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Most peoples' jaws drop when they see the 250 ton, three-headed copper elephant that stands 44 metres tall south of Bangkok, but it looks like nothing but a very big statue at first glance. In fact, this massive elephant houses a melange of colour, texture, history, spirituality and imagination known collectively as Erawan Museum.
The museum blossomed from the mind of Lek Viriyabhun, an eccentric Thai businessman who made a fortune in the 20th century importing Mercedes Benz automobiles into Thailand. More than just a big-time car salesman, Lek was a creative visionary who devoted much of his time and money to preserving Thai culture while at the same time expanding its horizons. He passed away in 2000 at the age of 86, four years before his ambitious Erawan Museum was opened to the public following decades of creative collaboration and careful construction.
With the help of some of modern Thailand’s most masterful craftspeople, Khun Lek designed the museum in his own imaginative way that intertwines historical, cultural, spiritual and metaphysical elements to create distinct attractionss that aren’t quite temples or museums but rather cohesive works of art in their own right. The Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya and Ancient Siam were also conjured up and brought to fruition by Lek, but many feel Erawan Museum is his defining masterpiece.
The giant three-headed elephant is a depiction of Airavata, known in Thailand as Erawan, which in Indian mythology is the vehicle and servant of the Hindu god Indra. A small image of the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avolokitesvara (or Guanyin as the Chinese goddess form), is the centrepiece of the museum’s central section. Four huge tin pillars inlaid with detailed scenes drawn from Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity support the structure, and a dazzling stained glass roof by the late German artist, Jakob Schwarzkopf, depicts a map of the world and surreal imagery blending into the Zodiac and galaxies beyond.
The museum’s deep underlying theme seems to be all-pervasive unity. According to the literature provided by the museum, Lek “didn’t simply perceive the elephant as a vehicle of the God Indra. Instead, he imagined it as a Cosmic Elephant.” The religious scenes of humankind and a myriad of gods in the context of the greater cosmos hint simultaneously at what’s both limitless and inclusive of earthly beings.
Also in the museum’s central section, spiraling staircases surrounded by ornate Thai carvings and miniscule pieces of broken Benjarong pottery drift and mingle with mythic dragons and flute-playing apsara fairies. You could say the atmosphere is psychedelic, but it’s hard to argue with its magnificence.
Visitors are first instructed to enter the cool basement, which represents the underworld of the Buddhist conception of the universe where mythic nagas dwell. We thought it felt more like a regular museum, albeit an exquisite one thanks to the displays of antique ceramics.
The large central area apparently represents both the human realm of the Buddhist universe and Mount Meru, the centre of the Hindu universe, but things get even more ‘out there’ after walking up a steep passageway of steps that emerge into the museum’s rendition of Tavatimsa heaven, a place where devas and gods frolic according to the Buddhist view.
Here in the belly of the elephant, a dim blue glow surrounds a gold standing Buddha and an encasement of what are thought to be relics of the Buddha himself along with other ancient Buddha images from several different parts of Asia. The sloped blue ceiling is decorated with moons, a sun, clouds and constellations. One gets the sense of being in a fantasy world, or a very surreal dream.
A lift makes it possible for all visitors to experience Tavatimsa, and it’s not a bad idea to take advantage of it after a few minutes in shadowy heaven; even if your legs are healthy — it’s a dizzying walk back down the long spiralling staircases. Before you head down, take a peek out the small window for a vantage point of the surrounding superhighways from just below one of the elephant heads’ tusks.
Once outside, take a stroll through the expansive tropical flower gardens and ponds shared by bright yellow, orange and red fish, turtles and still more sparkling statues of mythical creatures.
Locals flock to the sight each day to make offerings to Erawan at a courtyard shrine that fronts the museum. Though most foreigners don’t take advantage of it, the price of admission also gets you a lotus bud, which is to be sent floating into the small stream that surrounds the museum after you’ve made a wish. If your lotus gets snagged up and stops before making it around the museum, you’d better start working on a more manageable wish because — at least according to the locals — that one ain’t coming true.
How to get there
Erawan Museum is located where the Bang Phli Suk Sawat expressway overpasses Sukhumvit Road, about five kilometres south of Bearing BTS station in northern Samut Prakan province. It can easily be reached from Bearing station by taxi or local buses #25, 102, 142, 365, 507, 508, 511 and 536. Many visit Erawan Museum and Ancient Siam on the same day. Don't confuse Erawan Museum with Erawan Shrine, which is a much smaller and unrelated attraction in central Bangkok.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th May, 2015.