Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Hua Hin's Elephant Polo Tournament

It's nearly that time of the year again, when pachyderms become the focus of Thailand's social scene. Regular contributor John Borthwick reports: 

"Does the elephant hold the mallet in its trunk?" asks a friend as I set off to the King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament. The best place in the world to witness elephant polo is Hua Hin during the annual tournament organised by the local Anantara Resort. 

"No elephant may lie down in front of the goal mouth. To do so constitutes a foul." With rules like these, it's hard to take elephant polo seriously at first. But watch 12 tonnes of thundering pachyderm and six windmilling mallets charge from one of the field to the other in a melee of dust, trunks and mad exertion, and it’s soon very clear that this is a serious "game”. 

With players, male and female, from Europe, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, UK, Pakistan, Australia and Argentina — representing institutions with sepia names like the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association and the Siam Polo Club — there's a whiff of old Raj about the four-day festival. 

Yet once the riders get lashed to the back of their two-tonne steeds and hear referee John Roberts signal "Bully off!" — Start! — the post-colonial posturing drops right away. For seven minutes — the duration of each polo "chukka" — the 100-metre pitch is a swirl of cracking mallets, under-trunk shots and trumpeting beasts. After a 10-minute breather between the two chukkas, the teams swap ends and mounts, and it's on again. 

"Elephant Polo is like horse polo, but without the horses," Diana Moxon, former PR for the event, once told me. Plus, of course, a Thai mahout riding forward of the mallet-wielding rider. Diana added, "You wouldn’t believe how many people ask, 'How does the German team get their elephants to Thailand?' I used to think they were joking — but, no. So, I’d just say, ‘By jumbo jet, of course’." 

The teams battle their way through quarterfinals and semis to reach a grand final that’s played in front of the King’s representative and ranks of ramrod-backed, white-starched Thai Army officers. 

This year will see defending champions, Thailand’s King Power squad go head to head with rivals that include a New Zealand Rugby All Blacks trio and team of Tiffany Show transvestites, who will play to win as well as performing at the final Gala Dinner.

Now in its 12th year, the Kings Cup Tournament has become one of Thailand’s largest charitable events and has raised almost US$600,000. The festival will have a spectacular opening parade, celebrity matches, Chang Noi Day (Children’s Day) and Ladies Day. 

If you’re wondering about the finer points of elephant polo, the final rule states, "Sugar cane or rice balls shall be given to the elephant at the end of each match, and a cold beer or soft drink to the driver — and not vice versa." 

Pics: John Borthwick

King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, Suriyothai Army Base, Hua Hin. August 28—September 1. Free admission.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Phuket - Paradise Lost?

When Paradise gets discovered by the masses, it inevitably becomes Hell - or does it? 

A damning report exposing the dark side of tourism in the Thai island of Phuket appeared yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald, claiming that rip-offs, rorts, drink spiking, scams, robbery, assault and police corruption are now common place in the popular holiday destination. 

From an Australian perspective, the problem stems largely from the fact that many tourists - may I call them bogans? - travel specifically to Phuket for the very things that are criticised in the article - sleazy nightlife, the sex trade and to get pissed. Getting ripped off is all part of the parcel, and most will suck it up as part of their holiday experience. Besides, they'll be so drunk they won't remember what happened anyway. 

Pic: John Borthwick

I was chatting to some very charming Aussie blokes on a plane recently who excitedly listed the destinations they were planning to visit in Thailand - Bangkok, Pattaya and Patong. It was their first visit to Thailand, and they couldn't wait to see it in all its glory. The 'boys trip' had Hangover Part 4 written all over it, and I have little doubt where their first port of call in Bangkok would be that night. 

While tourists perpetuate and support the dark side of tourism, it will continue to exist. Of course, the Thai government is also culpable, turning a blind eye to the increasing sleaziness in Phuket due to associated financial gain. And with tourist numbers continuing to soar in Phuket, the situation is not likely to change in any hurry. 

But here's the thing - if you don't want to be exposed to Phuket's nasty side, DON'T GO THERE! Simple. Choose another destination in Thailand. Want a quiet beach? Then Patong is not the spot. Research, people - it's not that hard, particularly with all the resources of the internet at hand. 

Phuket is a massive island. There are still many idyllic pockets along its coastline where you can walk on a deserted beach, with nary a Russian package tourist or jet ski in sight. I recently stayed in the gated community of Laguna, where forward-planning and a community spirit has preserved the purity of paradise. Further afield, the southern tip of the island, Cape Panwa, is a remote and isolated jewel, while the northern beach of Mai Khao is part of a national and marine park and subsequently still blessedly undeveloped. 

The beautiful beach at Laguna.

Of course, some destination-specific annoyances are unavoidable wherever you go in Phuket - specifically, taxi rip-offs. A night out will end up costing a bomb if you hire a cab; best to take advantage of hotel shuttle services, or consider renting a car if you want to explore the island in depth. 

Or ... can I put this any more clearly - go somewhere else! Head to an island which hasn't been discovered by the masses. They do exist.

Pics: Julie Miller

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Volunteering in Thailand

Regular contributor John Borthwick gives the lowdown on volunteering in Thailand...

Sydney journalist Kristie Kellahan volunteered in 2001 to work six months in a Buddhist orphanage in Chiang Mai. As she reports, it turned out to be much more. 

"It was such a beautiful, rewarding experience. Those six months have turned into an ongoing connection. More than 30 visits and 12 years later, the orphanage has become a big part of my life, the nannies and nuns have become my lifelong friends and I've loved watching the children grow up. There is no better way to get to know a country, its people, its humour, its hardships and its customs than through volunteering." 

Adorable! Pic: Julie Miller

“Voluntourism” — travelling to assist others — is a growing phenomenon in Thailand and elsewhere, with options that range from paying to join an organized volunteering-plus-travel itinerary, to working directly with an organization that needs casual help. 

Kristie notes that Thailand orphanages don’t necessarily welcome helpers (foreign or Thai) just dropping in at will. Volunteers shouldn't plan their trip to Chiang Mai (or elsewhere) based on the expectation of being needed. 

She strongly advises, “Always phone ahead, and close to the date of arrival. Likewise, ask what they need in terms of gifts/donations. It will probably be something practical like disposable nappies or baby formula. NOT the stuffed toys (germ farms) or lollies (dental disaster) that most people turn up with.”  

Volunteering is an excellent way to see Thai culture from beyond our own tourist “spectacles” and to look and learn. Several companies offer itineraries that combine volunteering with tourism activities, for which participants pay a program fee that can range from US$320 (for one week) upwards. The helping activities can include teaching English, outdoor work and participating in community development groups. 

- Projects Abroad: 

- International Volunteer HQ: 

- Go Differently: 

Pic: John Borthwick

Meanwhile, established Thailand-based organisations that have volunteer programs include: 

 - Wild Animal Rescue Foundation, with projects like gibbon rehabilitation in Phuket and sea turtle conservation in Ranong. 

 - The Mangrove Project, for daytrip mangrove planting not far from Bangkok at Samut Songkram. 

 - Habitat for Humanity, to assist with house-building alongside the needy.

Pic: John Borthwick

Elephants. Everyone loves ‘em and wants to work with them. There are possibilities with conservation centres such as the Elephant Nature Foundation in the Mae Tang Valley, north of Chiang Mai:, where Khao Jai Thailand editor and animal lover, Julie Miller spent a week working with rescued street elephants. 

"After a life of servitude - often not the kindest - these rescued animals now live the life of leisure they deserve, and it's heartwarming and rewarding to be able to take a small role in their ongoing care," she says.

Volunteers at ENP

Finally, if can’t volunteer your time, the above-listed Thai organisations will find your cash donation truly valuable.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Thai Yum

All over Australia, household kitchens are fragrant with the aroma of lemongrass and basil as strips of beef and chicken simmer in coconut milk. Yes, we are a Thai food-crazy nation, made all the more accessible by recipes and instructions garnered (garnished?) at a cooking school in the Land of Smiles. 

These days, attending a cooking class is as de rigueur for a holiday in Thailand as having a massage or drinking cocktails on the beach. Most luxury hotels have their own cooking school facility, showcasing the food from their signature Thai restaurant and giving guests the opportunity for a hands-on cultural experience. 

I recently attended a class held at the Ruen Thai restaurant in the Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket. My instructor was the very charming Executive Sous Chef, Pachon Pakham, whose knowledge and enthusiasm prevailed despite having been up since 3am preparing breakfast for runners in the Phuket Marathon. Yes, some people really are crazy. 

Chef Pachon teaches me how to roll egg noodles onto spring rolls

Being the monsoon season, the rain was bucketing down as we set up on the teak verandah of the restaurant - but what better way to spend a wet afternoon? There were four courses on the menu: Goong Hom Sabai (fried prawns wrapped in egg noodle), Tom Kha Gai (galangal flagoured coconut soup of chicken), Gaeng Kiew Wan Nuea (green curry of beef) and Yok Manee (sticky rice balls with sweet coconut flakes). And yes, I was supposed to cook them all. Then eat them all. And then have dinner two hours later. 

Sticky rice ball - yum!!

Let me just say here that I’m not the world’s best cook. I’m average at best, and rather lazy. Which is why this cooking class is ideal for me - most of the preparation - the shopping, chopping, measuring etc - is already done, with the ingredients all presented in neat glass bowls. Ah, if only I had a kitchen assistant to hand me everything all ready to go, I’d be a MasterChef too... 

MasterChef at work

But today I actually am. All I have to do is chop a few items - some ginger here, lemongrass there - and I’m off and cooking under Pachon’s patient tutelage. It’s easy, it’s fun and it’s confidence building, inspiring me to create my own Thai banquet when I returned home to Australia. 

As part of its package, the Dusit Thani gives its cooking class guests a very smart apron as well as a comprehensive booklet called The Art of Thai Cooking, which includes all the recipes from the class. So, one green beef curry coming up. 

Look what I made!

And you get a certificate!

The challenge in Australia, of course, is finding all the ingredients. I managed to get most of them in an Asian grocery store in Marrickville - but if anyone knows where to get those little pea eggplants in Sydney, can you let me know?