Chiang Rai is Chaing Mai having a tea break. Chiang Rai though, has Wat Rong Khun also known as The White Temple. Set into motion in the late 90’s, and predicted to be finished in 2070, the building is a very controversial, contemporary, all white (and silver) temple by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.
To look at, it’s rather spectacular, simply for the fact that it’s so white. The controversy comes with its function as a temple. Many argue that it doesn’t fit into what a traditional temple should be or look like, with most Thai temples being Royal Blues, yellows, reds, golds and greens, or ancient relics of stone and brick. The colour though, as I believe, is not offensive (like neon pink might be). White in many cultures is a symbol of purity, celebration, cleanliness, life, peace, calm… It is a blank canvas inviting many different types of people, a colour for everyone -not just royalty. Surely these are the things a temple should be; Buddha, prayer and the people’s beliefs, not overcrowded by colour. Beyond the colour, the temple has all the details of any other, showing typical Thai designs and symbolism. The dedication to and depictions of Buddha are no less beautiful than those in other temples.
As a piece of art, Wat Rong Khun works on a different level. To me, the building isn’t garish but ambitious. The thought, hard work and intricacy are to be admired, even if like the final look isn’t what’s expected.
Little pieces of modern art surround the temples main building too. On trees, there are characters from popular films and stories, seemingly beheaded and hanging at eye height. I’m not sure if they’re incorporated into the ideas of the temple, symbolising the modern worship, idols of a generation, or if their beheaded status is a reflection of these other, fictitious idols; as the anti-religion, they far removed from the purity of the temple. I wish I could ask Kositpipat.
Another thing to mention, probably a big turn off for many, are the pools of hands and faces on either side of the main path leading to the temple entrance. They are a grey cement colour, not allowed the pure white coating, and all of them are reaching up towards your feet. It’s horrifying but I like it. I am reminded of Ursula’s lair in The Little Mermaid -which I’m sure is based in a more respectable source- in which the condemned souls reach up for help. Poor unfortunate souls. At The White Temple, hands reach up to the white path, seemingly sinners or those who have done wrong in the eyes of Buddhism. They long to be cleansed and enter the temple. I had this image of the damned on my mind when I saw an article on site, written in Time Magazine, May 2009. It stated that the hands were ‘seeking emancipation from a bottomless pit…[and] create an image of anguish and desperation’. It goes on to say that ‘Nirvana is Wat Rong Khun’ and its antithesis is the the Black House, the place of the devil, another piece by Kositpipat.
The modern art adds to the complexity of the temple, along with its layout and colour among other things. It’s not done as a quick piece, made to shock, it’s a dedicated legacy of an artist (his other work is brilliant too). Like all other temples of different eras, this one tells of the current era, reflecting the art and lifestyles of the 21st century. It’s different, but different can be good.