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Nothing can be deemed as Important & Sacred in Southeast Asia as the White Elephant

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Have you ever seen an elephant in real life? How about a white elephant? Thought so. These animals are so rare, yet they embody everything that is deemed important and sacred. Monarchs searched north, south, east and west for these guys. Some succeed, most don’t. Why are they so revered? Let’s take a look.

Its importance stems from the tales of Buddha’s birth. On the eve of delivery, Buddha’s mother dreamt of a white elephant presenting her with a lotus flower, a sign of wisdom and purity. Because of this story, white elephants became a symbol of fertility and wisdom. It also helps that these animals are few and far in between.

Definition of white elephant: a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth. The meaning has its roots in the region. On certain cases, white elephants were presented or exchanged as a diplomatic gesture.  To receive a white elephant is considered a blessing yet is also noted for its nuisance. The animal’s sacredness and the actual act of the monarch giving away something that valuable is a big enough of an action to show the king’s good-will gesture. The downside though stems from its practical use, which comes to nil because of the labor laws protecting it. Plus, it was very expensive to care for. Despite this, to be given a white elephant is a high honor, and many will make the necessary sacrifices in order to receive and keep this gift.

There were several items a King needed in order to rule successfully: a perfect wife, riches, a capable chief minister, a swift horse and most importantly possession of white elephants. For a monarch to keep a white elephant, it signifies that they will rule with justice and power, and that the kingdom was blessed with peace and prosperity. Kings would divert a lot of time and energy capturing these animals. The more he had, the more prosperous his kingdom would be and the longer and more successful his reign would be as well. However, if any white elephants died during his reign, it foretold disaster for the King and his kingdom.

Today, white elephants are very rare. The last one to be discovered in the wild was in Myanmar in 1961. They are still highly venerated in Southeast Asia today with sculptures, wood carvings, paintings and murals depicting these animals in temples, museums and art galleries. Thailand’s old flag has a white elephant depicted in the center.

Well, we would be lying if we told you you’d see a white elephant during your trip to Southeast Asia. But here’s the next best thing; you can actually go up close and personal with these giant lovable creatures with our Luang Prabang Elephant Adventure daytrip. Or if you are looking for the grand regional tour, then look into our Southeast Asia Discovery package. Experience the grandeur and splendor of each country, basking in the scenery of glittering temples, magnificent ruins, vast countryside and of course each country’s distinct culture and take on life. Depictions of white elephants will be spotted here and there. If you do find one, make sure everyone knows, including the authorities. They may just reward you for your efforts.

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