I have a list of places in and around Bangkok that not only never seems to grow shorter but continues to grow. There are always old haunts to hit on any trip, and places I’ve been that need to be shown to travelling companions. Still, I manage to cross at least one place off my list on every trip. Sometimes more. Occasionally I finally get to some place that I’d meant to see for years and then wonder why I ever thought it would be worth visiting. Others, I can’t believe it took me so long to find the time to visit. That was the case with the Erawan Museum. It’s an incredible outing for the day and it should be on everyone’s Top Ten list of things for touri to do in Bangkok.
At first glance, and probably the reason so many don’t make the trip, the museum looks to be quite a distance from the touri areas of the Big Mango. It’s not. Located on Sukhumvit as you enter Samut Prakan, a taxi will only cost you about 300 baht, and a combo BTS ride and taxi even less. By car you can be there in around 30 minutes if you avoid rush hour. Or, screw the cost and the timetable and hire a private car for the day. Might not be your first choice for a transpo option, but it’s the way I went and that turned out to be a smart move.
Part of the cause for the Erawan Museum’s lack of popularity is their decision to call it a museum. Not a wise PR move, the only touri who get excited about visiting a minor museum are not the kind of people anyone wants to hang around with. Being Thai, I’m sure they thought the elephant thingy would absolve them of the stigma of their museum claim. But visitors to the Kingdom are more interested in riding an elephant than going to a museum about them. Little do they know that there is nothing more boring in the world than riding an elephant. Okay, so the first three minutes are cool. After that, the only excitement you’ll experience is when the one walking in front of your mount empties its bladder. Excitement is not always a good thing.
You won’t have that worry at the Erawan Museum, exciting it’s not. But it is cool, a feast for the eyes, and they’ve done a grand job of including interactive thrills in the admission cost. Throw in a 95 foot tall three headed elephant that weighs 150 tons, and you can’t go wrong.
The museum is the brainchild of Lek Viriyaphant who wished “to preserve his collection of antiques which included not only valuable piece of art but also sacred and auspicious deities believed by people of ancient time to grant abundance to their land and countries.” How exactly that transformed into a giant elephant you can walk up into isn’t quite clear, primarily because it has something to do with a friend from the West’s plan on building an “apple-shaped building in town according to Westener’s belief.” Either someone was pulling someone’s leg, or back in the day they were scoring primo acid in Thailand too.
With vision in place, Lek turned the actual construction of the building over to his son, Pagpean, who began bringing his father’s dream to reality in 1994. Both died before finishing construction of the museum, which took ten years to complete and was finished in the early 2000s, when the family put the finishing touches on the building and opened it to the public as a temple for worship and a place to foster cultural tourism.
But never mind the inspiration ( if you are interested, at the lower level contains a detailed display covering the entire project from inception to completion), the result is an Alice in Wonderland adventure replete with gods, goddesses, elephants, and dragons. All worked into the interior architectural details of the museum and residing under an incredible stained glass dome. And did I mention you get to crawl up inside of the elephant’s ass?
Arriving by car, the museum’s grounds sit smack dab in the middle of a bunch of one-way roads and a highway cloverleaf, with parking just around the corner. There are a few desolate looking locals who hang out on the small soi to help you pick a suitable spot to park your vehicle. Once parked, they turn into a group of desolate looking locals selling flower offerings. Moochers usually get ignored by me, but the two Thais I was travelling with both felt the need to pick up the offering bundles (yellow chrysanthemum leis, a few sticks of incense, and a few small candles). Though neither had been to the museum before, locals have an inborn sense of when an offering must be made, and sure enough – even before hitting the admission window – there is a shrine centered at the exterior gate for reverence to be shown. Which is not to be confused with the shrine centered at the interior of the gate for reverence to be shown.
In the proud tradition of Thailand, admission for falang is twice what it is for locals: 300 baht for non-Thais, 150 for the children of the King. Don’t bitch about the tiered pricing, we’ve all heard it before, and even the higher price is well worth the cost. Along with your admission ticket you get a nifty brochure which explains the museum’s objectives in flowery but broken English. Souvenir taken care of, it pays to tag along with some locals because there is nothing to tell you about the other free stuff you also get once inside. In any case, you’ll notice none of that. You’ll be too busy staring up at the gigantic 143 foot tall structure topped by the three-headed elephant, known as the Cosmic Elephant, the Erawan Elephant, and/or the Three-Headed Avatar.
Ticket-takers await at the foot of the structure and force you to first go into the basement for the aforementioned introductory display. With the elephant calling, everyone makes short-work out of this part of the museum and that’s a shame. After visiting upstairs, you actually are interested enough to want to see the construction information, but by then it’s too late: you’ve already turned in your ticket and can not go back inside downstairs.
Awesome is the only word to describe what awaits when you enter the museum at the first floor. Well, okay, there are other suitable words too, but this is a free blog, so let’s not get too demanding about the lexicon used. Entering, your eye is immediately drawn upward, as are your feet. A pair of grand stairways soar into a terminus of deep blues and reds, the stained glass domed skylight that bathes the museum in light. Possibly a pair of traditional naga – but looking much more like dragons than the norm – one stairway is done in white, the other in pink. Both snake around alabaster statues of gods and goddesses, and both lead you upward through a series of stairways that would make a Laotian proud.
As you climb, the stairs become more narrow and less impressive, though there are landings that provide spectacular views of the interior you’ve been making your way through. At an upper landing a small plexiglass window provides a view of the outlying park and if you didn’t realize it before you now figure out that you’ve begun climbing up inside of the massive elephant statue. A wood spiral staircase leads you even higher, though if you are a wuss, there is a small elevator that will wisk you to the top too. I’d suggest you man up and make the climb though, the opening into the upper floor is a visual delight whose ethereal impact you’ll miss by taking the elevator.
The topmost floor is a large spotlit celestial shrine that glows in an eerie blue. One of the most dramatic shrines I’ve seen in the Kingdom, it’s filled with display cases showing off ancient Buddhas and religious imagery that flank the walls leading to the focal Buddha, a walking Buddha displaying the Imparting Fearlessness mudra. Take a hint from the locals visiting and sit down on the floor for awhile. You can not possibly take everything in with a quick glance. Besides, you’ll need a rest after your climb.
Back down at ground level, take a quick walk out the back doors for a nice overview of the surrounding park off the verandah. To one side is a garden with a water feature surrounded by mythical beings and beasts, to the other side a row of vendors offering snacks and souvenirs. Back out front, you can stop and pick up a free set of offerings to use at the shrine (which also has a set of Chinese fortune telling sticks – if you’ve never used them before it’s a fun experience and if you are with some locals they’ll give the cannister a shake too to get some lucky lottery numbers).
There is also a moat surrounding the elephant topped structure with pink and white lotus blossoms floating in the water. Near the exit is a stall that provides the blossoms in little ceramic bowls. You can buy some, but one bowl comes free with your admission (and since you make a wish when you float your blossom, this is a good time to not be greedy. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the gods never approve of greed.)
The museum is rife with religious symbology; there is a meaning to everything you see. The three stories of the main building are symbolic of the three-tiered cosmology of the Hindu-Thai Buddhist concept of Tribhumi, with the lower floor representing the underworld, the mezzanine floor a symbol of the human world and Mount Meru – which is the centre of the universe according to the Buddhist belief, and the upper floor and chapel representing the heavens above, and Tavatisma, where the gods reside. The architecture throughout is a harmonious blend of Eastern and Western art, with the ginormous stained glass dome – the creative design of German artist Jacob Schwarzkopf – depicting a map of the world and the symbols of the zodiac.
There are other shrines located around the museum’s grounds, bells to be rung, and shady spots to sit and relax. The Erawan Museum is a good outing for a day not devoted to rushing about. The museum is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and its website provides transportation options and directions in English, though like most Thai-based websites it is heavy on graphics and all the fancy bells and whistles that get in the way of providing information (www.erawan-museum.com). Having a car on hand was fortuitous on our trip, I did not see many taxis in the area waiting to take park patrons back to their hotel.
Lastly, a shout out to Christianpfc who posted about his visit on SGT earlier this year along with some photos that convinced me to finally go visit the place. I hope this post will do the same for you.