More than often, the immediate provinces surrounding Bangkok make very good destinations when it comes to one-day trips. Of course, Chonbui province with the Thai-orientated clientele resort town of Bang Saen and the (in)famous Pattaya City pop immediately in your mind when you think about getting out of the capital city to enjoy less stress and traffic. But, if time is limited (and it always seems to be with Bangkokians, for whom “time is money”), you needn’t go that far.
Located on (the old) Sukhumvit Road in Samut Prakan, a small province south-east of Bangkok, at the confluence of Chao Phraya River and the Gulf of Siam, Erawan Museum is of majestic grandeur. Towering at 29 meters high and weighing 250 tons, the huge three-headed elephant statue that makes up the museum is 39 meters long and rests on an equally impressive pedestal. The statue of the elephant is made of pure bronze and is hollow, with the left rear leg housing the lift and the right rear one a spiral staircase. The tail is the fire escape, while lightening rods run through all four legs. It is the world’s largest elephant statue!
The museum’s name and symbolism relate to Airvata, the elephant-shaped deity of Hindu mythology. Erawan is the Thai name for Airvata, a great white elephant with four tusks and seven trunks that was the steed of Indra, the god of thunder and war. The story goes that Erawan was born from the egg shell of Garuda, a large bird-like mythical creature, as Brahma, the god of creation, read the holy hymns. Contrary to the Hindu belief, the Thais see Erawan as having 33 heads, but for obvious practical purposes, the statues depicting the elephant have only three heads.
Cast in green-hued copper, from its initial conception in 1994 to its completion in the early 2000s, the edifice took almost ten years to construct. The project was financed by Lek Viriyaphant (aka “Khun Lek”), a late business tycoon who also started two other equally ambitious projects: the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya and the Ancient City in Samut Prakan. Erawan Museum was built with the idea of preserving and retaining Thai art and culture on Thai soil and of providing a place to display Khun Lek’s vast art collection. Actually, the building of the museum was supervised by Pagpean Viriyaphant, Khun Lek’s eldest son. Unfortunately, both of them died before the construction was completed, but they can rest in peace as their heirs are taking good care of the place.
Erawan Museum is made up of three levels representing the Three Worlds, each one symbolizing a specific part of the Thai cosmos. It also boasts Eastern antiquities and religious iconography, all put on display in a psychedelic-like display more familiar to dreams rather than reality.
The first level is actually in the basement of the museum and represents the cosmological Underworld. Dimly lit and with a low ceiling, the circular room might as well be the dwelling place of the nagas, the mythological snakes of the Underworld. But, once your eyesight adjusts to the lack of light, instead of nagas, you have the opportunity to admire some very well-preserved pieces of Benjarong ceramics, Chinese porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties, jade ornaments, Chakri dynasty tea sets, Sangkhalok pottery from Sukhothai, Chinese furniture, and Vietnamese vases. Other ornaments include old chairs and cabinets from the early Rattanakosin period, plus a Shiva statue in Khmer design from the Angkor Wat period. Although there are both Thai and English-speaking guides to help you understand the meaning of each area of the basement, bilingual explanatory notes accompany all the exhibits. Huge boards also illustrate the history of the construction of the museum.
The second level is located in the domed upper level of the pedestal and represents Mount Meru, the center of the Buddhist universe, traditionally located somewhere in the Himalayas, high above the Earth. If the Underworld was a dark place, the hall where Mount Meru is “located” surprises the visitor with its well-lit iconography, craftsmanship and artistic detail. The walls and winding staircases are like a collage of incredibly diverse ornaments which include hand-beaten copper work, Benjarong inlays, Petchaburi stucco, and mural paintings. There are also Vietnamese and Victorian vases on display!
At the mezzanine level of the hall, worshipers can say prayers to a statue of Bodhisatva Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, while all around them, four pillars prop up the roof, which symbolizes the earth. The pillars are decorated with scenes from the four main world religions: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. At the time of my visit, some of the pillars were undergoing restoration / completion and had scaffolding around them. The stained glass that covers the ceiling of Mount Meru hall was designed by Jacob Schwarzkopf, a German artist, and represents the roof of the world, the Zodiac and the stars in the sky.
According to Buddhist cosmology, above Mount Meru there is a place called Tavatimsa Heaven where sacred begins reside, including the elephant deity Airavata. At Erawan Museum, this place is at the third level, in the belly of the three-headed elephant, and is decorated with nine Buddha images in a variety of postures. Some of these are the oldest in Thailand. Unfortunately, the only wooden sculpture on display is stained with age and shows signs of cracks. The other statues are in bronze or sandstone and are in fairly good condition.
On your way to “heaven,” stop by a small window in the elephant’s belly for a nice panoramic view of the museum grounds. The concave walls and ceiling of the third level are hand-painted in abstract art depicting the solar system. In my opinion, the light blue and gold murals are a sore eye for the visitor as it does not match the overall atmosphere of this level. You’re not allowed to take pictures in this particular part of the museum, but a photographer on location can take a few pictures of you in front of the main altar for a small commission.
The grounds of Erawan Museum are surrounded by tropical gardens dotted with rare flora, ponds, secluded benches, pavilions, miniaturized streams, and rocks, all of which are perfect for a short repose after you’ve been inside the elephant. Here you can also check out the statues of mythological figures or deliver offerings of food and flowers to the shrine of the three-headed elephant housing smaller versions of Erawan. And, of course, like all other famous shrines throughout Thailand, there’s a story attached to this one too. Apparently, a young woman bought a lottery ticket just before praying to the giant statue and it turned out to be the winning ticket. Nowadays, lottery sellers make good business here before the 1st and 16th of every month when the winning numbers are out.
It is important to mention that Erawan Museum from Samut Prakan is not the same thing as the Erawan Shrine opposite Central World in downtown Bangkok. The shrine in Bangkok was dedicated to Brahma and was named after the old Erawan Hotel (now Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel).
You can reach the museum either by driving up Srinakarin Road and just following the signs leading out of Bangkok towards Samut Prakan; or by taking the BTS Sky Train to On Nut Station (or Hua Mark Station on the SRT Airport Link line) and then jumping in a taxi to the museum. The taxi fare is around 100 baht one way. The huge structure of the three-headed elephant is quite easy to spot as it can be seen from a distance. The compound is surrounded by a white crenellated wall that looks more like the ramparts of a fort.
To enter the museum grounds you’ll have to pay only 50 baht, but admission in the museum costs an extra 150 baht for adults and 50 baht for children. There’s no double-pricing system for Thais and foreigners. Erawan Museum is open every day from 8:00 until 18:00. Guided tours leave every half hour. Check out their official website at www.erawan-museum.com.
Initially published in ‘Bangkok Trader’ (vol.5, no. 6, May 2011)