The Korea Herald


‘White Taj Mahal’ of Thailand lures tourists


Published : Aug. 1, 2011 - 18:42

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What a nightmare! Whenever you see photographs of Thailand’s White Temple, which lies on the fringes of that tri-nation junction, the Golden Triangle, it looks luminously beautiful like the Taj Mahal.

Now, however, the skies above the White Temple or Wat Rong Khun are dowdy and cloudy, and the landmark might better be described as “the grey temple”.

Indeed, the washout weather raises the spectre of some godforsaken English seaside town like Mablethorpe.
White Temple or Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand.  Tourism Authority of Thailand White Temple or Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand.  Tourism Authority of Thailand

We ― my ragtag band of travel buddies from nearby Chiang Rai ― shiver, then grapple with whether you are meant to pay. A sign claims that you must hire a guide. But, hey, this is Thailand, and the sign apparently does not apply. In a half-bold, half-halting way good for crossing tricky borders, we walk on into the temple complex that has yet to be finished.

It is a work in progress, but an arresting one.

For starters, murky weather aside, the temple is one-tone ― a sparkling white mixture of stone, glass and plaster that invites superlatives. It feels like something straight out of a film set, or like fairyland ― much more a work of the imagination than a building with any particular purpose.

The temple reflects the mystique that shrouds the entire Golden Triangle. At its epicentre, the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos converge. Once notorious for its poppy fields, drug smugglers and opium warlords, this place is soaked in history and mystery, which the White Temple radiates.

You cannot miss it. The White Temple stands near the entrance to the highest and most striking waterfall in the province, Khun Kon, just up the road from the lovely town of Chiang Rai, a more modest and tasteful version of Chiang Mai.

The White Temple was designed and funded by artist Chaloemchai Khositpipat. Like Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather), the seer responsible for Lao PDR’s Buddha Park, Khositpipat is a character. His quirky spirit shines through in the public domain photograph of him floating around online.

Born into a Sino-Thai family, he attended Silpakorn University, Thailand’s top visual arts school, and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in Thai art in 1977. He started out painting film ads on billboards. His early murals adventurously mingled orthodox Thai Buddhist temple art with modern images.

In 1988, he was commissioned to paint murals for the UK’s first Thai-Buddhist temple, Wat Buddhapadipa in Wimbledon on the fringes of London. The work took four years. The Thai government and monks slammed the result, saying that he was not producing true Thai art.

Despite the setbacks, Khositpipat’s work gradually found acceptance, with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej among his clients. At a 1998 Christie’s Singapore Thai art auction, one of his masterpieces was snapped up for $17,500.

By then, Khositpipat ― a fan of the Spanish modernist architect Antonio Gaudi ― had begun building the dream-like Wat Rong Khun, which is meant to to evoke Lord Buddha’s purity. Judging by some of the structures’ skeletal state, Khositpipat still has far to go. Nine structures are planned.

“Only death can stop my dream, but cannot stop my project,” he has said. Khositpipat is also quoted saying that his work will bring him “immortal life.”

Later, after seeing the temple, I swear I have seen him somewhere ― possibly on-site. Did I spot him subtly plugging away with a stencil brush?

His budding masterpiece is all the more unusual because the interior features a manga-esque, wormhole-weird mural that features every pop culture figure you can name. The Predator from the Hollywood film makes the cut. So, too, do Spiderman, Batman, Darth Vader, Neo from the Matrix, plus Japanese pop cartoon figures Doraemon and Ultraman. There are also rocket ships.

The images apparently symbolise escape from temptation’s defilements to a transcendent state.

The roof features four kinds of animals embodying earth, water, wind and fire. The elephant stands for earth; the naga dragon thingy stands for water; the swan’s wings mean the wind; and the lion’s mane is fire.

Elsewhere, water dominates in the shape of a dragon fountain and a sea of pleading hands reaching out at you as you cross the monster-flanked, mystical bridge embodying the transition from the cycle of life to the Buddha’s domain. Some hands hold skulls.

Likewise, traffic cones outside feature red skull designs. Even the doors to the Golden Toilets are ornate, freighted with more meaning than gender duality. Hidden meanings abound. You can see why the trippy temple complex, which is best seen by moonlight, is often bracketed as one of Thailand’s seven wonders.

What other Thai sight has more wow factor except the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok?

That said, after I finished ooh-ing and aah-ing, I think the temple is a touch tacky. I mean that mural with a stylised Superman, mouths glugging oil and a pterodactyl-styled beast apparently borrowed from the sci-fi film, Avatar.

Even the crumbling Twin Towers are in there.

If you want to see pictures of the crazy-quilt mural, sorry. Photography is banned.

When we are poring over the mural, I sense that some security heavies are watching us just in case we try to sneak some phone-cam snaps ― or just in case we are insane enough to attempt defacement.

Inevitably, some wise guys have posted some mural pictures online, eroding the mystique somewhat. Still, only the most jaded tourist could be totally unmoved by the temple’s essential stark, wedding-cake brilliance. I wonder how many people the landmark has moved to say, “Wow!”

Wat Rong Khun is not bland and it does not blend in. It lends weight to the tourist board slogan ‘Amazing Thailand.’ According to Tourism Chiang Rai, Khositpipat plans the White Temple to be ‘a heaven on earth.’

By David Wilson, The Star