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Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

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About the Artist/Site

Chiang Rai-born Chalermchai Kositpipat was initially known as Thailand’s most successful painter; he started out painting billboards of movies and then more creatively began painting often controversial murals that fused traditional imagery with modern views. Between 1988 and 1992 he painted murals for the Buddhapadipa temple in London that were criticized from the time of their unveiling by those who complained that he was not painting “real” Thai art.

The monastery of Wat Rong Khun, located some 15 kilometers south of the Thai city of Chiang Rai, is located on a six-acre property that provides an island of tranquility. Once in a ramshackle state, Kositpipat decided to renovate and renew the temple and the property, so now manicured lawns and floral gardens host the community of Buddhist monks as they move among three existing buildings located on-site. The artist ultimately intends to construct nine in total.

He began this project in 1996, and the most compelling structure as of this writing is the White Temple, with its entrance protected by two enormous demons and a main hall embedded with small mirrors said to reflect Buddha’s shining wisdom. Every decorative element symbolizes religious teachings; for example, the main building is reached by crossing a bridge over a small lake: hundreds of agonized outstretched hands reach out, symbolizing desire, human suffering, and hell. The bridge leads the visitor to the beginning of a cycle of rebirth, encouraging people to overcome worldly temptations and desires.

Each structure on the grounds, constructed with the three-leveled roofs typical of northern Thai architecture, is ornamented with plaster, and reveals a baroque sensibility of over-the-top embellishment that mixes traditional Thai art with global pop culture. Statues of beatific enlightened beings sitting on lotus leaves and mixed-species mythological beings grace the grounds, but there is also a mural depicting Po from the Kung Fu Panda movie and the comic book hero Spiderman fighting yet another battle. Elvis and Batman are also illustrated. Each of these figures is nevertheless used to help tell the stories of Buddha’s life and teachings.

Two other noteworthy buildings are the Golden building (which houses the restrooms), symbolizing the inappropriate focus on worldly desires and money; and the crematorium, where the dead transition from this life to the next. Also elaborately ornamented, it serves to remind visitors of the ephemeral character of life on earth. Concrete “trees” ornamented with medallions (visitors pay a small sum to have their names written on them and hang them) are interspaced around the gardens.

As might be expected, such a mélange of images is not received positively by all; unlike some of Thailand’s temples that receive governmental support, this one does not, perhaps because of complaints that the imagery is sacrilegious. The artist, therefore, who had made a lot of money in his earlier career as a painter, is financing this entire project himself, with over $1.2 million paid out to date. Kositpipat’s vision is supported by an enormous team of over 120 artists, architects, sculptors, and construction workers. It is expected to take at least another fifty years to complete; the main chapel itself is not expected to be completed until 2020.

The artist believes that this site is his life’s work, and hopes that Buddhists from all over the world will make a pilgrimage here to pray and meditate. The temple is open daily from 8 am to 6 pm; the entrance fee is 50 baht per person, but additional donations to support construction are welcomed. Visitors must dress respectfully and take off their shoes prior to entering the temple buildings.

~Jo Farb Hernández



Map and site information


Mueang Chiang Rai, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Latitude/Longitude: 19.857669 / 99.801335

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