If you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all—so goes the mantra of the temple-fatigued traveller. I’m usually the first to agree, but there are indeed still a few places that are worth the pilgrimage. And as a lover of kitsch and the macabre, Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun was definitely one of them.
Colloquially known in English as The White Temple (for obvious reasons), Wat Rong Khun is one of the gaudiest, most ridiculous tourist traps we’ve ever seen.. and it’s absolutely fantastic. Seen from a distance, the brilliant white and gold temple buildings stand in eye-popping contrast to northern Thailand’s blue winter sky. Get a closer look, and all the spires twisting up from the rooftops look at once both sinister and heavenly, like twirls of smoke or clouds spinning lazily in the sky.
But get right up close and you begin to see the brilliant mania. The skulls on the kinnaree temple guardians, the lotus blossoms in the wishing well, the bizarre pop culture references, the ornate non-smoking signs, the white koi in the ponds, and all the tiny pieces of mirror that were laid one-by-one, so that the White Temple glitters from every angle. It’s a level of detail achievable only by someone who is truly obsessed with his work.
Wat Rong Khun is the magnum opus of contemporary Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, a 60-year-old award-winning painter with artistic stamina and a mind full of otherworldly visions reminiscent of the late H.R. Giger—if the Swiss surrealist master was into Buddhism. Chalermchai believes that completion of the temple will give him “immortal life”, and is so obsessed with the project that it’s said on sleepless nights he will often go outside with a flashlight and examine the temple buildings.
Despite the flocks of tourists, whose numbers surely rival the visitors at Bangkok’s famous Wat Pho, the vibe is serene enough to maintain its image as a holy place. And if you can successfully dodge the oblivious Chinese tourists and their selfie sticks, it’s actually pretty nice to stroll around the grounds. And if you’re lucky you can even catch a few monks buzzing around; we saw one mid-ceremony, boredly giving his blessing to a brand new white Honda Civic.
The temple was damaged by an earthquake in May 2014, and although Chelermchai and his team have been repairing the façades, there is still work to be done. The main chapel, called ubosot, seems to have born the brunt of the damage, and its famous over-the-top kitschy mural—depicting a firey hell of demons, terrorist attacks, and Western pop-culture icons like Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger, and Kung-fu Panda—is still in need of reconstruction.
Aside from the in-progress repairs, it was cool to see the expansion of the temple complex, and how the stark, modern frames of buildings under construction contrast with the overly-ornate completed structures.