The White Temple of Chiang Rai

By Irene Dogmatic, February 8, 2015

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

The artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has dedicated himself to creating an offering to Lord Buddha, in the Thai City of Chiang Rai. "My impression upon seeing it was that it looks like a Buddhist Temple designed by Salvador Dali with the help of Rob Zombie and perhaps Walt Disney as well."

Wat Rong Khun, in the Northern Thai City of Chiang Rai, is a privately owned set of structures designed, constructed and the property of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist who decided to build this place on the site of a previous but badly damaged Buddhist Temple. He was very financially successful as an artist and decided to put all of his money into this project in order to achieve eternal or immortal life.

He has so far invested more than 40 Million Thai Bat on the place, or over $1,200,000 Euros or Dollars. The site opened to visitors in 1997, and it’s not expected to be completed until around 2070. He considers it to be an offering to Lord Buddha. There is no admission charge and he won’t accept any large donations to help with the project because he doesn’t want any outside influence on it.

Glitter skulls and reaching hands

Glitter skulls and reaching hands

The main building or ubosot, is all white, with fragments of mirrored glass. It looks very lacelike. Chalermchai, who I will refer to from now on as CK (not to be confused with the American comedian) obviously thinks that the West is very decadent, because when you enter the temple, there are murals with swirling flames and demonic faces, such as Michael Jackson, “Freddie Kruger,” and a T-800 series Terminator. He also includes Keanu Reeves as Neo from the Matrix. I guess Keanu’s role in “Little Buddha” didn’t exclude him from the gallery of rogues. To make things more complicated, Harry Potter, Superman and Hello Kitty are also there. No one is allowed to take photos of the murals on the inside of the ubosot.

There were large cracks in the wall when I was there, and I assumed that they were intentional, but actually, there was a big earthquake there last year, so that was not the case. CK plans to restore the damage in the next couple of years. The small tower on top of the main temple was also tilting, and that as well was due to the earthquake of 2014.

Raku

Raku

Some of the other aspects of this place include the Gate of Heaven, which you reach by crossing a bridge guarded by two creatures, one representing death and one Raku, who decides your fate. As you go over the bridge, which is called “the bridge of the cycle of rebirth”, you see cement hands reaching up from the depths of “hell” — I never knew there was a hell in Buddhism, but apparently there is some horrible place you can go, because he depicted it with these hideous hand sculptures which supposedly symbolize unrestrained desire, and foregoing greed and temptation. There are also lifelike skull sculptures made of white ceramic and mirrors, in the manner of the main temple itself.

The temple also has a moat that fronts it, and adds to the unconventional beauty of the place. To add to the fun, there are statues of skulls on posts, and the heads of people with dead grasses as beards.

To a Westerner this is a completely bizarre place. My impression upon seeing it was that it looks like a Buddhist Temple designed by Salvador Dali with the help of Rob Zombie and perhaps Walt Disney as well.

Hanging heads at the White Temple

Hanging heads at the White Temple

Wikipedia describes this place as “an unconventional art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple,” but I have no doubts as to CK’s intentions. To HIM it IS a Buddhist Temple, and it is also very popular with the Thai people, who were there in droves, perhaps due to the New Year’s Holiday. It is actually popular with most tourists, just for it’s weirdness.

I didn’t sense any serious piety in the crowds there, but I could say the same of most of the Buddhist Temples I visited in Thailand. They seem to have a very different attitude towards their religion than we do in the West. They appear to thoroughly enjoy the temples, and to an outsider their religion seems to bear similarities to what we are told Christianity was like in Europe in Medieval times. I mean that in the sense that their religion seems very alive to them.

White temple skull decorations

White temple skull decorations

Since I am not that knowledgeable of the culture, it is possible that they enjoy visiting these temples in the same way we enjoy visiting Art Museums in the West. I don’t know.

No one on earth will ever know if Chalermchai K. will achieve his goal of immortal life as a result of building The White Temple. It does seem like a rather odd way of seeking immortality, but who am I to judge? He has, however, created a fascinating, if loopy site, which was great fun to visit, even for a somewhat cynical agnostic like me.
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For more information about Irene Dogmatic see www.irenedogmatic.com

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