Ladyboys versus All Blacks: is this the world's weirdest sport?

Just before the whistle blows, it occurs to me that this must be the weirdest sporting event I've witnessed.

Not only because of the sport itself – this is elephant polo in Thailand, fairly similar to traditional polo on horseback but slower paced and with the players using much longer mallets – but this is a particularly weird match of elephant polo.

It's not just the animals, it's the players. On one side, a team of former All Blacks – giants of men, still fit and competitive. On the other side, a team of kathoey – ladyboys – from one of Patpong's famous cabaret clubs.

It's the most unusual match-up in a series of matches played over six days at the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in Hua Hin, south of Bangkok.

This match is just an exhibition game for a bit of fun but the All Blacks have been playing in the real tournament – with limited success.

In elephant polo, each elephant carries two people – the driver, or mahout, who already has a strong relationship with his animal, and the player, who is responsible for swinging the mallet.

Most of the players, except the All Blacks and ladyboys, have experience in regular polo, though one player says it doesn't help much. Being on the back of an elephant puts the player much further away from the ground and the length and weight of the mallet also makes it quite difficult to give the ball a decent knock.

Nevertheless, the goals come thick and fast.Once the ball is hit, it's very difficult to stop it as the mahouts guide their lumbering beasts around the field.

The home of the tournament is the resort town of Hua Hin, about three hours' drive from Bangkok, traditionally the holiday home of Thailand's royal family and a popular weekend escape for Bangkok residents. But, while it has plenty of high-rise hotels, fine sand and warm ocean water, it's not crowded with tourists the way some of the country's other hotspots can be.

The tournament is put on by resort operator Anantara, which is keen to point out that the event, which raises money for Anantara's Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation charity, takes the welfare of the elephants seriously.

The company says all elephants in the tournament are domesticated, having been rescued and moved to Anantara's elephant camp in the north of the country, or taken from the streets with their mahout for the duration of the tournament, giving them an opportunity to be well fed and receive medical check-ups.

This last point is important as the plight of the domestic elephant in Thailand is a sad one. Once gainfully employed throughout the country in farming and forestry, domestic elephants and their drives have gradually been replaced with modern machinery. This makes both elephant and mahout unemployed, seeking income from street performing, despite the practice being outlawed.

Elephant polo originated in Nepal where the sport took off in the early 1980s. It is now played in Nepal, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

While many of the rules follow those of traditional polo, there are some key differences. Due to the size of the elephants, there are only three animals per team (compared with four horses in normal polo) and there are a few quirky rules. For example, picking up the ball (which an elephant may occasionally do with its trunk) is a no-no and will result in a penalty. It was not such a problem in the earlier days of the sport when soccer balls were used instead of polo ones. But that led to another problem – the tendency for the elephants to kick or stomp on the ball.

Before the tournament starts, I get a chance to go "backstage" (back paddock would be more accurate) and meet some of the elephants. They vary in size and age but we're told that only young, energetic animals are allowed to take part. This brief visit gives me an opportunity to see the rapport between the mahouts and their animals. At one point, a mahout leans too far over and his sunglasses fall from his head to the ground. He whispers a word to his elephant and the polite pachyderm quickly picks up the glasses with its trunk and passes them back to him.

Back on the field, the Ladyboys and the All Blacks are slugging it out. The Ladyboys have been given a head start but the All Blacks are rapidly catching up.

Many of the teams – named after their corporate sponsors including Citibank, Johnny Walker and Mercedes-Benz – take the event quite seriously and, even though it's only an exhibition match, the All Blacks are no exception.

The All Blacks win and avoid facing headlines of “Ladyboys beat All Blacks”. I retire to one of the marquees for refreshments.

The writer travelled as a guest of the Thai Tourism Authority.

This year's King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament will take place in Hua Hin from August 28 to September 1. For details, visit http://anantaraelephantpolo.com

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