Elephant polo just became a little stranger. Going chukka to chukka with the rich expatriates is a new team this year ... of lady-boys. Jason Gagliardi follows the Thai transsexuals' antics on and off their rides.
Phruts Phungsai tosses her luxuriant mane of jet-black hair, brushes a fresh gob of elephant booger from her hot pink top, and flips open a mirror to check her make-up. She utters a piercing shriek: 'My earring! It's gone!' Within seconds the leggy beauty, who happens to be, technically, a man, is stepping delicately among steaming heaps of pachyderm poop, uttering distraught little sobs. Three cohorts in matching skin-tight jerseys emblazoned with the legend 'Screwless Tuskers' look up from their copies of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, hurriedly confer then rush onto the field to join the search. They hop and prance and poke clods of turf, but to no avail.
The rest break is over, the second chukka is looming, and Phruts is just going to have to live with a naked earlobe. She sashays over to a wooden tower with two of her fellow players in tow, clutching an outsized mallet, ready to be strapped to her massive mount.
It is a strange introduction to an odd pursuit. Elephant polo is one of the few sports, along with tiddlywinks and perhaps synchronised swimming, where the hunt for missing jewellery can be considered a highlight. To the uninitiated, elephant polo can appear a treacly, lumbering affair that proceeds in its own weird slow-motion. By the third or fourth chukka, it's a blur of flailing mallets, grubby jodhpurs, spit-polished leather and two-tonne behemoths bumping off each other like wrinkly dodgems. Add a touch of sun and several ales, and it becomes visual valium for the casual observer. It looks like the kind of lark cooked up by a bunch of public-school types after too many gin and tonics - which, of course, it is. 'We were drunk,' admits one of the sport's founding fathers, Jim Edwards, proprietor of Nepal's pukka Tiger Tops jungle lodge. 'It's hardly the sort of thing you'd think up if you were sober.'
Aficionados claim to appreciate the sport's finer points, and can spend hours engaged in passionate, well-lubricated debate over such arcana as off-side backhand shots, line drives and which society matrons are having sex with their mahouts. Tournaments are held at erstwhile outposts of empire, or anywhere within hollering distance of a cucumber sandwich and a glass of Pimm's: Nepal, India, Sri Lanka and, in this instance, Hua Hin, the sleepy beach resort south of Bangkok that is a holiday haunt of well-off Thais and the favoured residence of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The rules are simple: two seven-minute chukkas, three players and three elephants a side, and teams switch elephants at half-time. Elongated polo mallets are used to whack a polo ball through a set of goalposts. Teams comprise the idle rich, the titled rich and the filthy rich, leavened by a moustachioed smattering of military types; double- and triple-barrelled surnames abound, and players assume noms-de-polo like 'Bombay Sapphire', 'The Silver Fox' and 'The Dark Horse of Delhi'. At least, that was until this year's King's Cup, when the face of elephant polo was forever changed with the appearance of the sport's first team of transsexuals.
'Ladies and gentlemen, the second chukka is about to begin,' announces the commentator over a crackly PA system. 'Please put your hands together for the Screwless Tuskers and Wepa Nepal.' The last turns out to be Edwards' team, comprising the old campaigner and his two sons. Up against them are four leggy and glamorous creatures of indeterminate gender assembled by an eccentric Floridian, retired lawyer and scion of a baking dynasty named Alf Leif Erickson. 'Do your best, girls,' Erickson urges his charges - katoeys in the local parlance, pre-operative transsexuals to their doctors, lady-boys to you and me.
Certain players are reportedly less than overjoyed about competing with hormonally altered men in make-up, others are miffed that the Screwless Tuskers are allowed use both hands, like ladies, instead of one hand, like men. All of which suits Erickson fine.
'Elephant polo is not a sport to be taken too seriously,' he says with a crinkly smile. 'I like to stir things up a bit, have some fun. On the one- or two-handed issue, I think the acid test should be whether you sit down to take a leak, which they assure me they do.'
Erickson, who moved to Bangkok four years ago and took up residence at the Oriental hotel, makes no bones about the fact that he's loaded. This is not a pursuit for a pauper: to enter a team in the King's Cup costs US$10,000, and that's before you factor in uniforms, accommodation and entertainment. Not to mention, in Erickson's case, a surprise pre-tournament trip to Hong Kong to take his team shopping.
'For many years I had a team called the Screwy Tuskers, which was basically me and my daughters,' he explains. 'We didn't win many games, but we had a lot of fun. But my daughters all got married and had kids. Two years ago, I got the idea that a team of lady-boys would be fun. So I went to Patpong Road and some of the cabaret shows, strictly as a talent scout of course, and I found four [lady-boys] who said they'd play.' Erickson says he had to scupper that version of the Screwless Tuskers before its first chukka. 'Unfortunately,' he says 'there were all sorts of egos and hormonal mood swings and certain recreational substances involved. It looked like turning into one big disaster, so I called it off.'
The search continued this year, and he says he was delighted to find through a friend of his wife four 'lovely girls'. All are students, with the exception of Phruts, 22, also known as 'Beige', who is a fashion designer. The others are: Songpol Laohawiwattanachia, or 'Golf', 23; Chermarn Saengprasit, 'Tok Tak', 22; and Chaichana Sutyos, 'Army', 20. Each is saving up for the big snip - gender reassignment surgery - except the statuesque Army, who says: 'Are you kidding? Look at these shoulders. I'm never going to look perfect in a frock so I might as well stay a man.'
They follow in a proud Thai tradition of sporting transsexuals: several years ago a volleyball team comprising katoeys won a national championship, and inspired the hit film Satree Lex (The Iron Ladies) and its sequel. The country's most famous kickboxer, Nong Toom, is a boy who fought boys as a girl, pounding opponents to a pulp and then consoling them with a kiss. She retired from the sport, had a sex change and became a television personality.
Army is being rested this chukka, and tells me with much rolling of eyes and flapping of wrists of her embarrassing experience at a practice session the day before. 'I had these novelty breasts that Alf bought for me in Hong Kong,' she says, 'kind of rubbery things with nipples, but when I put them in my bra they felt quite real and looked great. One of them popped out when I was bending over to hit the ball, and then the elephant picked it up with its trunk and handed it back to the mahout. I nearly died.'
Out on the field - part of a military barracks near the swish Anantara Resort, which hosts the teams - things aren't going well for the Screwless Tuskers. The Edwards clan takes its sporting pursuits seriously ('Met my son Tim?' Edwards the elder asked a friend before the game. 'Bagged his first stag last week') and is already several goals up.
The commentator is a bush pilot and documentary filmmaker named Tom Claytor, a kind of latter-day Biggles in tight white trousers who is also a player for the Nokia Thailand team. He wallows in a murky sea of innuendo and double entendres. 'You might notice the Screwless Tuskers have mounted from the rear,' he bellows. 'Oh, I say, it looks like Beige has got a shot off between the legs! And Golf's in trouble, her helmet is too tight.' It sails over the heads of the lady-boys, but it's a cause of much mirth in the champagne-soaked surroundings of the VIP tent.
The Screwless Tuskers are thrashed 7-1, but Wepa Nokia don't have it all their own way. The septuagenarian Edwards has hurt his back, and has to be helped off his elephant and carried away by his sons. 'They played well,' he says between grimaces of pain. 'What do I think of lady-boys in the sport? Fine, fine. Tremendous stuff. No problem at all.'
'Well done girls,' shouts Erickson. 'Remember, it's not whether you win or lose, it's how fabulous you look.'
BY THE NEXT MORNING, WORD has spread about the pink-clad team of transsexuals and the media swarm is buzzing. Television cameras and microphones are shoved in their faces and the girls are loving the attention. They seem to be getting almost all of it, to the chagrin of the other teams. 'Well, it wouldn't be elephant polo without some controversy,' says Erickson. At last year's King's Cup, the tents were humming after a row in which a wealthy Thai businessman and team sponsor almost came to blows with the German team amid accusations of cheating and foul play.
On the field, the umpire is on foot, drenched in sweat and looking the worse for wear. 'He's a bit of a legend,' one player tells me. 'He got so drunk last night he staggered back here and slept with the elephants. He's known for it.' The umpire is usually mounted atop a huge tusker, but in a burst of excitement that surpassed even the lost earring and lost breast episodes, his mount charged another beast in one of the previous day's games and was retired from play.
This morning the girls are up against American Express Thailand, serious horse-polo players. The bar hasn't been open long enough for the commentary team to hit full speed, and Claytor is restrained. 'Good morning girls,' he says as they wait to bestride their mounts. 'What is your strategy today?' 'Fashion!' they coo in unison, clasping hands and going into a little cheerleader routine.
By half-time, as they pat beads of sweat from their pancake, the Screwless Tuskers are down four goals to one. 'It's hard to concentrate with so many handsome men around,' complains Golf. In the second chukka, however, the team suddenly clicks into high gear and Tok Tak scores two quick goals. 'It's amazing,' says Claytor, warming to his task. 'These lovely ladies are coming from behind.' It's too little too late though, and they lose 6-4.
Over dinner, the girls agree elephant polo is a hoot, and contend there's nothing wrong with being allowed to use two hands in the tournament. 'Look at my arms,' Golf says. 'Do they look like a man's?' I have to admit they don't: slender, tapered wrists, delicate hands, perfectly painted nails. 'What do you think of my breasts,' counters Army, 'don't you think they're quite nice?' She's pulled her chair up next to a soft-spoken chap from a Singapore newspaper, who goes bright red, then the pasty white of one about to faint.
The team adjourn to their rooms, and I depart for the disco in the nearby Hilton Hua Hin, which has become polo party central. It's after midnight and the club is pumping. Slouched at the bar, still in his grass-stained jodhpurs, is Bangkok financial wizard and polo enthusiast Robert Mullis. Tomorrow morning, his Mullis Capital team will take on the Screwless Tuskers, and after seeing the ladyboys' late rally, he's a tad worried. 'The thing is, how would I ever live it down if they beat us?' he says, sucking down a vodka tonic. 'But I have a plan.' And it's a devious one: Mullis has purchased silver necklaces for each of the girls, which he hopes will distract them from their game.
He needn't have bothered - his team wins 11-4, knocking the Tuskers out of the tournament after their third straight loss. The girls seem unconcerned, except Beige. 'It's a disaster,' she squeals. 'I broke a nail.' Erickson is sanguine. 'We'll be back next year,' he says, 'better and more glamorous. You haven't heard the last of the Screwless Tuskers.'