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Wat Rong Khun
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrA hybrid of all that is fervently religious and much of what is modern sci-fi, the White Temple of Chiang Rai, in Thailand’s northern region, is one of the most spectacular and eccentric sites in the entire country, if not the entire planet. Regarded as over-the-top, surreal, and downright bizarre, this contemporary temple was designed and built by a local visual artist who blended traditional Thai Buddhist architecture, with an utterly surreal version of pop culture.
Chalermchai Kositpipat , the man behind the vision and construction (and present owner), created his masterpiece in 1997 and has allowed free access to the public ever since its inception. Revered and abhorred in equal measure, the Wat Rong Khun, as the ‘temple’ is officially known, is certainly a sight to behold and should not be missed by anyone travelling to Chiang Rai. Due to a recent earthquake which caused some minor damage, the temple’s interior is temporarily closed for repair work, yet the 14km side trip from Chiang Rai is still very much a worthwhile exercise.
The Idea Behind the Wat Rong KhunKositpipa built his other-worldly temple atop an already existing, yet hopelessly decrepit, wat. This was meant to be his offering to Buddha and he believes the creation has granted him immortal life. Wat Rong Khun is a work in progress and completion of the project is not expected for at least another five decades. The self-funded artist, who accepts only modest donations, has so far invested the equivalent of 1.3 million USD into his work of art. Eventually, he plans to build a working monastery on the property adjacent to the temple, where monks can live and practice their faith.
Kositpipa has been called everything from genius to lunatic, and after spending a few hours exploring his treasured artwork, most visitors come away with the impression that he is probably a little of both. Do bring sunglasses if visiting on a particularly sunny day. Much like Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, staring at the temple for too long can seriously damage one’s retina.
Take a Stroll through the TempleIn order to reach the temple, one must cross an intricately carved bridge which crosses a moat, in front of which you’ll see countless sculptures of outreaching arms; meant to represent unabashed desire. The bridge is a symbolic gateway to heaven, which one can only reach if one foregoes all temptations of greed, desire, and lust.
At Kositpipa’s version of the Pearly Gates , you’ll see two enormous statues, representing Death and Fate, which will mark your entry to the main temple. Inside, instead of the usual and obviously far-too-mainstream scenes of Buddhist good VS evil, you’ll be greeted by images inspired by modern events, science fiction, and modern pop culture. Everyone from Spiderman, Batman, Michael Jackson, and even the Matrix are depicted in the surreal paintings, and if you spend a moment to search, you’ll also find an image depicting the destructive events of 9/11. There’s also an ultra cool Star-Wars-type scene depicting Armageddon in splendidly vibrant colors. In stark contrast sit two angelic-looking Buddha statues, adorned with pretty flowers and surrounded by peaceful-looking deities. The representation of good and evil on our planet, although depicted quite erratically, is nonetheless very powerful.
The exterior of the main temple is decorated with mosaics of mirrored tiles, and at least this section remains somewhat true to Buddhist architecture, as the wat boasts a multi-tiered roof and innumerable serpent statues.
The public restroom is itself a work of art, having earned the moniker of the Golden Toilet. If the White Temple represents the mind and soul, then the golden restrooms represent the body and all of its worldly greed.
Aside Phra Usobot, or main temple, you’ll see gables, pagodas, ordination, and recitation halls, as well as a museum and gallery showcasing Kositpipa’s multitude of artworks.
Latest MishapA powerful earthquake hit the region on the 5th May 2014, damaging a few of the structures and the main temple in particular. At time of writing, visitors are only allowed to enter the compound and admire the White Temple from the outside, yet the interior is supposed to be accessible again by the end of 2015.
Admission InfoWat Rong Kun is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
How to Get ThereThe temple is located on the RHS of Highway 1, about 14km south-west of Chiang Rai. You could either hire a tuk-tuk for a few hours, join one of the many tour groups which depart daily from town or, for a more affordable option, simply hop on the platform 8 bus, but do ask the driver first. A one way ride costs just ฿20 ($0.62).
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Feb 17, 2015