang Rai elephant preserve—is this: A series of pachyderms, each accompanied by his mahout, a lifelong trainer and companion, tromps across a field decorated with advertiser’s banners and flanked by well-heeled devotees clinking fruity cocktails and wearing statement hats. The massive, gentle creatures make a show of chasing the ball and playing a serious game, all to roars from the appreciative crowd roared whenever a goal is scored. If it sounds like the Kentucky Derby with a Southeast Asian twist, that’s because it more or less is.
The 12th annual event, which last fall drew crowds from all over the world—thanks to the elephants, of course, but also celebrity guests, a series of high-profile events and even a formidable team from the infamous transgender Thai cabaret troupe Miss Tiffany’s—is the creation of William Heinecke, the American-born Thai magnate whose Anantara hotel group hosts the affair. Indeed, Heinecke also bankrolls the elephant preserve in the Golden Triangle, which takes in creatures that could otherwise end up as malnourished street performers or worse.
Initially, of course, the idea sounds funny; elephant polo might as well precede rhinoceros synchronized swimming in the petting zoo Olympics. But on the ground, the spectacle was something incredible to watch. The animals proved surprisingly capable of moving speedily—when they weren’t standing still, staring off into space—and the bark of an announcer gave things the feel of a true game. Of course, most sporting events don’t feature prayer interludes with monks blessing the creatures or an eye-popping buffet for the animals. Have you ever seen an elephant eat a pineapple? He’ll pick up the fruit with his trunk, toss it to the ground, smash it with an enormous hoof and then gleefully toss the bits into his maw. It’s messy, a bit scary and completely mesmerizing. That’s what I’d call a half-time show.
Polo isn’t the only thing Hua Hin has to offer. Despite the hard-to-escape games, which were touted all over town with posters and an obvious influx of tourists, the town’s other highlights—including a buzzing, sprawling night market, great local bars and restaurants and the royal family’s old summer palace, a gorgeous place to soak up Thai history and architecture—were a solid way to bolster the visit. Additionally, Heinecke and his hotel chain hosted a series of events, culminating in a black-tie gala with live entertainment and an auction (where Heinecke himself seemed to be the high bidder) to benefit elephant welfare.
Still, the main attraction was precisely that. Whether I was watching the dirt fly as elephants manned by the team from Miss Tiffany’s or taking in a match featuring the New Zealand All Blacks, the oversized ostentation of watching elephants play polo trumped managed to, well, stamp out most of the other experiences I had in Hua Hin. Elephant polo might never have the following (or the speed) of its horseback brethren, but when it’s done like this, it’s a sensation spectacle sure to make a lasting impression on any visitor. Even more so if he brings his own pineapple.