Thailand-Chiang Rai: “White Temple” – An Attempt To Create A 21st Century Thai Buddhist Architecture

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand just a few kilometers from the Myanmar border. The area has its own unique culture known as Lana culture with its spicy cuisines and golden roofed temple architecture.

Wat Rong Khun in the outskirts of the city known as “White Temple” to tourists stands out with its unique architecture. It reminded me of the white marbled ‘monument of love’ – the Taj Mahal in Agra , India.

The temple is the brainchild of famous Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, who wanted to build a modern 21st century Thai Buddhist temple that reflects the glory of Thai Buddhist art.

Chiang Rai was founded by King Meng Rai in 1262 as the first capital of the Thai Lana kingdom. Thus it has many Buddhist temples reflecting the golden roofed triangular shrine rooms and the stupas. But, Wat Rong Khun is different; not only in colour but in the grandiose white carved architecture that immediately attracts one’s. It’s just reaching its 20th anniversary.

Artist Chalermchai says he used white to build a temple that is different to others because he believes that gold symbolize lust and evil deeds. The Buddha’s teachings symbolize purity, which is white, he argues. He also uses small mirrors throughout the building that symbolize the wisdom of Buddha’s teachings that reflects across the world.

Entering the shrine room on either side of the walkway are sculptures which depicts craving or hell, and the eyes of the demon with mouth opened includes George W Bush and Bill Laden and murals inside shows Twin Towers in New York, missiles and weapons (inside murals are not allowed to be photographed). Chalermchai says he wants people to know that these are all evil people and items that are destroying our civilization.

Chalermchai explains (in the booklet available at the temple shop) that he has build into the temple architecture the evil people with mouths opened and hands raised encircling the entrance to depict the lack of moral standards of the people today. When people walk out he would like people to feel that they have left the demons behind, and the Thai design he has adopted takes the visitors past the eyes, nose and mouth of the demons towards the back of the temple where the scene change into an angelic carriage that will take people to meet the Dhamma (teachings) of the Buddha.

Chalermchai is critical of Thai universities that teach modern arts focused on Europe which makes Thai students ridicule Thai traditional arts as old-fashioned. He has weathered such labeling to create a piece of modern Thai architecture that is rooted in centuries old Thai arts. He hopes that this temple would make contemporary Thai arts world famous.

The temple is visited by tens of thousands of tourists every year from across Asia as well as Europe and America. The temple looks more like a Buddhist theme park than a traditional monastery, as yellow-robed Buddhist monks were not visible when I visited it on a weekday afternoon.

Chalermchai says that when people visit the temple “I want people to feel peace and happiness and to envision the kindness of the Lord Buddha towards all beings”.

It has its own postcard stamp, a well-stocked souvenir shop with t-shirts and other memorabilia, as well as colourful Buddhists art pieces that reflects traditional Thai arts but at the same time presented in a very modern (not European) framework. Income from the shop should be helping the temple to maintain its well-kept landscaping and environment. Foreign visitors also pay a nominal 50 Bhat ($ 1.50) entrance fee.



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