One of the assumptions I made going to temples around Thailand was that they would all be old. Most of them are several centuries old, very well maintained, with elaborately gilded and painted exteriors. But the White Temple in the northeast of the country, just outside the town of Chiang Rai, has only been around for under twenty years, and it’s not even finished. It was a beautiful, strange place to visit.
Wat Rong Khun (nicknamed “the White Temple” in English) is the brainchild of Chalermchai Kositpipat, an artist who sees the temple as a project that will continue years after his death. There’s frustratingly little information about the temple online, but what I remember reading while there is that it’s a privately owned temple, so Kositpipat feels no pressure to build or decorate according to any government or religious dictates. But it seems to be a functioning Buddhist temple, so I’m not sure how that jibes with its independent status.
Kositpipat started construction in 1997, and the projected end date is 2070. He employs over 100 artists and craftspeople, each of whom works painstakingly on one small part of the temple complex. When I visited, the main temple, complete with long, dragon-flanked entryway and a buddha statue inside, was built and painted blinding white. A small building behind this was unfinished, and off to the left was a whole courtyard of incomplete structures. Everything is painted white, apparently as a symbol of purity, and many surfaces are dotted with tiny mirrors, and in the bright sunshine it almost looks like a mirage rising from the surface of the earth.
Inside, Kositpipat is slowly painting unconventional images on the walls of the main temple. Anyone who’s been will recognize that Neo from The Matrix makes an appearance on the back wall, but I also saw Spider-man, Captain Jack Sparrow, and several anime characters. These movie heroes ride on waves of sea water and the orange tentacles of a large sea monster. The large demon on that back wall has George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden in its eyes, which caused some furor when it was first painted in the early aughts. Seeing a small version of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers was strangely upsetting, given its bizarre context, and I had to remind myself that all the images on the back walls of Buddhist temples show the battles we have in the realm of delusion, and the depiction of 9/11 is meant as a symbol of one of the evils of history. (Photos were forbidden inside, so I have no images to share with you.)
Outside, one of the trees is hung with the white papier-mache heads of movie bad guys like Freddy Krueger and ambiguously good guys like Hellboy and Batman. A sort of raised wishing well stood to the left; I watched a grandmother teach two small boys how to toss a coin in and put their palms together in respect. Elaborately decorated signs put a line through a bottle of booze, reminding you not to drink on the premises.
The complex also boasts that it has the Most Beautiful Toilet in the World. I certainly have never been to a more golden one. Possibly my most favorite part of this wonderfully wacky and yet still reverent place was the large cardboard cutout of the artist with his arms in the air. You can duck under those arms for a smiling photo with the man behind it all.