Thailand’s Three Headed Elephant
ERAWAN MUSEUM BANGKOK | Sharon Henry
Climbing barefooted into the belly of a three-headed elephant is an unusual experience, Bangkok is full of surprises. We’re following what sounds like hushed chanting of Buddhist monks, which gets louder the higher we go. A little dizzy from the spiral staircase climb we step into a softly lit temple; a blue astrology mural covers the entire curved room. Devotees bow in prayer to a Buddha standing centre stage. It feels quietly sacred up here, not just because we’re in an elephant’s belly but because this is ‘Heaven’ and the ‘Universe’… No, I’m not on drugs!
We have ventured a little off the beaten track at the edge of this sprawling city, to Erawan Museum, a colossal monument honouring a mythical Hindu elephant. It’s a copper and steel construction built in the shape of a three-headed elephant, mounted majestically on a pastel pink pedestal.
Trunks trumpeting high into the Bangkok skyline, Erawan stands 29 metres tall and weighs a mighty 250 tonnes. The combined structure including pedestal, towers 43 metres.
The museum is the private venture of Thai business mogul, Lek Viriyapant, built to house his vast personal collection of ancient artefacts and to preserve Thai art and culture. Construction started in 1994 and was completed in 2004.
There are three levels inside this museum that is modelled on the Hindu depiction of the universe. The first floor is the ‘Underworld,’ second is ‘Earth’ and the top, ‘Heaven.’
We’re in ‘Heaven’ right now and have just discovered the chanting sounds are coming from a CD player on repeat. We are quietly told by a guard no photography is allowed of the ancient Buddha statues flanking the room, just the view ahead. The artistic ceiling mural depicts the cosmos, displaying zodiac constellations, a blazing sun and scatterings of gold leaf stars. The chanting enhances the room’s spiritual vibe and Darrin and I soak up the peaceful atmosphere, lingering to observe families pay respects to their god.
We entered the museum earlier through the ‘Underworld’ at the base of the pedestal that contains valuable and ancient collections of Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics. It’s a gem for those who appreciate these works of art.
Before entering the middle section we were required to remove our shoes and leave them on a designated shoe rack. I have to admit I am a tad worried if they’ll be there on our return although there’s a watchful ticket collector in the vicinity.
Entering ‘Earth’ has the ‘wow’ factor, it’s absolutely spectacular. Such a feast for the eyes, there’s so much to look at and absorb. And it’s so pink! Sun streams through a stained glass domed roof, illuminating intricate ceramic mosaic patterns that glitter in the light. It seems all surfaces are extravagantly adorned with exquisitely molded stucco.
A white ornamental staircase leads to a wooden carving of Chinese Goddess Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. She stands under a pagoda, lotus flowers at her feet. Sculptures of mystical musicians, deities and creatures display remarkable craftsmanship and detail. Sweeping stairways lead higher to the platform and the start of the long spiral staircase, up the elephant’s leg, that made me dizzy climbing to ‘Heaven’.
There’s an elevator available for the less mobile which opens onto a viewing platform just below the top floor.
We hadn’t fully appreciated the stained glass pedestal roof earlier depicting an abstract world map, its luminosity showcases the building’s contents perfectly.
I’m drawn to the detailed pictures on the pewter pillars supporting the glass ceiling. There are four in total, each skilfully chased, (engraving technique) representing Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Mehayana Buddhist stories. The mastery is such that it took three years to complete each column.
The gardens of Erawan are equally superb as the museum. Tall shady trees offer respite from Bangkok’s sticky heat and the tinkling of water features sets a tranquil mood. We explore the grounds wearing our freshly laced shoes and admire whimsical statues that have spilled out from the museum. It’s so beautiful here, I don’t want to leave. This is one of the most unique places I’ve been.
As much as Erawan is a museum it’s clearly also a place of worship. There’s another shrine outside, in front of the elephant where worshippers burn incense, offer fruit and flowers and kneel at the altar.
To get here we took the BTS Skytrain to Bearing station, the end of the line, then hired a metered taxi which cost 80 Baht (£1.60). As foreigners we were charged 400B (£8) each entrance fee to the museum; Thais are charged 200B, something we thought a bit unfair. Double charging is common throughout Thailand.
An audio guide is included in the price although a refundable deposit of 1,000B is required. The guide gives general information on the concept and details of the museum.
Visitors are advised to dress modestly, no shorts or revealing clothes. We noticed there weren’t many westerners present during our visit, mostly locals; Erawan Museum truly does seem off the beaten track.