Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Most Metal Temple in Thailand

The main vihara

Hands reaching out from Buddhist hell. And you thought this was a peaceful religion!

Thou shalt not smoke, drink, or offend Van Halen.
Off a highway thirty minutes south of Chiang Rai, on a street dotted with coffee shops and trinket sellers, lies Wat Rong Khun, one of the most bizarre and beautiful temples ever built. Beautiful, because it's ivory white and pristinely spiky. Bizarre, because you're as likely to see an image of Hellboy as you are the Buddha.

The 12-acre complex is the creation of Chalermchai Kositpipat, who believes the best way to honor the Buddha is to have life-size cardboard cutouts of himself scattered about the property. Including in front of the gold-leafed bathroom, which along with the "Hall of Masterworks" is the only structure done in anything but white.

Speaking of which, we were in the minority there: most of the tourists were Thai, which is something we'd find to be true on our later adventures at obscure temples. (Which is not to say that the White Wat, as it is known to white people, is obscure: most Western tourists who venture as far north as Chiang Rai generally hit the "White Wat | Black House" tour on their way up the Golden Triangle. What a colorful adventure.) There's a sign near the entrance stating that all non-Thai visitors need to be accompanied by a guide, presumably because some Western ingrates decided to do something inappropriate on the premises. But I think the attendant was pleased at our Thai, and so let us pass into the vihara with only the warning that no photographs were allowed inside the building.

I actually followed the directions, but many who came before me did not. So this is what it looks like inside, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Just in that one square, I can spot Spiderman, a lone Angry Bird, Hello Kitty on a Manhattan rooftop, and the second plane on its way to crashing into the second tower of the World Trade Center, which is already on fire with a giant two-headed demon-snake/gas pump crawling over it.

The man is slightly irreverent. The entire inside of the vihara—which is maybe 50 feet square—is covered in this mural, and one wall features more references to Western pop culture than I'm familiar with. Then rising above this on the adjacent walls are floating golden boats with Thai figures heading towards nirvana, as depicted on the opposite wall.

It's really quite beautiful—as the man's biography, printed along the wall of Hall of Masterworks, will tell you: Chalermchai sure can paint.

The best part of all this is that the temple isn't even finished yet. In fact, the artist, who is 59, well knew this when he started. “Only death can stop my dream,” Chalermchai said, “but it cannot stop my project.”


Just a month after we left, a massive, 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit Northern Thailand and Myanmar. Wat Rong Khun was beat up pretty badly, and sent its megalomaniacal artist-despot into despair. It's going to be rebuilt, but just add two years to the next 50 or so currently planned.

We're pretty lucky to have seen it when we did.

PS: I also wrote about this temple at The American Scholar.

No comments:

Post a Comment