Friday, 3 February 2012

Pukka up .... it's the chicks with sticks

Here's one from the vaults, although I've given it a bit of a respin. Some things never really get old anyway. Because you can never have too many ladyboys whacking at balls atop massive beasts. This ran in the SCMP's Postmagazine around 2003 if memory serves, and a couple of other magazines regarding which memory obviously does not serve. Enjoy:

Phruts pulls her hot pink top down tight over buoyant breasts, tosses her glossy mane and flips open a mirror to check her make-up. Somehow through mascara darkness she discerns a lack of sparkle on her earlobe. “MY EARRRRRINNGG!’’ she cries, summoning a scream from the upper registers of pain and loss. It’s a sound of pure agony, many decibels beyond the demands of missing costume jewellery; the sort of high-pitched trumpeting shriek you might more reasonably expect to hear issuing from the swaying huddle of elephants tethered nearby.

But that’s how the third sex rolls. A chipped nail is a nailed-on crisis. A hair out of place elicits hissy fits. With ladyboys, everything’s larger than life, especially if – like scream queen Phruts – you’re the star of the world’s first transsexual elephant polo team.

As Phruts searches for her missing stud, prancing between piles of pachyderm poop, three transgendered teammates sashay onto the field of play to join the hunt. Each sports the same hot pink top emblazoned with a cartoon corkscrew. They flap and flounce and poke clods of turf with their toes, but no earring is found. And besides, the second chukka beckons, and Phruts will have to live with a naked earlobe. All business now, she grabs an outsized mallet and marches over to a wooden tower, ready to be strapped on to her mount.

It’s a strange introduction to an odd pursuit: elephant polo – one of the few sports, along with tiddlywinks and synchronised swimming, where the hunt for an errant earring can be considered a highlight. To the uninitiated, elephant polo may appear a lumbering affair that proceeds almost in slow motion. Mallets flail, jodphurs bulge, spit polished leather squeaks and two-ton behemoths bounce off each other like big wrinkly dodgems.

It looks like the kind of lark cooked up by a bunch of public school types after too much gin and Pimm’s. Which it is. “We were pissed, of course we were,’’ avers one of the sport’s founding fathers, Jim Edwards, the pukka proprietor of Nepal’s Tiger Tops jungle lodge. “It’s hardly the sort of thing you’d dream up sober.’’ Aficionados claim to appreciate the sport’s finer points, and can spend hours engaged in well-lubricated debate about how best to execute the off-side backhand and the line drive, in between speculating about which society matron might be getting mounted by her mahout.

Tournaments are held at former outposts of empire, or anywhere civilised enough to be within hollering distance of a cucumber sandwich. Nepal, India and Sri Lanka all fit the bill nicely. For today, Thailand’s sleepy seaside hamlet of Hua Hin will have to do. The rules are simple. Two seven-minute chukkas, three players and therefore three elephants per side, teams switch elephants at half time, and the aim is to whack the small white ball with a comically long mallet between the goalposts. Teams comprise the idle rich, the titled rich and the filthy rich, with a smattering of military-looking chaps with moustaches and the odd Colonel Blimp figure. Double-barrelled surnames abound. Players assume noms-de-polo like “Bombay Sapphire’’, “Silver Fox’’ and “The Dark Horse of Delhi’’.

At least, that’s how it was until this year’s King’s Cup, when elephant polo took a walk on the wild side.    “Ladies and gentlemen, the second chukka is about to begin,’’ crackles the master of ceremonies. “Please put your hands together for the Screwless Tuskers and Wepa Nepal.’’ The latter is Edwards’ team, more pukka than a punka-wallah’s wallah, comprising the old campaigner and his sons (“Kristjan Edwards,’’ the program informs us, “is a keen sportsman known for his prowess on the Cresta Run in St Moritz. Kristjan also sails, plays tennis and horse polo and has been riding elephants since he was a child … Tim has just left Harrow School and is on his gap year, and spends most of his holidays in the jungles of Nepal searching out tigers, rhinos and other game.’’

Up against them are our four glamorous creatures of indeterminate gender, missing jewellery and cartoon corkscrews. The name of the team, emblazoned beneath this motif, seems wrong and deeply troubling on at least several levels. It was all cooked up by their manager, patron and sugar daddy; a wisecracking, wealthy Floridian ex-attorney named Alf Leif Erickson, who inherited the family’s baking fortune and seems to have stepped out of the pages of a Carl Hiassen novel.

 “Do your best, my darlings,’’ drawls Erickson, as his charges climb aboard their beasts. The elephants’  sloping backs descend from ridged and knobbly spines, which means a certain degree of adjustment and repackaging is required before the girls are comfortable  - or at least as comfortable as any bloke can be shoved atop an elephant with his wedding tackle wedged between his legs.

Some of the Pimm’s-sipping Blimps and grand society dames are less than amused about the presence of the Screwless Tuskers and furious debate ensues as to whether they should be allowed to use two hands on the mallet, like the ladies, or one as per the chaps. Alf Leif Erickson is highly amused by the to-do, and it’s clear this was his evil scheme from the outset. “Elephant polo is not something to be taken too seriously, it seems to me,’’ he says. “On the matter of one or two hands, I think the acid test should be whether you sit down to take a leak, which my darlings assure me they do.''

Erickson moved to Bangkok four years ago and took up residence at The Oriental. He’s loaded and loving it.“My family were in bread back stateside. That’s how I got my dough, ahaha.’’ He splashes cash on his passions, which are hot air ballooning, collecting rare corkscrews and assembling men who want to be women to whack away at balls. None of these pursuits are for paupers, least of all elephant polo, where the King’s Cup entry fee alone will cost you US$10,000. That’s before you’ve even considered accommodation, dining, leather boots, jodphurs and – at least in Erickson’s case – a pre-tournament Hong Kong shopping trip for the team.

"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 those spoilsports went off and got married, had kids, and that was that for the team. Two years ago, I decided a team of ladyboys could be fun.’’ His first team disintegrated in tears, tiffs and methamphetamine tantrums when he recruited a bevy of high maintenance Patpong shemales. The first team meeting included an impromptu nude modelling session, which can be seen on Erickson’s website,, but might best be avoided by those of delicate disposition.

Undaunted, he continued the search for his dream team with a difference, and was delighted to find fashion designer Phruts through a friend of a friend, who also roped in three “lovely students’’ named Beige, Tok Tak and – oddly – Army. Each says they are saving up for the big snip, with the exception of the statuesque Army, real name Chaichana Sutyos. “Look at my shoulders,’’ she says, rolling her eyes. “What’s the point? I’m never going to pass. And some guys like it. Have you tried?’’

On the field, it’s going badly for the Tuskers. In fact, they are getting a hiding from the Edwards clan. “Met my son Tim?’’ hoorays Edwards the Elder from his pachyderm at some braying Blimps and Double-Barrels. “Bagged his first stag last week!’’ His elephant crouches, opens its bowels and deposits a steaming green pile of excrement, perfectly timed as the most cutting riposte.

By the next morning, word has spread about the team of trannies, and a media swarm is forming. Television cameras and microphones are shoved in the girls’faces. They lap up the attention, vogueing their best poses, to much tutting and tsk-ing from the VIP tents.

On the field, an extremely hungover umpire wanders, befuddled. His mount came into musth and attempted some mounting of its own, earning instant banishment. “Too much jungle juice last night,’’ nods a chap in a solar topee. Today the Screwless Tuskers line up against the American Express team, which comprises a professional polo player fresh from the pampas, a hotel manager who claims to have played the Sport of Kings in Ethiopia with Haile Selassie, and Geoffrey Dobbs, owner of Taprobane, the ultra-private Doctor Evil island off the coast of Sri Lanka.
This match only looks like having one winner, and it’s not the Tuskers. Before long, they’re six goals down. In the third chukka they briefly rally as Phruts bangs in a brace. “It’s the Screwless Tuskers coming from behind,’’ cackles the MC between gin-tinged snickers. By the fourth chukka, the jungle juice is flowing and no one seems to care much about the score. Everyone is having a grand old time, with the exception of Tusker Beige, who is sporting a trout pout and a face like thunder. She looks around to see who’s watching, then breaks into an ululating wail. “I BROKE MY NAAIILLLLL!!’’