The temple attendant tut tuts his disapproval at my shorts and gives me a sarong to cover my immodesty. I am too awed by the ornate white structure in front of me to be embarrassed. I am standing in the presence of Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Blindingly white in the afternoon sun, it reflects majestically in the lake that surrounds it. Yet upon closer inspection, there is something almost sinister in its aspect. Hundreds of sculptured hands that rise out of the ground beseechingly, some holding up skulls or pots, others curved in agony or torment, it is bafflingly malevolent. A path in the middle leads up towards the bridge, a large set of horns on either side, scimitar like, threatening to decapitate one at a moment’s notice. This strange and frightening welcome is further enhanced by the presence of two large gargoyle like creatures, frowning and pointing, swords at the ready.
With shaky hands I take a few photos, and pause for a moment to compose myself. A contingent of saffron clothed monks passes me by, and something of their calm reaches out to soothe me. I put the camera in my pocket cognisant of the no photography rule inside the temple, and follow them.
In the cool, hushed interior, all hubbub subsides, as locals and tourists examine the single, small room that comprises the ubosot, or the main temple. On the facing wall is a huge mural of the Buddha, serene in meditation. My jangled nerves are only momentarily calmed by this vision, as more perplexing murals adorning the other three walls swim into view. In particular the wall behind me. From Michael Jackson to Elvis Presley, from Hello Kitty to the Minions,from the airplane hit Twin Towers in New York to Neo from the Matrix, there is an assortment of Western characters, largely American, that seem to symbolise some kind of prevailing wickedness. On the side walls are murals of boats filled with people heading towards the Buddha. I can only surmise that this is a depiction of man’s journey from ignorance and greed towards enlightenment.
In a shadowy corner, a man sits quietly, paintbrush in hand, touching up a mural. Could this be Chalermchai Kositpipat, the famous Thai visual artist, and architect of this mystifying structure? I am too afraid to ask, and quietly make my exit.
As I walk around the grounds, still processing all that I have seen, I wander into the golden enclave of the museum. Here I chance upon a large statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh being carved. I watch fascinated as they labour over his trunk, carving intricate details into what will one day reside in the environs of this incredible structure.
Like the Sagrada Familia, this is a work in progress. Yet, it is Kositpipat’s vision, funds and determination that propels it forward. His own life, as much as this temple, is an extraordinary entreaty to mankind to shed their earthly ties, and move towards something that is far larger than themselves.
That is a lesson well worth imbibing.