Chiang Rai



Just south of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, David Whitley finds a temple where Spiderman, Darth Vader and Harry Potter compete with Buddha



Ego is a wondrous concoction. It drives us all to do absurd things occasionally, whether it’s taking on a tequila stuntman, or invading Russia during World War II when up until that moment you were winning handsomely.


It may also drive you to pour all your time and resources into the construction of a ludicrously over-the-top-temple that features images of Kung Fu Panda and an Angry Bird. Now I’m not suggesting for a second that Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat is entirely driven by an ego the size of the rapidly expanding universe, but Wat Rong Khun is, ahem, somewhat expressive.


Known to most as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is astonishing project. Kicking off in 1997, Chalermchai has poured large amounts of his own money – and some cannily acquisitioned donations – into making a temple that doesn’t follow the usual rules.


The prolific dauber is building a modern day temple that’s as much a personal artistic expression as a place of worship. From a distance it looks like it’s made entirely of wedding case icing, decorated with the pernickety touch of someone who believes you can never have too many serifs in a font. It’s a departure from the usual gold-heavy colour riot of Buddhist temples – apparently Chalermchai believes that “gold is suitable to people who lust for evil deeds.”


This anti-gold thing doesn’t apply to the public toilets on the site. They are given pride of place, lavished with the sort of ostentation and blinginess usually reserved for the main attraction. It is designed to be the world’s most beautiful toilet*.


There are many buildings on the site – Chalermchai seems incapable of finishing one before starting another – but the main one is accessed via a bridge that crosses a pseudo-moat of grasping hands. Some are reaching up with bowls, others hold skulls. It looks suitably hellish.


Whilst crossing, you realise that the big wedding cake is actually made of whitewash and reflective glass. But such illusion-shattering doesn’t detract from the barmy majesty of the inner sanctum. It’s still being painted – the whole project is due to last 90 years and Chalermchai has roped in scores of disciples to help him finish it – but subdued it isn’t.


The overall theme is clear. There’s a giant, multi-tentacled devil on the back wall, while the side walls depict people floating away on clouds towards the multiple, and impressively stacked Buddhas at the front. But it’s the detail that is quite, quite wonderful. Seemingly at random, the artist has painted in all manner of pop culture references. There’s Spiderman, there’s Harry Potter, there’s Keanu Reeves in his Matrix get-up and there’s Michael Jackson moonwalking on a demon’s forked tongue. Elsewhere, Darth Vader, the Incredible Hulk and Jack Sparrow get a look in. The giant devil’s eyes, meanwhile, have George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden in the middle of them.


This may all seem brilliantly, gaudily ludicrous right now, but I’m not sure it is. It’s rare to see such a massive religious building being built contemporaneously. That’s why it seems silly to have contemporary references in it – they seem out of context. But look at the Pyramids, look at Angkor Wat and look at the sculptures and engravings in many cathedrals. They all tell stories – stories of what was either happening at the time or in the not too distant past. Chalermchai Kositpipat his just trying to do what people around the world with big ideas did hundreds of years ago. And when the silly and spectacular come in equal measures, he may just have got it right.


*Incidentally, it’s rather bland inside, despite the golden frippery hanging from the roof beams..