Skulls. Demons. Screams of anguish. Body parts strewn about. Horns. Dragons. These are things I associate with horror movies & haunted houses, not religious temples. But this is exactly what I encountered at Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Kuhn, or White Temple. From afar, this structure looks elegant & shapely, with exotic architectural curves perhaps crafted of snow & ice. But as you approach, and walk up the ramp through the 20 foot high curved horns, and past the pit of arms reaching upward & gaping mouths frozen mid-scream, you quickly realize this is no ordinary Buddhist temple.
The White Temple was designed in 1997 by Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. He is well known for his use of Buddhism in surrealist painting. Like a Buddhist Salvador Dali, I suppose. His controversial design of Wat Rong Kuhn continues to inspire & irritate. As you get closer and closer to the door to the temple, remove your shoes and step inside, it feels infinitely smaller than the lavish outward approach. A wax statue of a monk sits on the floor, with a golden Buddha sitting behind him, and another Buddha larger behind that one, and a giant Buddha painted on the wall behind it all. Turning around to examine the temple walls can also be a frightening experience. Large space scenes cover the walls, and the careful observer will notice Kung Fu Panda, Avatars, Superman, Batman, the World Trade Center burning, and George W. Bush, among so many more popular culture references.
What was Kositpipat hoping to convey with this impressive landmark? Tourists overwhelmed every inch the entire time we were there. People photographing each unique element & posing with each statue. But what did it mean to them?
I’m a spiritual person, believing in good & evil, heaven & hell, Jesus & Satan. To me, the temple felt demonic. More demonic than anything I’d seen in any other part of Asia. With every image I captured, I prayed over the land and over the people. I prayed that in great darkness that light could shine even brighter. That truth will reign supreme. That faith will overcome fear. And, fitting since we just celebrated Easter, that life conquers death.