Myanmar and Northern Thailand were jolted by an earthquake on May 5th, 2014. The 6.3 quake hurt many and destroyed a lot, including religious sculpture and temples throughout the region affected. One of the most iconic temples damaged by the quake was Wat Rong Khun or The White Temple near the city of Chaing Rai in Thailand. The temple is created and owned by celebrated artist Chalermchai Kosipitpat. It was designed to deliver messages about the teachings of Buddha and was planned to be a work in progress until 2070. Stunning and ornate, loaded with Buddhist and Hindu symbolism, The White Temple is a blend of the traditional and the bizarre. Sadly it will be closed possibly, indefinitely because of the damage.
We took a tour of Thailand in 2008. Wat Rong Khun was a part of the tour I will never forget and I feel sad people may never get to enjoy its strange and beautiful art forms again.
When we pulled up to the temple my jaw dropped seeing it’s sparkling white facade. Almost everything outside the temple is bright white and encrusted with mirrors. There are bizarre sculptures around the temple in black, red and gold that stand out like punctuation marks because of their bold contrast and unexpected form. Chalermchai made the temple white to symbolize the purity of Buddha and the mirrors represent his wisdom shining out across the world and the universe. It was a cloudy, stormy day when we visited so the white blended with the storm clouds and the mirrors lit up like lightening. It felt like we had stepped onto another planet.
Everything on the 3 acres surrounding the temple holds deep religious symbolism, representations of heaven and hell. The main messages outside the temple surround escaping greed, passion and desire to move toward the sublime. To enter the main temple, the wat, you must cross a bridge that spans a lake of up reaching hands that symbolize desire.
There are detailed frescoes that cover the walls inside the temple. When I first looked at the paintings I was impressed by the vividness of the colors used. Once the images depicted started to register I was held hostage, sucked in like reading the climax of a good book, I couldn’t walk away. The frescoes tell spellbinding stories of samsara, the cycle of existence, with the protagonists being 20th-century heroes.
There are outcroppings of sculptures symbolizing the heavenly and the hellish. These freaky looking displays include severed heads hanging in a tree, a mythological dragon emerging from a pond and predator rising from the earth. This is one example of a depiction of evil. I am pretty sure I had dreams about this one when I was quitting smoking.
As it sits now, The white temple is closed indefinitely. Chalermchai will continue to investigate to see what can be salvaged or needs to be destroyed. Before the quake, Chalermchai made it clear the temple would be his legacy and masterpiece. He was quoted saying ” Only death can stop my dream but cannot stop my project”. He believes the work will give him immortal life. I know it’s memory will remain in my mind as one of the most amazing examples of art I have seen anywhere in the world.