The most contemporary and unconventional temple on our travels has been Wat Rong Khun. A quick look and you can see that this is no ordinary temple. Along with traditional Thai architecture, is an unusual blend of the classic with the surreal.
Located just outside of Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun is famously known in Thailand as the White Temple.
The masterpiece of artist and Chiang Rai local Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, The White Temple was started in 1990s, and remains a work in progress. With perhaps as many as 90 years before its anticipated completion, the artist has made plans for the continuation of his ambitious project after his death.
So, why did the designer choose a white temple with mosaics of mirrors covering the magnificent palace that reflect the sunlight, adding a sparkle that makes it look like a glistening ice palace or a fairytale castle? Kositpipat wanted to build a temple that symbolized the gleaming white of heaven for Buddha’s purity with the glass reflecting his wisdom and intellect over earth and the entire universe.
In contrast to this purity, comes the morbid and bizarre. Here, good and evil are entwined in a Buddhist context. Sculptures of demons such as the Controller of Fate and a sea of pleading hands rising upward to escape the depths of hell surround us as we cross a bridge to enter the temple. This crossing represents the transition from the cycle of life to the land of the Buddha. We crossed the bridge to reach the Gate of Heaven, guarded by the Angel of Death.
Inside the wat, which is anything but white, we are not greeted by traditional Buddha images, but by scenes and icons of popular culture, including murals of Michael Jackson, Harry Potter; Jack Sparrow; Predator, Batman; Superman; Avatar; and Keanu Reeves as Neo from The Matrix. The artist takes it even a step further on an unfinished wall with the image of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden in the pupils of an evil beast. Inside the mouth of the beast is the shocking image of a plane smashing into the Twin Towers, complete with a gasoline pump snaking its way to the top. If that’s not enough, yet another wall depicts spaceships and a scene of a cataclysmic event with the annihilation of earth. Amidst this disturbing chaos, representing heavenly enlightenment, sits a peaceful white Buddha with an even larger Buddha behind, surrounded by golden flowers and celestial angels floating on clouds of enlightenment.
This is a tourist attraction after all – a free one at that – but what does it all mean? Explained in a temple brochure, creator Kositpipat suggests it is “the killing of the innocence” by Bush and Bin Laden, with no heroes (like our superheros Spiderman, Batman or even Jack Sparrow) to save us. I guess that’s where Buddha comes in… It represents the battle between good and evil with much evil, of course, originating from war and glamorized in Hollywood. Or, perhaps it represents a staged attack with characters not unlike our Hollywood villains upsetting the balance of good and evil.
The theme of Buddha’s teachings – the release for human passion and desire – is symbolized through the grounds of the temple. Demon heads and whisky bottles hang from tree branches. Toilets (that’s what restrooms are referred to in Thailand) are a work of art in their own right, housed in an ornate golden temple-like structure.
Despite the unusual vision of the temple architect, this is still a Buddhist temple and visitors are expected to act respectfully. I was handed a wrap as I entered as visitors with exposed shoulders and knees are not permitted in the main temple where the Buddha image is housed, and photos are not permitted inside the main bot or white temple.
This was an extraordinarily temple – eclectic, whimsical, extravagant and ornate of blinding-white facade, and obscenely creative and disturbing expressions within the thought-provoking content. Nothing was spared in the attention to detail and the small gothic elements around the site were strangely intriguing.