First I better check the map to make sure I take the right turn off. OK I think I’m ready to go. Wait a minute, one more look at the map just to be sure. What was I thinking, maybe if I hold it this way I’ll remember? Well let’s just get going and figure out on the road.
Hmmm, this just somehow doesn’t look right. Better pull over and check the map again.
Finally on the right track to Wat Rong Khun or “The White Temple”. Even though people refer to it as a temple it’s not really that at all. More exhibit than temple, the artist who created and funded it’s completion, Chalermchai Kositpipat, believes the white temple is an offering to Lord Buddha and will ensure him an immortal life.
When you first enter the area where the main building or ubosot is located you are immediately confronted with the weakness of human desire, greed and temptation symbolized by hundreds of outreaching hands. Crossing the bridge over the small lake takes you to the gate of heaven where you are met by two creatures who decide the fate of the dead. Make it past there and the countless tourists with selfie sticks and you arrive at the ubosot made with fragments of glass in the style of a traditional Thai 3 tiered roof temple.
Photography is prohibited inside the main building which features murals with cultural icons like Michael Jackson, and fictitious characters including Freddy Kruger, Harry Potter and Hello Kitty. As well as scenes depicting nuclear war and terrorist attacks. If the intent is to highlight what’s wrong with the world the artist has made his point with this exhibit.
The gardens and surrounding grounds of Wat Rong Khun are filled with small white pagodas styled in the same theme. Allow yourself enough time to stroll through the many walkways but keep in mind they take a lunch break at the white temple and close off the site.
On May 5, 2014 an earthquake struck the northern province of Chiang Rai damaging the white temple. At the time Chalermchai Kositpipat figuring the temple complex was too damaged to be safe again vowed to demolish it and not rebuild. After a May 7th safety inspection deemed that all buildings were safe and structurally unharmed Kositpipat said he would restore the temple and continue his life work.
A structure you won’t miss within the Wat Rong Khun complex is the gold building where you’ll find the restrooms and other services. Gold which is used to decorate many temples and stupas in Thailand in this case represents the body and symbolizes how people focus on money and worldly possessions.
While the gold building is a place to relieve and refresh yourself it’s also meant as a reminder to make merit and not focus on material things and instead to place focus on the mind, as represented by the white building.
I like Chiang Rai! The slow pace of the north and plenty of little cafes and a backpacker vibe Chiang Rai usually manages to squeeze an extra couple of days or more out of a traveller’s itinerary.
When the town clock tower, albeit a gold one becomes one of the main nightly attractions with it’s beautiful light display you know you’ve arrived in a charming place. A wonderful town market that opens early in the morning and carries on the rest of the day and night with ready made meals, snacks, and lots of fresh cut fruit is super convenient and super tasty!
You can also visit the night bazaar where there’s more food and nightly traditional entertainment.
Back out on the road I visited another Chiang Rai attraction, Baan Dam, Black House, nicknamed “The Black Temple”.
If you thought the white temple was over the top then be prepared to be truly shocked by some of the sites and exhibits of Baan Dam. Another museum or artistic vision created by national artist Thawan Duchanee this place is filled with everything from beautiful Northern Thai buildings and structures to animal skins, bones, and other eccentric items.
The first building at the entrance to the site is filled with all kinds of interesting features, and creatures!
This is Thawan Duchanee’s interpretation of Buddhism, perhaps the bones, skins and skulls representing the suffering the Buddha saw. The structure itself is very impressive with beams and high ceilings giving the impression of a temple, it’s anything but!
There are more than 40 buildings around the Baan Dam site which I actually found incredibly striking and even serene considering the amount of visitors during my time there.
Because Baan Dam is such an extensive site even in the busy mid afternoon you can find plenty of quiet spaces that are filled with these beautiful buildings truly allowing for contemplation and reflection of this artists’ expression and Buddhist beliefs.
It’s easy to first judge a place like Baan Dam as bizarre or strange but give yourself time to go through the buildings and enjoy the surroundings and you’ll fully capture the artists’ intention.
Whatever the message or meaning you take away from Baan Dam or Wat Rong Khun is, I believe these sites offer unique Thai artists expressions that are not only thought provoking but wonderfully inspirational in the heart of Northern Thailand.
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