One of the must-see sights in Chiang Rai, Thailand is Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple. It’s less a “temple” in the strict Buddhist sense than it is a frolicking, impudent, and eclectic art exhibition mixing traditional Buddhist themes with modern entertainment and political icons, many of them from the West and familiar to the hundreds of tourists who flock to the temple each day.
The original temple, whose age is uncertain, had fallen into a sad state of disrepair, and was almost a ruin, when it and the grounds were taken over in the late 1990s by one of Thailand’s premiere artists, Chalermchai Kositpipat. He’s spent at least $1million (USD) of his own money turning the temple into a kitschy, sometimes irreverent “temple” of modern art which sometimes runs afoul of the country’s traditional ideas of what a temple should be, and which receives no government funding as a consequence. Hello Kitty, incredibly popular in Thailand among adult women–it’s jarring to see so many of them with Hello Kitty backpacks, shoes, watches, T-shirts–makes an appearance, as does the Hell Priest. And there’s a mural which depicts a plane hitting New York’s Twin Towers as Spiderman looks on. (That one’s been controversial, even outside Thailand.)
I’m probably far less connected to popular Western culture than is the average resident of Thailand, so I probably missed most of the clever allusions, and I can’t say I loved much of the art itself, some of which is distinctly creepy. (Not as creepy as some of the art in the Black House Museum, though.) But the experience, and one’s first sight of the temple, certainly is spectacular. More spectacular from a distance, I think, when the temple looks ethereal and beautiful. Close up, the creep factor intensifies, and some of the art is just discomfiting to look at, as you walk through representations of hell in order to understand that you must forgo the world’s temptations in order to get to Nirvana. (Somehow, in the midst of all this magnificence and ostentation, this seemed a bit ironic to me–after all, the building of religious significance in which I feel the greatest sense of holiness and peace is a tiny, thousand-year-old almost-ruin in the Gloucestershire countryside–but who am I to say?)
Anyhoo, there are photos, so I know it happened, on July 14, 2018:
While we were there, I took a photo of my friend and tour guide.
He’s posted it several times on his blog, and has even used it elsewhere on the web. I gave it to him freely, so that’s perfectly OK. I’m glad he likes it so much, although he seems to have forgotten exactly where it was taken, and what we were doing at the time. No matter. We can’t all have perfect recall. (That’s what the EXIF information from the camera is for!) I think it shows him at his best, relaxed and happy. Here it is, July 14, 2018, at Chiang Rai’s White Temple, one of the enjoyable memories from my trip to Thailand (obviously, my original photo isn’t blurred):
There were others. The next day (July 15) we visited the Black House Museum which was weird but interesting (some gorgeous wood carving!) and parts of which are strangely reminiscent of some exhibitions of Native American art I’ve seen.
And the following day (July 16, 2018, my last full day in Thailand) involved an unexpected visit to a hospital, which was the occasion of my meeting a lovely woman and new friend. Here’s a photo from the trip to the hospital on the 16th:
And another of my friend (no logo on the T-shirt on that day) and the young woman, standing in front of a “map” of the hospital, just after he gave blood. Both of us were, technically, too old to do so; however he’s a bit younger than I, so the nurses allowed him to. Donations were being accepted for the young lady’s father, who was very ill.
That was also an interesting experience, as I got a chance to see Thai medical care up close and personal. It’s quite good.
Another interesting, earlier, aspect of my trip was that the “soccer boys” were rescued from the Tham Luang Caves shortly after I arrived in Chiang Rai. The amount of news coverage, the presence of international reporters, the traffic madness (even more than usual) and the difficulty of getting around due to the number of closed roads–all of that was stunning. Once the boys were rescued on July 9 and 10, they were brought to this same hospital for treatment. At least some of them were still there during my visit, which was for another purpose.
We did see the helicopter carrying the Thai Navy SEALs who’d conducted the rescue bringing them back to Chiang Rai after the last boys were brought out of the caves. Brave men who all looked very relieved, and very glad to be going home, and who I’m sure were remembering their brother SEAL who died in the rescue. This photo was taken on July 11:
Fortunately, all turned out well with matters at the hospital on the 16th, and the next day I flew home myself with hundreds of photos and some nice memories.