Our last stop in Thailand before heading across the border to Laos was in the far northern city of Chiang Rai. About 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, we decided to spend a day touring a couple of the well-known sites around the small city before grabbing a bus to Chiang Khong and crossing into Laos.
Pretty much our entire reason for adding a layover in Chiang Rai was to visit the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), about 14 kilometers south of the city center. Constructed in the late 1990s, Wat Rong Khun is not your typical Buddhist shrine. The original temple at the sacred site had fallen into disrepair, and with no funding available for restoration, local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat designed and privately funded an enormous reconstruction project that would include a unique and inspired temple, as well as a center for learning and meditation. The result of Kositpipat’s effort is an extraordinarily intricate temple that looks like an enchanted palace from the pages of a storybook, with elaborate spires and wavy wisps bursting from the stark white structure. Every inch of the whimsical design is deeply symbolic, showcasing the artist’s Buddhist beliefs. The gleaming white hue represents purity, and the virtuousness of Buddha, while hundreds of thousands of shimmering, mirrored tiles symbolize Buddha’s wisdom, shining out over the land. Ornate sculptures envelop the temple, and offer a more modern interpretation of the traditional Buddhist principles. A walkway extending across a pit of outstretched hands evokes feelings of temptations and distractions attempting to seize one from the path of focusing exclusively on the mind. The successive bridge and gateway to the temple signify attaining a state of nirvana by effectively avoiding such earthly desires.
Inside Wat Rong Khun, vibrant floor-to-ceiling murals continue to break convention. The painstakingly-detailed paintings are both captivating and chaotic, fusing traditional Thai imagery with global political statements, natural disasters, and pop culture icons. Figures like Michael Jackson, a minion, Kung Fu Panda, Yoda, Hello Kitty, Ninja Turtles, and Keanu Reeves dance across an amber backdrop, where volcanoes erupt, spaceships soar overhead, and nuclear explosions obliterate the Earth. One scene metaphorically recreates the infamous day of 9/11, as a demon-headed gas hose strangles the burning World Trade Center buildings. Chiang Rai’s White Temple is an exquisite blend of the traditional with the contemporary and, while some concepts are somewhat disturbing or eccentric, it is truly a magnificent and meaningful work of art, perhaps the most mind-blowing temple we visited in Thailand.
At the other end of the spectrum, and the other end of the city (about 12 km north of Chiang Rai), is a second non-traditional site created by a different local artist. The Black House Museum stands in stark contrast to its ethereal neighbor. Designed to embody the more malevolent side of humanity, Baan Dam is actually a collection of some 40 buildings, each with plain, black, wooden exteriors. It’s reminiscent of a wicked village that you’d find buried deep in fairytale forest, whose nefarious inhabitants are looking to seize the virtuous White Temple on the opposite side of the kingdom. Baan Dam’s displays were largely limited to a bunch of animal skulls arranged in various patterns throughout the complex, and animal skins stretched out across long, wooden tables. Maybe it was the vegetarian in me, but I was really not a fan of the creation, and found it overall to be quite depressing. While Stephan agreed that the relics weren’t anything to write home about, he did enjoy the rustic flair on the buildings’ traditional Buddhist architecture – the immense, exaggerated rooflines, soaring windows, and intricately-carved wooden doors. Overall, though, we found it to be not nearly as grand as Wat Rong Khun.
Before closing out this blog entry, I’d like to take a moment to recognize the achievements of two remarkably-talented people back home! I have to say, the one thing that totally sucks about being so far away for months on end, is missing out on the milestones of family and friends. On May 4th, my good friend Susan successfully defended her doctoral dissertation to complete her Ph.D. in microbiology at NC State – well-deserved after six long years. Also, this Friday (May 13th), my amazing brother will graduate with his M.B.A. from Boston University, which he earned while working full-time at Liberty Mutual. Since I couldn’t be there in person, I’ve hung a ‘lucky leaf’ for each of you at the White Temple. The Bodhi tree is a revered fig, under which the teacher Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was sitting when he attained enlightenment. At many temples, lucky Bodhi leaves are hung with personalized messages, sometimes by the thousands, and are meant to bring good fortune to the recipients. So, big congrats, Jeff & Susan! Here’s to a lifetime of luck and happiness! I wish I could be there to celebrate with both of you; you guys are just awesome! ♥
[Note: Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the White Temple, so we couldn’t show just how incredible the vibrant murals are.]