I have visited a lot of temples since coming to Southeast Asia, as faithful readers can attest. Most of them are hundreds of years old and demonstrate many periods of cultural and religious history for the people who worshipped in these spaces. Chiang Rai’s White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun, was opened in 1997. It’s privately owned by its creator, Chalermchai Kositpipat, for whom the project is a personal mission. It’s free to enter and open year-round. It is equal parts art installation and Buddhist temple with a dash of pop culture exploration thrown in for interest.
Every aspect of the temple is embellished, as you can see from the pictures. Symbolism and commentary are woven throughout each embellishment. I’m not entirely sure what all the symbols mean or what message Kositpipat intends. But the experience of walking through the temple is an overwhelming one. It reminded me most of Gaudí’s work in Barcelona as both artists use mosaics of broken materials and intricate detail.
When you enter the compound, you pass a small koi lake. You proceed toward the main building or ubosot. To reach it though, you must cross a bridge across the lake. The bridge is surrounded by grasping hands and ensnared skulls, meant to represent desire. Buddhists believe desire is seeking its own death. Their goal is to remove wanting to return to peace. After crossing the bridge, you reach the gate of heaven guarded by Death and Rahu, who determine the fate of the dead. Once through the gate, you enter the ubosot itself.
The inside of the ubosot contrasts directly with the rest of the temple’s monotone colour scheme as it is covered in hot shades from yellow through deep reds. The interior boasts a mural that covers all of the walls and includes all kinds of random characters and symbols. Neo from The Matrix joins the Terminator, a minion from Despicable Me, Superman, Harry Potter, and perhaps most bizarrely Michael Jackson on one wall of the mural. Our guide said the meaning is that Buddha is like a superhero, so these modern references are meant to provide insight about the Enlightened One. I will leave that to your own interpretation. Of course, the ubosot also includes the requisite golden Buddha statue.
Check back tomorrow for more pictures from the rest of the White Temple compound.
Title quote: The phrase a man standing on the bridge yells into a loudspeaker, alternating among several languages. Really.