Buddhism, modernity and creativity in the White Temple of Chiang Rai

Mark Levitin | Live the World

November 23, 2022

An extraordinary combination of Buddhism, modernity and personal creativity, the White Temple of Chiang Rai in North Thailand is a sight not to be missed. Artistic, spiritual, unpredictable, it is much more than a place of worship. It's a post-modern masterpiece of a single artist, Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, who has dedicated his life to this project. The result is striking, powerful enough to give you instant enlightenment, like a Zen koan.

Samsara in paint and stone

Here's a riddle for you: how to combine Harry Potter, spaceships, the events of 9/11, and Buddha Gautama in one sentence? Difficult, isn’t it? Well, an inspired Thai artist has combined them all in one temple. Add environmental issues, satellites, Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Hello Kitty, Angry Birds and quite a few dragons - there have to be dragons. Position them to form a spiritual ebb, gradually receding as you go inside to expose rainbows and beams of light. Finalize this image of serenity with one focal figure: Lord Buddha. Whitewash the outer walls till they glitter, insert pieces of broken glass to make them glitter even more. Surround this with other bizarre structures: a feeble bridge over a sea of greedy human hands, the terrifying head of the cinematic Predator, futuristic kinnari (celestial beings), and a golden public toilet. Such is Wat Rong Khun, a temple like no other in Thailand. Eclectic? Hectic? Seemingly meaningless? Well, so is samsara, the cycle of our worldly lives. This is exactly what the author and sole sponsor of this extraordinary artistic project claims to have implied.

© Mark Levitin

The work of a single man

When the local Buddhist community couldn't muster the funds to restore the dilapidated temple of Rong Khun village near Chiang Rai, a visual artist, Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, offered to take the initiative. Investing his finances, his artistic vision, and spiritual ideas, he started rebuilding Wat Rong Khun in 1997. It is still a work in progress, and the completion date remains to be guessed. The works have been additionally delayed by the earthquake in May 2014, which damaged the buildings. By now, they have been restored and open to the public, and the construction goes on. In a way, this may be considered another representation of samsara: seemingly endless struggle with the chaotic universe. And the history of the White Temple shows it can be overcome by dedication and creativity.

© Mark Levitin

Visiting Wat Rong Khun

Witnessing this artistic blend of Buddhism, modernity and creativity requires no extraordinary effort. Direct buses to the White Temple depart regularly from Chiang Rai Bus Station. There's now an entrance fee for foreigners - 50 THB (~1.5€) at the time of research. The opening hours are 08:00-17:00. Keep in mind that is a Buddhist temple, not an open-air gallery. Dress modestly, behave sensibly. Check out the paintings of Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, less monumental, but just as spiritual, in the adjoining museum. And don't forget to visit the toilet - a deliberately opulent, gold-colored hint at the true value of worldly riches.

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