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Elephants abound in Thai art and popular culture. You’ll find them in carvings, paintings, textiles, stories—even on bottles of the beloved local beer, Chang. The national symbol of Thailand, elephants are admired for their strength, endurance and intelligence. They have long had a role in Thai society; elephants were used in warfare centuries ago, and they also hauled logs and farm produce. A white elephant was even on Thailand’s national flag from 1855 to 1916, and on the King’s personal flag before then. White-elephant flags still fly on Thai Navy ships.
Here’s a look at some of the many ways elephants figure into life in Thailand today.
The Symbol of a King
A white elephant symbolizes the King. Rare and considered sacred, white elephants (which are a pinkish-grey, actually) were given to the King, whose status was determined by how many white elephants he owned. It all started when the mother of Gautama Buddha, the Hindu prince and founder of Buddhism, dreamed of a white elephant holding a lotus flower in its trunk the night before his birth in India.
The connection between Thai kings and elephants has made it into global culture in the form of the term “white elephant.” If a king was angry with a courtier, he gave him a white elephant as a gift. Since the animals were forbidden to work, couldn’t be given away, and their maintenance was expensive, the man would be ruined. The phrase became a synonym for something useless.
A Sacred Cultural Role
“Erawan” is the Thai name for the three-headed white elephant in Hindu myth who guards Indra, the god of rain, thunder and lightning. At Bangkok’s famous Erawan Shrine, people come day and night to pray for good fortune, making offerings of tiny wooden elephants or garlands of yellow flowers. A huge, 250-ton, three-headed-elephant sculpture stands in front of the Erawan Museum in suburban Bangkok, which houses Asian antiquities from Thai ceramics to Chinese furnishings. Erawan National Park in west Thailand is also named for the mythical elephant.
Thai temples often have elephant murals, like the war elephant battle scenes in Bangkok’s Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun. At Wat Ban Rai in northeast Thailand, one of the most spectacular temples you’ll ever see, a 520-ton elephant head tops the ceramic body of a turtle above the entrance.
Legend says a white elephant chose the site for one of Thailand’s major Buddhist temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, on a mountaintop near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. After the elephant was released into the jungle, he began climbing, stopped and trumpeted three times, so the King ordered the temple be built on that spot.
True Elephant Art
Sometimes, elephants create art, instead of just star in it. Elephants paint with their trunks, dance and even play soccer in many elephant camps in Thailand. The art ranges from abstracts to flowers, trees and elephant images (for the latter, the trainer touches the animal to guide it).
There was even an elephant orchestra. The animals were trained to play percussion in complex patterns. The four-legged musicians were recorded on three albums—two featured elephant-people collaborations, but the last starred elephants only, playing freestyle.
Thai movies also feature elephants, even recently. The 2005 martial arts film Tom-Yum-Goong (released as Warrior King in the United Kingdom and The Protector in the U.S.) is about a man in a family who guarded royal war elephants, which are stolen by a gangster with a Thai restaurant in Australia.
Movies, beer, ancient temples: Few things are as ubiquitous to Thai culture as elephants. No matter where you stay in Thailand, from the beachy paradise of Hotel Indigo Phuket Patong to the exciting, urban bustle of Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road, it’s the ultimate destination for fans of these giant, gentle animals.