views
IT&rsquo;S not often you get to stand in an over-sized shower in a deluxe hotel room watching elephants grazing in the distance through the morning mist, let alone find yourself, just hours later, sipping a glass of champagne watching those very same majestic creatures at much closer range, ambling around a polo pitch.<br /><br />Elephant polo, where players swap ponies for pachyderms, has been called the &ldquo;biggest, weirdest, slowest and most expensive game in Thailand&rdquo;.<br /><br />The highlight of the (admittedly limited) season is the King&rsquo;s Cup Elephant Polo tournament and this year it took place in the Golden Triangle in the country&rsquo;s northernmost reaches, where 12 international teams battled trunk to trunk for the much sought-after title.<br /><br />It might seem odd, but there is actually an elephant polo circuit, with the core players meeting several times a year in a season that also travels to Nepal and Sri Lanka. With its champagne, jodhpurs and high jinks, it has all the makings of a Jilly Cooper novel &ndash; albeit on a much, much grander scale.<br /><br />The tournament I saw took place on a riverside pitch in the grounds of the breath-taking five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort located 60km miles from the city of Chiang Rai, perched on a ridge at the point where Burma, Laos and Thailand converge. From its small beginnings &ndash; if an event with elephants can ever be described as such &ndash; this tournament has now become a major event in the Thai tourism calendar, and raises money for the Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre, which works to highlight the plight of these creatures whose numbers are plummeting. This year, 1.9m baht (&pound;38,000) was raised, which will go towards providing medical care, sustenance, employment and training to the country&rsquo;s elephant population and their keepers.<br /><br />Of course, the game itself is quite a sight. A large gong sounds, and two teams of three players &ndash; kitted out in full polo-playing attire &ndash; head on to the 100m pitch wielding their extra-long sticks from atop their noble steeds for the length of two seven-minute &ldquo;chukkas&rdquo;. There is a referee and strict rules of play which, among other things, forbid the elephants from lying down in front of the goal mouth or picking up the ball in their trunks.<br /><br />Obviously, there was no way that I was going to be kept off one of these magnificent beasts, and there&rsquo;s no better place to learn. The Anantara Golden Triangle is pachyderm paradise all year round, and the resort actually has its own on-site elephant camp, where guests can train as &ldquo;elephant trainers&rdquo; or &ldquo;mahouts.&rdquo;<br /><br />My elephant was a pretty creature with a long mud-spattered trunk and pink wrinkly ears, and within minutes I was learning how to mount and dismount this gentle giant by climbing on to a raised foreleg and hauling myself up on to her neck by clutching the top of her ear. With a few elephant commands added to my vocabulary, we then lumbered out of the mahout village and along the dirt track towards the river, me shouting: &ldquo;Pai, pai,&rdquo; at my new and somewhat stubborn friend. A little while later we reached the water&rsquo;s edge, and our elephant procession waded into the lake, allowing us to bathe with these gracious creatures as they rolled over to cool down.<br /><br />I&rsquo;m not sure my elephant could understand much of what I was saying as I stood ankle-deep in muck gently splashing water over her, but I can only imagine from the amount of water she was spraying over me that she was enjoying it too. I will remember the experience for a very long time, too.<br /><br />The Kings Cup Elephant Polo 2010 takes place on 15 March 2010. Details including spectator packages will be available on www.anantaraelephantpolo.com nearer the time.&nbsp;For more information on the elephant camp go to www.helpingelephants.org and for travel advice and news visit www.tourismthailand.co.uk or telephone 0870 900 2007.