The Weirdest Temple in Chiang Rai

An insane Thai artist, who resides somewhere between Henry Darger and Moebius the Frenchman, realized he needed to return to his hometown, Chiang Rai, and build a temple. Not just any Wat — it had to be something bigger, something bolder, something more… white. It was to be the most renowned tribute to the Buddha, yet. It was to deliver him students and followers, and scores- nay, millions- of tourists a year. It was to put Chiang Rai back on the map.

And it did.

Bouncing along dirt roads in a tuktuk, sucking in truck exhaust, I cursed Sasha and Tina. “What’s another Wat,” I kept asking — I’d seen thirty, forty, maybe even a hundred, so far. I was sick of Wats. And here I was, twenty five minutes away from my guesthouse, and the bus to Chiang Khong, just to see another.

Then, far down the road, something white appeared. Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น) was glistening. It was literally brilliant. Closer, it appeared to be a palace made of Ice — something from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Pollution and open sewers aside, this was breathtaking.

After seeing so few tourists on the road, I had expected to be alone, but for the first time, I was in a crowd. Schoolchildren filed past the arms screaming from, and dragging to, hell.

Demons and gargoyles tried to block the way, keep you from salvation.

And inside the temple itself, it was just gorgeous. And insane. And photo-forbidden. And it was too holy to break the rules.

On the far wall, a row of increasingly-huge buddahs stand, ending in a wall-sized mural of the Buddha, in complete harmony with the universe, and beginning with a single monk, in silent lotus-position meditation, a pair of glasses sitting on his nose, but his eyes closed.

“Of course he’s not real,” a woman whispered to her daughter.

“But he looks so… so lifelike,” the younger woman replied.

“Look at the sign,” I jumped in. “‘Please don’t sit on the monk seat.’ So sometimes it must be empty. I think he’s real.”

“But look at his hands,” the mom said. “They look like plastic.”

We never could agree.

The back wall, allowing you to re-enter the world, was an incredible — and very mad — face of a demon, swallowing you back into the material world. Sex and drugs and Superman and the twin towers and cellphones and Ultraman and Converse sneakers and UFOs and so much more. All the awesome things and terrible things and things that I adore — condemned in the face of the demon. And it was gorgeous.

Even the bathroom signs were works of beauty.

My favorite part of the museum, but the least photogenic, were rows of cabinets containing all the lost items in the temple. Bundles of money, a rubix cube, SIM cards, Flash cards, umbrellas. They’d been marked and dated and numbered and filed according to type — a row of cellphones, each in their own small plastic bag, sat next to a row of baseball caps, each with a paperclipped note. Beside the exit, these worked as a final reminder of all the material things we cling to, that keep us from salvation. (Although it was also next to the official gift shop, an irony I’m sure the artist adores.)

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