At first glance, the White Temple in Chiang Rai—Wat Rong Khun—seems to be straight out of a Disney animation. It’s only on closer inspection that its “gates of heaven” are paved with the gnarled hands and pained faces of unrestrained desire, as well as cultural references to terrorist attacks, nuclear warfare and ring-bearing villains from Lord of the Rings.
With an estimated 40,000 temples in Thailand, it’s not abnormal for travellers to find themselves at times temple-fatigued. Yet not all temples are necessarily equal, and the stunning White Temple of Chiang Rai is undoubtedly a standout.
Reconstructed, redesigned, financed and now owned by renowned Thai artist Chalermchai Kositipipat—who as it turns out we were lucky enough to brush shoulders with (or should I say bow down to)—the White Temple is a work of art and architecture that is clearly defined by a glorious imagination.
Kositipipat chose white to represent Buddha’s purity and glass so the sun would reflect Buddha’s wisdom over the earth. It stands in stark contrast against the azure sky, and as you approach contorted arms extend upward as if in outreach toward you. The temple, as Sue says, seems to be where sci-fi meets Buddhism, where humanity’s historical sins meet the contemporary Buddhist mind. With traditional depictions mixed with contemporary culture iconography, the White Temple is endlessly complex and nuanced.
Before entering the main structure, you cross a bridge over a small lake meant to symbolize the foregoing of gluttonous, earthly pleasures and sins alike. Inside, a life-like wax figure of a monk greets you, back-dropped by a mural that colourfully and loudly illustrates the violent impact humans have had both on the earth and each other.
Chalermchai Kositpipat, like most artists, started with commercial work, painting movie advertisements on billboards, and learned to mix Buddhist imagery with modern themes, however controversially.
He started reconstructing a run-down Wat Rong Khun in 1997 using his own money, and the project has since evolved into his life’s work—in fact, the White Temple (which will eventually include nine buildings) is only slated for completion in 2070, which Kositpipat won’t live to see. (Unless he lives to be 115!) Other structures will include a monks’ residence, meditation hall and Buddhist gallery; the goal is to become a centre for learning and contemplation.
The day Team Outpost visited, Kositpipat was seated at a table, pouring over grid paper near the admittance building, seemingly in conference with his architectural team. We decided to ask for permission to film the temple, then stood waiting silently in queue to speak. I guess I would have expected Kositpipat to assume characteristics typical to an obsessive mad genius, perhaps unloving of media. Perhaps be hypercritical of two Western girls who had come to place their non-Buddhist-informed judgements on his art.
When we were finally called up as his crew dispersed, we bow deeply to convey respect Chalermchai, regarded us briefly, prying his eyes from a sketch just long enough to stifle a smile.
“You wish to film?”
“Yes, sir,” we replied, stomachs in our mouths.
“Well,” he said, bouncing up jovially and making a circular motion with his arms as a coach does when sending players onto the field. “Go, go, go!”
“Kob khun ka!” Sue and I said in chorus as we raced off and the next throng of underlings approached him. Not skeptical or judgemental or endlessly pontificating or any of the stereotypical things I associate with genius. He was friendly, funny, fatherly even. Weird.
Filming is forbidden inside, but we were allowed to wonder the grounds up close and personal. I really wish I could have sat down with Kositpipat over Thai tea to get solid answers about his artistic intentions and what he’s planning next. But I guess, like all provocative art, the point is there is no single answer and it’s all up for interpretation.
Yet the White Temple is one that will reinvigorate any jaded-temple goer. It is truly magnificent, and does indeed make one contemplate the cross between fiction and real life, between where we’ve come and where we’re going.
Kositpipat once famously stated: “I am simply a painter who shares this world of ours, as a small unit in human society, paying my due, and hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet Earth.” For anyone who sets eyes on the White Temple in Chiang Rai, I think he does.