HUA HIN, THAILAND—"Ping! Ping! Fight! Never give up!"
The cheerleader has a light beard and waves pink Mylar pom-pons. He screams at a transsexual who's whacking a black-and-orange polo ball with a 6-foot wooden mallet. A British industrialist blocks the shot. Their mounts—Asian elephants—bellow and bray as they are urged down the field.
"I remember him," says the woman next to me, glancing in the direction of the cheerleader. "He was a ladyboy last year. His falsie fell out on the field and the mahout had to get off and pick it up before it was squashed. Now he's a boy again."
I've been here three days, so this no longer seems surreal. The field (pitch, in polo parlance) is on an army encampment in Hua Hin, the seaside resort favored by the Thai royal family. Sponsorship banners festoon tented pavilions, while disco blares from strategically placed speakers. In Asia you can get your fill of Earth Wind & Fire and ABBA without even having to appear ironic. The cheerleader shimmies to "September."
There are about 300 spectators, a distressing number of them FWPs with much younger Thai girlfriends. A globetrotting friend has initiated me into the world of Asian acronyms. "Fat white plonkers," she explains. "Makes it easier to talk about them in front of others." I try not to be judgmental—and fail.
On the 100-meter field, one of the elephants defecates hugely. The mound is quickly scooped into a large red basket by one of the "poop boys" who wait patiently next to the pitch. Six elephants bearing 12 people prepare for another chukka. Two seven-minute chukkas (and a 15-minute half-time) make up a game. The players are tied to the elephants' backs, but the navigation is done by mahouts—Thai drivers who sit on the beasts' necks and cajole them occasionally with metal prods. It's OK. Elephants have thick hides, and it's all for a good cause.
Like most mad schemes, elephant polo originated over too many drinks. "I was in St. Moritz with Jim Edwards," recounts James Manclark. "And he had elephants in Nepal. One thing led to another." A Scottish industrialist and former Olympian, Manclark has mounted archaeological expeditions in Peru and attempted to circle the globe by hot air balloon. Today he's limping and bruised, having survived a horse polo accident earlier in the week only to run afoul of an elephant in Thailand and find himself lifted into the air, hurled to the ground, and trampled. "Well," he admits. "They are wild animals."
The World Elephant Polo Association was founded in 1982 and has spread from Nepal—where championships are held in spite of Maoist insurgency—to Thailand and Sri Lanka. Proceeds from the tournaments benefit various Asian elephant conservation programs.
Fourteen teams are competing, but the spectators clearly favor the ladyboys. These third-sex lovelies with their hormones and their miniskirts aren't a big deal in Thailand. For the Screwless Tuskers, the tournament is just one more opportunity to mug for the cameras. Jum, who wears (pink) jersey No. 3, is a porcelain doll and runner-up in the 2004 Miss Tiffany contest. Pu worries about her throat and favors lots of body glitter off the pitch. "Oh my God," she giggles. "I have an Adam's apple."
Putting ladyboys on elephants to play polo was the brainchild of one Alf Leif Erickson, a retired American inventor whose enthusiasms now run to hot air ballooning, corkscrew collecting, and visiting erotica museums.
Predictably, alcohol figured in Erickson's elepolo involvement. "I met Jim Edwards over a few drinks in London," he says. "And I said, 'I'll bring a team.' I had four daughters—a mixed blessing, that—and they played [as the Screwy Tuskers] for four or five years. Then they got married. I wanted to do something crazy."
Erickson's first efforts to recruit a replacement team were disastrous. "Patpong [Bangkok's notorious red light district] ladyboys are not the most stable people in the world," he admits. "Lots of recreational drugs and hormones, which don't mix. There were … problems."
But today there aren't, and his Screwless Tuskers are holding their own on the field in spite of only two days' practice, having narrowly lost yesterday to a team composed of former All Blacks: rugby heroes from New Zealand. They'll be defeated 10-6 by Mullis Capital, a group headed by Bangkok financier Robert Mullis and composed of experienced horse polo players. Team Mullis gives the losers three "hip-hip-hoorays" before hastening to the bar.
Elephant polo's rules allow women players to swing the mallet with two hands, while males use one. Are the ladyboys, uh, actually qualified to use both hands? "This is a gentleman's game," huffs Peter Prentice, captain of the Chivas Regal team and a WEPA board member. "If Alf Erickson says they're ladies … they're ladies."