I found some more live elephants! These are in fact extra special elephants because they are “white” elephants – though if you look closely you will see that they are a pale grey colour with a faint pinkish tinge. The descriptor “white” actually refers to their supposed spiritual purity rather than the colour of their skin. They are not a different species of elephant but are albinos, and relatively rare – I have never seen one before.
The idiomatic phrase “white elephant” that we use today describes something whose cost is greater than its usefulness, but which the owner cannot dispose of. It originates from the court of Thailand, where the story goes that the king would make a gift of a white elephant to disfavoured courtiers. The white elephant would ruin its new owner as it would be very expensive to maintain, but it would be rude of them to get rid of the animal as it was considered sacred. This also meant it could not be used for work.
However, it’s not all bad for white elephants. In many South East Asian cultures, for a king to possess a white elephant was regarded as showing that he ruled with justice and power, and that the kingdom would be blessed with peace and prosperity. Owning a white elephant that you could not use for labour showed that you had a great expendable income and therefore that you were very powerful. Particularly in Thailand, the status of the king was partly evaluated by the number of white elephants he had.
White elephants also have religious significance. In Hinduism, Indra, one of the principle deities, has a white elephant mount. In Buddhism, the mother of the Buddha was said to have dreamt of a white elephant giving her a lotus flower right before his birth. This is why they are considered sacred.
White elephants were discovered in Burma in 2001, 2002 and 2015. The military regime made a lot of these discoveries as they saw them as demonstrating the prosperity of their rule. Most are kept in the bizarrely unoccupied capital of Nay Pyi Daw, but three are kept on the outskirts of Yangon in a special pavilion at Hsin Daw Pyi. When we visited, only two were “on duty”, which made me feel a little better as it is not a very nice life for an elephant, kept confined in a very small area. At least they get some time off, and are presumably fed and cleaned properly. But all in all, given the chains on their legs and their use as propaganda for a brutal regime, it would have been better if they had not been discovered. It was a slightly disheartening visit, even though I had been intrigued to meet one of these auspicious white elephants.
Yangon Circle Train
To reach these white elephants, we took a ride on the Yangon Circle Train, a fun little train that goes through the centre of Yangon, out round into the suburbs (some of which feel almost rural), and back into downtown Yangon again.
What was fun was that you bought a ticket for the circle route and then could get on and off as you liked. We made a couple of stops to see some rather bizarre sites that are usually out of reach of tourists in the centre of the city, such as a pagoda which felt a bit like a theme park.
The downside to the train was that it was rather unpredictable – sometimes a new train would arrive within minutes of you reaching the platform, but at one point we had to wait two hours for the next train. We had intended to just spend a morning on the train but with the stops to see temples and elephants, a fair bit of getting lost and time waiting on the platform, it ended up taking a whole day. But all in all it was a very fun day and an excellent start to our time in Burma.