Day 1. “Begin at the beginning”

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The Erawan Museum. A 250 ton 29 meter high three headed elephant whose gaze stretches over the horizon of Samut Prakan Province, Thailand. 

It was the vision child of business tycoon  Khun Lek Viriyapant– usually considered as crazy as he was eccentric. He built this unconventional museum to hold a large collection of ancient Asian antiques, to preserve the Thai Culture, and to give its visitors a glimpse in to the heavens of Trāyastriṃśa.

It was a hazy day.  Great for acclimating to the suffering heat and humidity that Bangkok thrusts upon its visitors and citizens, not as great for photographing an indescribably large deity.  However, it was an opportunity to start dealing with photographing in adverse weather conditions that would probably get worse soon enough.

Inside the belly of the beast is three floors that house ancient pottery and some of the oldest Buddha figures in Thailand. Its off the beaten path and usually not seen by the many tourists who simply do a drive-by of Bangkok’s temple top-hits on their way to the zoo and other attractions who pollinate the city. It’s too specifically Thai for most foreigners, and is only surrounded by a sea of slums that makes it even less inviting to venture to. 

But for me, it offered an opportunity to start on the outside of Bangkok. Away from the farang hotels and swaths of tourist trap hustlers the city center is known for. 

As for the Elephant’s feelings on its location, I like to think it would rather be here. Quietly protecting its culture and the people in the slums of Samut Prakan rather than stand at the heart of the chaos and madness of downtown Bangkok.

Inside feels even larger than the omnipotent presence felt on the outside.  The base is entered by a small door which leads to the underworld- an area where photography is forbidden and ancient ming dynasty vases dwell. 

The second floor, earth, is as bizarre as it is beautiful.  A giant serpent coils around the center creating a dual spiral porcelain staircase adorned with painted shells and stones. A statue of Guanyin, thousand armed goddess of mercy, stands enshrined in the center, blessing visitors as they walk past.  

The ceiling is a map of the world, created by Jacob Schwarzkopf out of recycled glass.  Its glow gives the entire room the curious feeling of being alive. As you reach the top of the stairs the room itself, in the belly of the elephant, seems to be breathing in and out at a constant rhythm.

A triplet of wooden spiral staircases takes you far up to the third floor- a journey seemingly longer than what could possibly fit into the gargantuan elephant deity.  The narrow stairs finally open up into the pinnacle of the designers dream- an earthly glimpse of the heavenly Trāyastriṃśa.

Ancient statues and relics of the Buddha from each of the old ages stand stoically against the side walls.  Photography is forbidden of these relics, except for the centerpiece- one of the oldest likenesses of Buddha surrounded by adornments and offerings landscaped with a painting of the cosmos. 

The Museum is cathartic in its ability to bestow the holiness and gravity that Buddhism has in the Thai culture.  A wonderful metronome to the tempo of religious Wats and Shrines that will follow in the coming days.

 

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