In Bangkok, David Whitley finds himself immersed in the bizarre world of ranking elephants



You don’t have to spend too much time sat in Bangkok’s delightful traffic jams to realise that the elephant holds a special place in Thai hearts. Roundabouts will have hedges cut out in the shape of ellies, and monuments will depict big pink ones lifting a god to the heavens.


It would be reasonable enough to assume that this is because elephants are cool animals – they are, after all, great – but a visit to one of the city’s oddest museums shows that there’s a lot more to it than that.


The Royal Elephant National Museum is tucked away inside the grand and bizarrely unThai-looking Dusit Palace Park. The park was once the king’s main residence, built under the orders of a Westernised king with a penchant for Victorian and Mughal architecture. It performs more of a touristy role now, and the old stables that the Royal Elephants were kept in have been converted.


To start to understand the Thai reverence for elephants, you first need to understand that a Royal Elephant isn’t just any old elephant.


Royal Elephant is an official rank. These ellies are raised to the title by the king after a ludicrously OTT ceremony that goes through both Buddhist and Hindu rituals. There are chanting monks, dousing in holy water, ‘magic spells’, processions and sacrifices involved – some of which are shown in photographs along the walls.


There’s a massive rule book about what makes an elephant ‘auspicious’ or not. Illustrations of elephants with barely perceptible differences are laid out in rows. They bear labels such as ‘Isavara Family Phaturasok Group’ and ‘Agni Family Nopsuban Group’. Apparently each family of auspicious elephants is named after the God that created them.


There are a few things on display within the museum – old tusks, saddles, sticks and chains used by the mahouts – but aside from the giant gold-adorned model elephant in the second building, most of the fascination comes from the bizarre complexity involved.


White elephants are particularly important in this labyrinthine system of pachyderm-ranking. If one is found in a village in Thailand, it is almost always presented to the king as a gift. A white elephant is an “auspicious symbol of cloudy rain of god who creates all fertilities for plants, animals and the prosperity of the emperor”.


There’s also a book setting down seven characteristics a white elephant must have to be considered properly auspicious. These include properly white testicles. Don’t you go presenting a grey-balled jumbo to the king, now.


Even then, there are three classes of white elephant. The class A elephants – called sarasweet – have a large figure and the skin colour of a conch shell. They are considered “auspicious of the country”.  Second class elephants have “pink skin, the colour of a dry lotus petal”. One of these is “reserved for marital affairs use”. The mind boggles.


The true joy of the museum is that it leaves you with far more questions than answers. I want to meet someone whose job it is to assess elephants for their level of auspiciousness. I want to memorise which elephants belong in which group. I want to know if the king has a favourite. And I want elephant-ranking to be my Mastermind specialist subject.


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok Lumpini Park It’s mainly a business hotel, but it looks surprisingly stylish