It was May 27th, and I had arrived at Bus Terminal 1, in Chiang Rai late at night. I grab my pack and step off the bus unto the pavement, looking around and trying to orientate myself. I was then quickly, of course, swarmed with a bevy of tuk-tuk drivers offering rides to me, which is one of my absolute strange loves in Thailand; always having the option for fun transport and being the center of attention for 3 minutes. With my phone being dead and not really sure how far my place was, I negotiated with one guy to take me to Mercy hostel, where I was staying and meeting up with Thomas, a friend I met in Pai days earlier.
The following day we took a grab to see Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun, also known as the “White Temple.” A temple designed by Thai visual artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat and one that opened its doors to visitors in 1997. As Thomas and I began walking up towards the temple the first thing I really noticed was how bright and shiny the temple was, especially in contrast with the blue sky behind it. It was almost a blinding structure to look at and one that was completely unique. In the distance I could see all of the traditional elements of standard Thai architecture, the tiered roofs and serpents but I knew this one was going to be very different.
We paid 100 baht to visit the grounds and as we drew closer to the temple we noticed a small pond and a bridge that led to it, known as the “Gate of Heaven.” In the front were sculptures of hundreds of outstretched hands in agonizing desire. Many people stood on the bridge and took their photos but loved to take their sweet ass time with it. Over a megaphone there was a repeated message in Mandarin and English saying not to stop on the bridge and to continue into the temple, but people still moved slowly. With the fantastical temple that can only be dreamed of behind us, we took our photos and of course, also crossed the bridge slowly. I then realized why the White Temple was so bright from the distance, it was completely covered in small mirrored tiles.
Continuing across the bridge and into the temple I began to feel a strange sense of peace despite the growing crowd of tourists flowing in. I removed my shoes and stepped inside. In the center I saw a beautiful golden mural and statue of the Buddha. I put my hands together and gave a Wai to pay my respect and then slowly looked at the interior walls. What I saw was the most curious and strangest thing I’d ever seen in a place of worship. It was very modern art. There were murals of swirling fire and demonic faces from Thai literature but also Michael Jackson, Kung-Fu Panda, Neo from the Matrix, a depiction of the 9/11 terrorist attack, a volcano erupting, Superman, a space station, an asteroid hitting Earth, the Terminator, Hello Kitty, nuclear warfare…
Pretty much all the shit that scares me.