Simply said, it is stunning. Like it or not, you will be stunned to visit this temple on the outskirts of Chiang Rai in the far north of Thailand.
Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a native of Chiang Rai (like Thawan Duchanee of the Black House), an arts major at university and a painter and muralist (like Duchanee) most of his career, now (both) heavily into sculpture. His early work was heavily criticized for being non-conformist, if not blasphemous (like Duchanee – seeing the pattern here?). Construction of the White Temple began in 1996 and has no conceived end date.
One City: Black House, White Temple. Both striking, both moving, both leave you scratching your head wondering what the hell these two artists were thinking…
Close your eyes, think of the most over-iced cake you’ve ever seen. Multiply that times four, mix in some LSD and sprinkle pixie dust on top and you are starting to get the picture of the White Temple. Its gaudy like Zsa Zsa, Liberace, and…well….Gaudi. Gaudi meets Walt Disney meets Hunter S. Thompson. But it is striking. It moves everyone that visits.
It is also a temple that attempts to tell a story through its design. One must walk a narrow path to reach, I don’t know….heaven, salvation, nirvana, peace…? You must pass the hands of hell reaching up from below, cross waters filled with beasts and get past Temple guards wielding enormous weapons. The entire time, the white structure covered in mirrors are reflecting tiny images back at yourself…a gentle nudge towards introspection, I suspect? Elysium surrounded by images of the Buddha and green pastures. I like the story (at least as I interpret it).
And now, I’ll amend my previous statement, the temple is stunning from the outside…inside, the shrine itself is plain and out of sync with the rest of the grounds. Many temples in this region of Thailand have a great deal of ornamentation in the shrine, especially the Royal temples or other temples of great significance. The White Temple, dripping with ornamentation on the outside, is quite spare inside. There is a statue of the Buddha and no much more.
There is an exception and that is the wall opposite the Buddha, the interior of the wall through which one enters the shrine room. The one Buddha stares at all day. (This is the point where I am convinced Chalermchai Kositpipat (the designer) lost it.) Obviously a science fiction freak, this wall is painted with images such as Darth Vader, Harry Potter, Freddy Krueger, and the creepy clown face from the Saw movies. It looks like the wall of a bad tattoo parlor. There are images of modern weapons, Superman, and an airplane flying into the World Trade Towers. Elvis makes an appearance on the wall as does Michael Jackson. It’s like the caricatures you see on the wall of a cheesy restaurant telling the patrons who’s eaten there in the past.
Probably my ideas are uninformed; maybe a bit old-fashioned, but I like to think that a religious building (of any flavor) would have timeless images, peaceful scenes, and icons based in reality or, at least, accepted mythology (not to say that Darth Vader isn’t any more plausible than some religion’s ‘miracles’). I just don’t see Neo from The Matrix as a lasting image.
The more I walked the grounds, the more I found strangeness, like a statue of the Predator crawling out of the ground. There were grotesque heads hanging from trees. These things I did not see initially, I think because the buildings are so incredibly captivating when one first enters the grounds. Even the bathroom is phenomenal…I wanted to take pictures of the inside, but let’s face it, it’s pretty much tabu to whip out a camera in a bathroom anywhere in the world.
There are buildings all over the property and many more under construction. This project does not have a completion date, nor do I think Chalermchai Kositpipat has a clue. Perhaps it’s design will continue to grow until he dies (he is 58). perhaps longer.
Still scratching my head, I don’t know how to feel. The White Temple is tough to describe beyond its physical appearance. At conflict with itself in so many ways. I am emotionally confused. It is simultaneously a mirror and the antithesis of the Black House. But with out question, it is one of the most unique structures in the world.
White Temple GPS coordinates are: 19.8243486 (19°49’27.6564″), 99.7639268 (99°45’50.1366″) – 1208, Ban Lao, Chiang Rai 57000