A fine few days on the riverfront

by Robin Westley Martin
Thaidance

It was 7.30 in the morning in an already buzzing Bangkok. I was at a pier watching the colourful long-tail boats darting along the river, weaving in and out of the paths of the larger vessels. After only a few minutes a boat pulled up to the jetty, and the waiting throng boarded. There was an excited babble of voices, and I could make out speech from the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, China, Japan, various languages from the countries in SE Asia, and of course English.

The waterway was the mighty Chaophraya River in Bangkok, and we were all headed off to participate in – or simply to enjoy – the spectacle of the first ever King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race and River Festival. The excitement and anticipation of the passengers on the boat for what was to come was palpable, even on this early Friday morning, as March drew to a close. Internationally, World Elephant Day is on August 12, but the elephant is the national animal of Thailand, and Thai National Elephant Day is celebrated in March. Anantara Hotels, Resort and Spas have long been supportive of elephant charities and preservation, and this year they presented a wonderful spectacle in Bangkok, the Royally endorsed King’s Cup, on the banks of the Chaophraya, adjacent to the Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort. For three glorious days in the tropical sun. All the proceeds of the event went towards charities and organisations that help to preserve and enhance the lives of elephants, both domestic, and wild.

Golden  Elephant

The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a charity founded by John Roberts, is one such. Amongst other things, it is currently caring for more than 20 elephants rescued from Thailand’s crowded city streets, working with the mahouts’families to build financial independence, funding research on how elephants can help children with autism, and protecting an 18,000 hectare elephant corridor of standing forest in the Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia. John also works at the Anantara Golden Triangle, where they have an elephant camp on the fringes of the jungle. John says he believes elephants should certainly all be wild, where they’re free to make their own decisions and help naturally with the ecosystem. A large proportion of the foundation’s money and effort is spent helping to keep wild elephants wild.

John further enthused, ‘Thailand has around 3,500 non-wild elephants, and ways need to be found to look after them, as well. There isn’t enough wild to put them back into, so a well-planned tourism activity, at a well-run, caring facility such as ours is a great way to do that – the elephants get to walk around as a group, meet new friends and they lead a rich and varied elephant life. And our guests get to learn about elephants and a little of what it is like to live with them. The elephants enjoy it: there seems to be a modern misconception that captive elephants live entirely in misery and fear no matter how you look after them. I have to say that in 16 years of living among elephants I have seen no evidence of this – I would never seek to bring a wild elephant into captivity, but I’m entirely comfortable with bringing any elephant I find that has been mistreated into my camp. They have a good life in it.’

Training

So, on the morning of 29th March myself and the other passengers on the free shuttle boat from Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge) disembarked at the Anantara Riverside Hotel, and were taken by Tuk Tuk a couple of hundred metres down the road to the show ground. What a sight greeted us. The whole area of open space next to the historic Santa Cruz church had been transformed into a wonderland.

There were giant marquees and tents, there were food outlets galore, there were fantastically designed and furnished places to sit and enjoy a cool drink, sponsored by some of the world’s most well known beverage brands, there were loads of fairground sideshows and games for the kids and the young at heart, there were vintage cars on show, there were Harley Davidsons, and there were even zombies walking around, you could go and have your wits scared out of you in the House of Horrors, with its cast of live (or dead?) performers. In the evenings there were concerts featuring some of Thailand’s best known rock and pop stars. But as the title of the extravaganza suggests, the main event was the Elephant Boat Races, in boats with freshly designed prows for this new event that is destined to become a great tourist draw. This was a successful inaugural event, that drew thousands to the banks of the river to cheer on their favourite team, as they paddled away furiously to the finishing line of a 200 metre course.

Fancy

The elephant boat race competition is similar to dragon boat racing, except instead of a decorative dragon’s head at the forefront, it’s that of an elephant. There are 20 paddlers to a team, plus one ‘cox’ who beats frantically on a war drum and encourages his guys to up their game. This year the teams walked to their vessels from a team tent with tall standing fans to keep them cool before their exertions.

They ventured down a ramp onto floating pink pontoons, before boarding their boats, and heading off to the start line. There were four boats racing per heat, out of a pool of 12 teams from Thailand, The Philippines, and China. All the teams had their own corporate sponsors. On the first day things were quite low-key, but by the second day things had started to liven up, and as soon as a race was announced, hundreds of spectators rushed to watch the races from the riverside, or from grandstands overlooking the river. The Thai and foreign commentators did a great job of ramping up the excitement as the teams paddled furiously along the 200 metre course. After these few minutes in the blazing sun the drink or food tents once more beckoned the perspiring crowds back to their welcoming embrace. More often than not, the paddlers would join them. It’s all so friendly and laid back – guests, organisers, staff, and the sportsmen and women themselves are all there to have fun. They all do.


Final leaderboard for 2019 King’s Cup Elephant Boat Race

Team work
  1. Yutthakarnnawa (Royal Thai Navy Seals) – Chang Mineral Water
  2. Pradu Thong Goddess (Royal Thai Navy) – JW Blue Label
  3. Institute of Physical Education – Mercedes Benz
  4. Nonthaburi – Avani Hotels & Resorts
  5. Singburi – Casillero del Diablo
  6. Pradu Ngern  Goddess (Royal Thai Navy) – Price Waterhouse Coopers
  7. PhetNava – Keith & Kim
  8. Samutprakarn – Veuve Clicquot
  9. Nakornsithammarat – EGAT ( Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand)
  10. Porn Phra Kaew – Bangkok Bank
  11. Dongguan Sheen Fine Club, China – CITI
  12. Pilipinas Orient Dragon – Anantara Hotels
The winner

But the Elephant Boat Races were not the only attraction for sports enthusiasts. While the teams had been battling it out on the river on-land entertainment had included an indoor rowing tournament, open to all on Friday 29th, and dedicated sportsmen and women competed for the Asian Indoor Rowing Championships on Saturday 30th and Sunday 31st. These guys were professional athletes, and the commitment to their sport was clear to see. As was their desire to win. Due to the terrific power they had to exert during their rowing stints on the static rowing machines, the machines had been set up in an air-conditioned marquee, with tiered seating for the spectators. With scores watching from the outside, too. The competitors for the Asian Indoor Rowing Championships consisted of teams from  nine countries – Bahrain, Chinese Taipei, India, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. Each digital heat consisted of eight rowers giving it their all across a distance of 2km, with both female and male competitors vying for the coveted Asia Cup trophies. The winner of the individual women’s Asia Cup was Yi-ting Huang from Chinese Taipei and Parminder Singh from India took the men’s championship.

Cheer!!

In the team events, India came out on top with 7 gold, 5 silver, and 1 bronze; second were Japan with 4 gold, 3 silver, and 3 bronze; third were Chinese Taipei with 2 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze. Thailand achieved 1 gold, 5 silver, and 6 bronze, coming in 6th overall. While based around sporting events the whole shebang is much more than only a draw for sports lovers, it is truly a family event, and The Ladies’ Day is just as competitive for the ladies as the sports are for the athletes. This year the beautiful lasses all turned out in their traditional Thai attire, as the theme was ‘Old Siam’. From my perfect vantage point in the Casillero del Diablo marquee my friends and I, including Minor Group CEO William (Bill) Heinecke, watched the gals strutting their stuff. Bill had then presented the lucky winner with a luxury holiday to one of his properties in The Maldives. The King’s Cup Elephant Boat Races and River Festival is a really great addition to the social and tourist calendar of must-see events in Thailand. I’ll be there next year. You should be, too!

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