As I tiptoe along the white bridge over a lake of outstretched, gnarled hands — with one odd red nail standing out amid the stark white ones (and I did spot Davy Jones, a la Pirates of the Caribbean, peering through somewhere) — I’m almost fearful I’ll be denied admission to this sacred and fascinating white temple in northern Thailand. Guarded by Death and Rahu, both looking fearsome and angry, I go through a symbolic archway of sorts, made in the shape of horns, and gingerly inch my way forward. I know it is irrational to feel this way, but my entire seven-day trip to Thailand had started with wanting to come to the Wat Rong Khun, and I was finally there.
My first fleeting thought: I wanted to see the pure gold toilet. I immediately chided myself for falling for the idea that inspired those toilets — but more on that later. As I crossed the bridge that signified the cycle of rebirth, leaving behind human desire and suffering, and into the pristine white and mirrored ubosot, I felt like I was floating amid the clouds. And that is the kind of sensation Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat probably wanted to evoke. How else would you explain the detailing of the Naga bridge as celestial angels welcome you once you’ve crossed over? Intricate Buddhist motifs and clouds dominate the entrance and walls of the main temple.
After an arduous journey from Bangkok, I had come all the way to the northern province of Chiang Rai, just to behold this vision — the White Temple. It is arguably one of the most unique temples in Thailand. Pictures that had surfaced while researching about it on the internet had presented massive, fearsome-looking mythical creatures, their mirrored eyes glinting in the sun, as they pass judgment on your life and after life. Will it be heaven or will it be hell for me?
I needed to find out.
From the empty Chiang Rai bus station, I hitchhiked till I was dropped off at the highway at 5 in the morning. As a solo woman traveller, who didn’t know much beyond the very nasal “Sawadeekhaa” (“Hello” in Thai), the long road and sparsely populated fields on both sides didn’t give much hope of finding the bizarre White Temple, where Neo and Superman met Gautam Buddha. Where a beheaded Wolverine hung from the same tree as Maleficent, signifying the greyness in our lives through modern-day pop culture figures.
I cross the road and take a slight right, expecting a huge, ornate white structure. What I got, instead, was what could pass off as a puja pandal by a dusty street lined with souvenir shops. My face fell. Was this the exquisite creation by the controversial artist Kositpipat? Turned out it was a false alarm. Twenty steps down, there it was.
The ubosot, the main temple of Wat Rong Khun, is adorned with traditional design from northern Thailand — the three-tiered roof and the stylised Naga serpents. Walking in, the yellow glow of the walls envelop you. In the centre is a gold statue of Buddha, with a mural of the same behind it, drawn in the style unique to Kositpipat. The quietude that’s characteristic to a temple is a bit difficult to attain here. With every sweeping glance, you end up with a laugh. There’s Po from Kung Fu Panda practising a high kick, Bush and Osama share a bomb ride through space, Keanu Reaves (as Neo from Matrix) stands tall, as Maximus Prime (from Transformers) deals a strike on the empire. There’s Batman, Spiderman and even Elvis, the burning of the twin towers, among other chapters from real life as well as comics — all contained in murals on the ubosot’s inner walls.
The original temple, it is said, was in a state of ruins at the end of the 20th century, when Kositpipat decided he would rebuild it. The work started in 1997, and, reportedly, it will only finish in its entirety in 2070. Much like Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (though nowhere close in scale), the idea was to build a massive tribute to Buddha, which Kositpipat believes will give him immortality. More than a holy place, however, Wat Rong Khun has emerged as a hugely popular tourist attraction.
In May 2014, an earthquake in Mae Lao heavily damaged the temple and forced it to shut. But Kositpipat, after a quick assessment, promised to rebuild it in two years. According to various reports, the sexagenarian has spent over TBH40 million on the project already. He refuses any funding over TBH10,000, saying he doesn’t want his vision compromised by generous donors.
Kositpipat’s sense of humour also comes through in the stunning gold bathrooms. Yes, they are fully functional and gorgeously gold. The gold facade stands out amid the pristine white of the main temple and the green surroundings. Symbolic of human vanity, there is no doubt what Kositpipat’s take on it is. The other golden structure, close to its main entrance, is the golden fire, symbolising man’s obsession with money and worldly desires.
Much of the work is still on. There are casts and moulds in the workshop, and when I was there, three artists were meticulously working on the murals in the meditation hall. I could see Kositpipat’s larger vision taking shape — that of making this area a meditation and learning hub.
Just outside the meditation hall, there is a “wishing tree”. For TBH30, you can purchase a leaf, write your wish on it and hang it on the tree. I stood under the tree for a while, sneaking a glance or two at some of the wishes — from general well-being to specific ones on love and fortune, the prayers seemed universal. I added my own to the wishlist.
Later, I mused, the wishing tree must have granted Kositpipat his wish. He has surely attained his immortality — and it’s in the form of the resplendent Wat Rong Khun.