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.
I’ve reconnected with old friends and met a lot of wonderful people on this trip, and it’s all been great. But there’s nothing like seeing a familiar face, and that’s what had me most excited about going to Chiang Mai. I met up with my Chicago friend Hannah and we spent just under a week exploring the northern Thai city together. We’d never traveled together before, and I was a little worried, because Hannah’s laid back, and I’m… less so. But that turned out to be a great combination, and we focused on finding tasty food and seeing one or two interesting sights each day.
We stayed in Eurana Hotel, a step up from the guesthouses and hostels I’d used so far. It had a pool and was next door to Sumphet Market, in the tourist-flooded northeast corner of the old city. We mostly stuck to this part of town, and if we’d had more than five days I’m sure we would’ve explored more, but there was plenty to see just in that area. Our first two days we lazed in the pool area, poked around in Sumphet, and bought tons of souvenirs at the Saturday and Sunday night markets.
Around 3pm the streets are cordoned off and vendors set up card tables, some with awnings and backdrops, and displayed their wares: coin purses, t-shirts, jade statues, lamps, bedding, hippie pants, chopsticks, wood carvings, scarves, paintings, silver jewelry, pillow cases, and on and on. The food stalls usually clustered in their own areas. We ate a lot of delicious things (wonderfully described in Hannah’s guest post).
The Sunday market was located on Rajdamnoen Road, starting at the eastern gate (Tha Pae Gate) and carrying on down the road for what seems like miles when you’re shouldering your way through the massive crowds. Several temples line this street, and the food stalls set up on the temple grounds, so you can munch on your mango and sticky rice next to the crenellated head of a dragon, which we found really cool. We watched a man make sugar cane juice–he took giant stalks of sugar cane, peeled off fibers, fed them into a clattering pressing machine, and caught the juice that was squeezed out.
Wat Doi Suthep is located atop a mountain 15 kilometers outside of town. Legend says that King Nu Naone sent a white elephant out into the jungle, bearing a religious relic. The elephant climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and died, which the king took as a sign. He ordered construction of a Buddhist temple in 1383, and this beautiful set of buildings was made. Apparently there’s a tram you can take to the top if you want to avoid the 309 steps, but I didn’t see the tram and anyway the steps weren’t so bad.
Hannah and I paid the small entrance fee (“Foreigner Buy The Ticket Now” said the sign at the top of the stairs), removed our shoes, and went inside. We marveled at the gold leaf on everything, the little hearts people had donated money to write their names on, the small jade buddha, the bank of small file drawers labeled with the different causes you could fund with your donations, the flowers and incense sticks adorning various altars. We sat in the main shrine, our feet tucked behind us, as a monk chanted over us and splashed holy water on us. He said, “for good luck, for good luck” at the end and smiled at us, and we smiled back and thanked him. At the main stupa in the center of the complex, we picked up a pamphlet of prayers and walked around the stupa three times, reading the prayers out loud.
We walked around the outer courtyard and watched people ring the bells along one of the walls. We checked out the view of Chiang Mai below, but it was a hazy day and we couldn’t see much. We watched three puppies eagerly play around the ankles of their favorite monk, a young man more properly called a novice (you’re a novice until age 25). A statue of the legendary white elephant stands to the left of the entrance, standing guard over her temple.
Thailand is well-known to western tourists as a place to go for cheap spa treatments. I hadn’t done much of this kind of pampering before, but I did learn to appreciate a pedicure while there. Hannah and I also went to Lila Thai Massage, which is a small chain of spa shops that employs formerly incarcerated women. My massage there wasn’t as peaceful as it might have been, since the masseuses all chatted among themselves as they went to work on six of us in one long room, but for $6 you can’t complain too much. We tried a different place later in the week, where Hannah had her first Thai massage and I got a pretty pedicure.
We went to a couple restaurants that cooked for a cause. Taste from Heaven donates its proceeds to the Elephant Nature Park, and it papers its walls in photos of animals and posters beseeching people to become vegetarians. Free Bird Cafe is part of Thai Freedom House, which provides education to Shan refugees from Burma. The restaurant also houses a small thrift store. We ate the Shan specialties recommended on the menu, and they were delicious.
We went to a four-hour cooking class with Asia Scenic Cooking School. I’m glad we did it, especially because Hannah enjoyed it so much, but we did seem to spend an awfully small amount of time actually cooking. Perhaps the full day course involved more time at the stove. Still, it was fun to learn about the different spices used in Thai cooking, and to experience first-hand how labor intensive grinding curry powder is. Also, we made delicious food and got a cookbook so we can try these on our own back at home. The book even includes some substitutes you can make if you don’t have access to the necessary herbs and spices.
We went to see muay thai boxing, which is one of the few sporting events I’ve actually made it to on this trip. We both sort of knew what to expect, but we were still surprised by the violence of the kicks to the ribs and knees to the groin, especially as we couldn’t see so much as a mouth guard on any of the participants. We sat on one side of the ring with a bunch of other dazed Westerners, and followed the lead of the Thai people to our right, who clearly knew what was going on and had money riding on the outcome.
On our last day together, we went out to Shinawatra Silk Showroom. We watched a woman pull the impossibly thin threads of silk out of worms, and another woman work a foot-powered loom to weave colored threads into long skeins of colorful silk. We then entered the showroom and spent a really long time picking out silk for ourselves and presents for others. We held each other’s hands and breathed deeply as our purchases were rung up and our credit cards run through, but we made it relatively unscathed.
Hannah and I visited other temples in town–including one with a stupa supported by giant stone elephants–and had fun getting lost in the alleyways. We went out to a few bars and heard some fun cover bands while enjoying Tiger beers. We caught up on each other’s lives and enjoyed the luxury of vacation time.
I had a great time in Chiang Mai, finding the right mix between relaxing and sightseeing, and I’m so glad I got to explore the town with Hannah.