Image: Dustin Quasar
Image: Dustin Quasar
Although still firmly on the backpacker trail for anyone doing the long, slow trek from Bangkok into the upper part of Laos, the lush valleys and misty mountains of Northern Thailand are a world away from the boozy Full Moon Parties and glitzy resorts that characterize some of the country’s more popular tourist destinations. In picturesque towns like Pai, for instance, dreadlocked slackers and burnt-out hippies congregate en masse, loudly celebrating their freedom from the hordes of gap-year travelers by getting wasted on locally grown weed in a slightly more obscure location.
Then, after the hangovers have faded, a slow trickle of Western tourists will head further north, bound for the border on the mighty Mekong River and, perhaps, one stunningly beautiful – and spectacularly white – attraction along the way.
The White Temple – or Wat Rong Khun, as the attraction near the city of Chiang Rai is officially known – stands as a truly awe-inspiring sight. A raised walkway gives way to a sheer white bridge and then a series of starkly painted but nonetheless strikingly attractive and incredibly ornate buildings. Meanwhile, a calm, glassy pond and neatly groomed lawns all around add to the picture postcard appeal.
It bears the appearance of something out of a fabled fantasyland – a sumptuous and richly detailed vision that’s dazzling in its beauty. Indeed, Wat Rong Khun is no typical Buddhist temple. Its astonishing splendor hides a strange, even macabre, aspect that lurks, just waiting for visitors to discover it.
The first indication that Wat Rong Khun is a little different from the many other Buddhist places of worship found throughout Thailand comes upon the approach to the main entrance. There, protruding out of the grass, is the upper body of the alien Predator, from the movie series of the same name. It’s certainly an unexpected sight for a sacred space, and one that nods toward the somewhat disconcerting features to come.
Indeed, in stark contrast with the tranquil, holy atmosphere that the blindingly white architecture helps create, the 22-acre grounds of the temple feature nightmarish visions and distorted monsters at every turn. A couple of trees hold gruesome carved heads – one with a pig-snout nose, others sinister and moustachioed – like macabre hanging baskets.
Meanwhile, at the side of the walkway, dozens of sculpted hands can be seen reaching up from beneath the ground, desperately trying to catch visitors’ attention – or legs – as if the limbs belong to unfortunate souls trapped in the underworld.
As one moves toward the entrance, two intimidating demon-like figures sit on each side of the bridge, weapons drawn, arms raised and seemingly daring tourists to pass them. These statues seem quite distinct from the stately adornments that typically mark the exterior of Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia.
Such surprises may be because Wat Rong Khun is no long-standing monument but, rather, a modern-day work of art – albeit one with religious significance. It is the pet project of Chiang Rai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed the structure. The place was built using Kositpipat’s own funds on the site of an existing ancient temple that had fallen into disrepair.
The temple opened its doors to the public in 1997, with its exquisite exterior formed out of cement, decorated with pieces of glass and painted white. It is Kositpipat’s own personal gift to Buddha. Indeed, the artist’s original plan was for the temple to eventually feature a meditation area and spaces in which monks can live.
The temple itself is full of deliberate symbolism. For example, the bridge leading up to the buildings represents, according to Kositpipat, “the transition from the cycle of life to the land of the Buddha.” Meanwhile, the striking white color serves to signify the virtues of Buddha.
Indeed, Kositpipat has said that, in constructing Wat Rong Khun’s main building, he wanted to produce “a heaven on Earth.” However, with the seemingly random juxtaposition of pop culture figures scattered about the grounds – from the Predator at the entrance to reconstructions of movie icons like Hellraiser’s Pinhead – the artist has strayed away from traditional religious symbolism and into the realm of the off-kilter and arguably somewhat insane.
Inside the temple, for instance, Kositpipat ramped up the craziness factor to 11, with a mural that was both surprisingly familiar and startlingly bizarre.
The attention-grabbing mural that was created skipped the usual serene deity in favor of an amazing array of images taken straight from Western pop culture and recent history. In one area, for example, Spider-Man perched next to a vision of the Twin Towers aflame; in another, The Matrix’s Neo stood near a Transformer amid a fantastical scene complete with a soaring dragon and a volcano erupting on Earth.
Elsewhere, eagle-eyed visitors could spot everything from a depiction of Kung Fu Panda’s Po to George W. Bush riding a rocket blasting off into the ether.
The overall effect of all this artwork was undeniably stunning, but the average visitor may have been left more than a little confused as to its meaning. Supposedly, the dystopian vision represented the necessity of shedding oneself of material desires in order to find the path to enlightenment. This makes sense, as many locals still come here to worship in reverence rather than see the sights.
Unfortunately, in May 2014 an earthquake in Northern Thailand affected Wat Rong Khun, which was then temporarily closed to the public. Speaking to the Bangkok Post at the time, Kositpipat said that, upon surveying the site the morning after the natural disaster, he was “shocked by the extent of the destruction” to the temple.
The arresting mural was one of the quake’s victims, with parts of it shattered into pieces owing to the strength of the tremors. Nevertheless, only a few days after the destructive event the site was reopened to visitors – although, as a safety provision, some of Wat Rong Khun’s buildings could only be viewed externally.
Kositpipat intends for the mural inside the temple to be restored exactly to its original specifications – a process that could take two years or more, all told – and has also noted that damaged buildings will be repaired.
Perhaps then, Wat Rong Khun will one day be returned to its past beauty. In the meantime, it surely stands as one of Thailand’s most spectacular – and spectacularly bizarre – attractions.