People had questions, but it was difficult to work out where they were coming from. How big are the boats?! asked one friend in a comment beneath a photograph of the festival grounds on Instagram. “Not that big,” I replied after trying to work out what he meant. “Big enough for 10 or so people.
So how do they get the elephants on the boat? Then it struck me. When you talk about elephant boats to people who aren’t in the know, their minds go to literal elephants on actual boats.
“There are no elephants involved,” I send back. “They’re like dragon boats, but decorated with elephants instead.” Until this point it had never occurred to me someone would think the inaugural King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race & River Festival would involve scenes that could have been plucked straight from the pages of a revised edition of Horton Hears A Who!. Although a surprise elly being rowed down the Chao Phraya River would certainly have attracted a crowd.
Not that there isn’t one here already. On the banks of Bangkok’s famous river, people are gathering for the opening ceremony. There are tables piled high with fruit and flowers, and a spiritual blessing is offered. Dancers twirl and pivot, and men beat out a rhythm on their traditional drum and gong. Kathy Heinecke, wife of Minor Hotel Group’s founder Bill, welcomes the guests and hangs a floral garland around the neck of one of the elephant boats. By the time the ceremony is over the heat of the sun is beginning to take its toll, and everyone rushes to take cover beneath the marquees where smartly dressed barkeeps are serving up all manner of thirst-quenching beverages, including cocktails created using the local golden spirit, Mekhong.
It’s the first of three days of racing to crown Thailand’s best and fastest on water. There are 12 teams competing, with athletes from Thailand, China and the Philippines rowing in the name of some of the event’s sponsors. It’s obvious right from the start of proceedings, however, that the crowd favourite is the team from the Royal Thai Navy Seals. What they say about men in uniforms holds true regardless of what part of the world you’re in.
The River Festival and boat racing is the replacement charity event for the King’s Cup Elephant Polo, which, for 16 years, raised funds to help rescue elephants who had once worked in the logging industry, as well as supporting a range of other elephant-focused causes.
The use of beasts of burden in Thailand’s timber industry was banned in 1989 and, since then, these huge creatures and their owners have been forced into cities, where the elephants beg for food and tourists pay a few baht to have photos taken with them. It is a bleak and depressing existence – their only way to survive outside this system is to be rescued and taken to a sanctuary.
Like the one we’d visited just a few days before, in the hills outside Chiang Rai on Thailand’s border with Laos and Myanmar. At the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp, 25 elephants now live peaceful lives, feasting on organic grass, sugar cane and bananas.
They also spend time out on the river flats, plucking the leaves from trees, scratching their butts on stumps and splashing about in the Ruak River, while tourists watch their every move and take photos.
“It costs about AU$26,000 a year to care for each elephant,” says Ou, the camp manager. “And that doesn’t include wages for the mahout, schooling for his children and other expenses.” Expenses that the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) contributes.
While wide-eyed guests offset some of that cost – there are a number of programs on offer, including Walking With Giants, the Elephant Learning Experience, and Dining by Design at the Elephant Camp – there is still a shortfall. Plus, there are other projects to fund. As well as rescuing and improving conditions for captive elephants, the GTAEF has a number of programs that bring children who are autistic or under-privileged together with the gentle giants, support community enterprises, and protect the small populations of wild elephants still found in Thailand and Cambodia. None of it comes cheap.
Which delivers us firmly back riverside. There are a number of other events being held around the grounds. Teams of international rowers are taking part in the Asia Cup Indoor Rowing Tournament in a marquee at the back. There’s an exhibition of vintage cars near tables of prizes being sold in a silent charity auction. Kids are fishing rubber ducks from a pool of water in the hopes of winning a prize, while a dubious-looking clown (look, I’m not sure but suspect he is at least related to Pennywise) is encouraging others to pitch water balloons to come away with a stuffed bunny.
But, apart from general socialising and wandering between the food tents trying to decide what tasty morsels to snack on, the focus here is most definitely on the water. The race announcers give the crowd a general 10-minute warning before the next group of four teams is about to hit the water. Initially, a few people flock to get front position; most hold off until the paddlers are almost ready to row so as not to have to stand in the sun for too long. (This definitely becomes a recurring theme as the weekend goes on.)
You don’t want to wait too long, however. The races are held over 200 metres with four teams competing against one another. In each boat, beautifully decorated with a painted elephant’s head and a fish tail, 20 blokes paddle for their lives, one hangs out at the back on the tiller keeping them going in a straight line, and one sits at the front, facing the rowers and beating out a rhythm on a traditional drum. The starting gun goes off, the commentators begin yelling, the crowd cheers as one, there’s a flurry of splashing and, less than a minute later, it’s all over. Well, for the moment anyway. A round-robin batch of heats will determine the finalists.
Between races, party people stroll around and observe the other happenings. There’s a best-dressed competition with women wrapped in exotic silks and draped in jewels. “She could win that,” stage whispers a woman to her friend as the two finalists are announced – one of them is a young woman barely in her teens. She is, in fact, named the winner and Bill Heinecke presents her with the prize: a luxury stay at Anantara’s divine Maldives properties. Mostly they jockey for position at the bar, where Chang beer and chilled Chilean chardonnay flows liberally.
On the last day, it comes down to four teams from the Institute of Physical Education, the central province of Nonthaburi, the Royal Thai Navy and the Royal Thai Navy Seals. Before the start of the final there is just four seconds separating the teams’ best times. A minute later, it’s all over. Crowd favourites the Seals paddle their way to victory, claiming the glory and the cup. As the sun dips in the sky and the teams wander away, the stage is lit up one last time. Some of Thailand’s best pop performers are here to send off the crowd in style.
Singto Numchok gets the crowd going with his local hits then invites a woman from the crowd on to the stage. He hands her the mike and begins strumming Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’. She appears to be horrified and thrilled all at once. No high notes are hit, but the crowd goes suitably wild.
As we’re leaving the grounds late that night, people are still boogie-ing in front of the stage. Out the front of Anantara’s sales marquee, a man has fallen asleep on a banana lounge, a bottle of water fiercely gripped in one hand. Like everyone else here, he’s had a weekend to remember. Or maybe not.
AirAsia flies from major Australian cities to Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport via Kuala Lumpur. It also has connections to Chiang Rai.
Be within walking distance of all the festival action at Avani+ Riverside Bangkok. The spacious, contemporary rooms have huge windows overlooking the Chao Phraya River. Up on the rooftop is an enticing infinity pool and the indoor–outdoor SEEN Restaurant and Bar, where cocktails accompanied by sushi are popular as the sun goes down. Guests of Avani+ can also dine in the restaurants or have treatments in the spa at the adjacent Anantara Riverside Bangkok and charge it back to their account. Rooms start at about US$100 a night.
Guests at Anantara Golden Triangle, outside Chiang Rai, can meet some of the elephants rescued by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation during their stay. Rates start at about US$1,400 a night, all inclusive.
The 2020 King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race & River Festival will be held from 28 February to 1 March. There are different ticket options available: VIP tickets, which offer access to special areas and free drinks, cost about US$100 a day; general admission tickets cost about US$7 a day. You can also donate to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation at its website.