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07/03/2009 - Anyone for polo?  07/03/2009 - Anyone for polo?

It may not be one of the worlds most well known sports but elephant polo is as popular as ever and this years King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament kicks off on 23rd March in the town of Chiang Saen.

The World Elephant Polo Association established the governing rules for Elephant Polo in 1982 and since then the sport has become popular in many countries including Nepal, UK, India, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The week long charitable event was introduced to Thailand in 2001 by Anantara Resorts and raises money for the country's National Elephant Institute in Lampang, northern Thailand as well as the Anantara Elephant Camp located in the grounds of the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle.

The opening parade on 23rd March will feature dancing and cultural events hosted by the hilltribe villagers from the region as well as elephant spirit men (Khru Ba Yai), and colourfully decorated elephants.

Twelve teams will compete in this years competition which takes place on the banks of the Ruak River, dividing Thailand from Burma.  

The game is played with a standard polo ball and a six to nine foot cane, similar to bamboo, with a polo mallet head on the end. The pitch is three quarters of the length of a standard polo pitch, due to the slower speed of the elephants. Two people ride each elephant, the elephants are steered by mahouts, while the player tells the mahout which way to go and hits the ball.

It is estimated that there are just 2,500 domesticated elephants and 1,500 wild elephants left in Thailand, down significantly from the population of 100,000 recorded in 1900.  The King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament has raised over 200,000 US Dollars for the National Elephant Institute, which provides medical care, sustenance, employment, and mahout training to Thailand's elephant population. In 2008 the funds raised were used to run a unique custom built ambulance for the elephants.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has built the event into one of the country's top annual festivals and expects this years cup to be better than ever.  Entrance to the event is free, so if you are in the area take some time out to come along and watch.

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