A huge, three-headed elephant statue standing upon an equally gargantuan pedestal is the first, and last, thing you see when visiting Samut Prakan's Erawan Museum. It's a splendid, towering beast: 250 tons in weight, 29 metres high, 39 metres long, and cast in a pure green-hued copper. From conception to completion it took almost ten years to construct. With a proud, war-like demeanor and trunks the size of ancient Banyan Trees, this is an epic image of Hindu mythology's Airavata (otherwise known as Erawan) you'll never forget.
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Once you've also seen the museum housed inside and beneath its roomy belly, it'll also be one you never fully comprehend. Each of its three levels symbolises a part of the Thai cosmos, and headily fuses rare Eastern antiques, rampant religious iconography, and the most psychedelic de'cor you'll see outside a dream. And, as the brochure informs, that is exactly what this is: one man's dream, come to life.
That man is late business tycoon Lek Viriyapant, the same lively, eccentric spirit that conceived the equally ambitious Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, and Bangkok's popular Ancient City. His aim was to create a space for his vast collection of Asian antiquities, to preserve them for Thai people and their admiration. However, what was to be a conventional museum took on symbolic traits when a friend suggested it be shaped like an apple, the classic Western motif of human destiny. Khun Lek thought Eastern cosmology more apt, and decided upon an image of the Hindu elephant otherwise known as Erawan, to serve as the inspiration for his unique museum.
Mysteries of the Underworld
Tours around the result - an opulent space of dreams, faith and religious fervor surrounded by soothing gardens - begin in the dimly lit basement representing the cosmological Underworld. Said to be where 'Nagas' (mythological snakes) dwell, what visitors in fact find is the antiques and artifacts that prompted the museum, among them glorious examples of Benjarong ceramics, Chinese porcelain, Chakri dynasty tea sets, jade ornaments, Chinese furniture and Vietnamese vases.
Explanatory notes in Thai and English give background on these rare treasures, while others detail inspirations, facts and figures about the museum. Guides lead you round to unravel the mishmash of ideas and art forms which may otherwise wash over you (only one English-speaking guide on our visit).
Opulent Finery Inside Mount Meru
The domed upper level of the pedestal, representing Mount Meru (the centre of the Buddhist universe), is brashly beautiful. A towering, techni-coloured hall rich with iconography and artistic exuberance, what really impresses here is craftsmanship. The melange of artistic skills used to ornament everything from walls to winding staircases is incredibly diverse, and includes hand-beaten copper work, Benjarong inlays, intricate stucco by Petchaburi craftsmen, tin embossed tableaus, and mural paintings.
A statue of Bodhisatva Guan Yin stands centreplace. Four supporting pillars depicting scenes from the four religions prop up the roof which, in turn, symbolises earth. Rounding off the fanciful, eclectic blend of East, West, traditional and modern decorative styles is a splendid stained glass ceiling by a German artist, which represents the roof of the world, the Zodiac and stars above.
Religious Relics in the Beast's Belly
At the top, in the belly of the beast, is Tavatimsa Heaven. This in Buddhist cosmology lies above Mount Meru and said to be where sacred beings, including elephant deity Airavata, congregate. Here, the solemn serenity of the room's Buddha images - a walking Buddha and eight more in a variety of postures - is oddly offset by lurid abstract art that lines the concave walls, and depicts the solar system. True to the fusing of ideas, art-forms and religions which runs throughout, here the solemn serenity of a temple meets the surrealism of a Dali painting, albeit a three-dimensional one.
If not after spiritual showiness, visitors can wallow too in the tranquility of Erawan's lush tropical gardens (50 baht just for entrance to the grounds). Thick swathes of rare flora, and tucked away benches, pavilions and rocks make it easy to find spiritual soothing, or seek quiet repose. Visitors can wander stone paths, cross diminutive streams or admire the vivid colourings of plants and palm trees with exotic titles like West Indian Jasmine, Ixora Bush and African Oil Palm.
There is also the chance to feed schools of carp in the rock ponds (5 baht a bag), or seek out mythological statues strewn throughout. Alternatively, amble across to the workshop to see how the craftspeople work metals into serene religious pieces, or join worshippers in delivering offerings of fruit at the famed elephant shrine. Another popular, and rather beautiful, merit-making pursuit is to set adrift lotus leafs on the decorative moat, and with them dispense of bad luck.
Looming throughout however, as conspicuous as the elephant, is a surreal feeling. As you explore Erawan Museum, you seem at every turn to be wandering through the dreams of its creator.
- Opening Hours: Everyday 8:00-17:00
- Location: Sukhumvit Road, Samut Prakan
- How to get there: From the BTS Skytrain On Nut Station, take a taxi to the museum (should cost around 80 - 90 baht each way).