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..

 

Trekking

 


 

Trekking through the smog David Whitley heads uphill through the smoke near Chiang Rai, and hears some interesting theories about why the air quality in Northern Thailand is particularly bad at the moment.

 

My calves are shrieking at me, but not as much as my back. It has been all uphill for the first hour of what I’d assumed would be a relatively undemanding four hour trek. But the slope isn’t the main villain of the piece – it’s the bamboo. 

 

The panda favourite takes over many of the hillsides near Chiang Rai, and in numerous different varieties. Some grow big and wide, others do their best to make you whimper by forming arches at chest height. Our march up the hill, therefore, isn’t just performed at a pace that’s slightly too military to be a puffing lumber. It is performed at a near permanent ninety degree angle. And that’s just marvellous if you happen to have a backpack on. It seems that bamboo likes nothing better than snagging backpacks. 

 

Our guide, Chai, seems tremendously unperturbed. He’s skipping up the hillside in his torn jeans as if human beings were born to walk at this gradient. He’s also small enough to tackle the overhead menace with a gentle bob. The only time he seems keen on stopping is when he spots a suitable bit of bamboo. He then leaps into the forest, and starts attacking it with the big knife he keeps in a woven sheath by his side. He picks his spot quite deliberately, and hacks at it. It soon becomes clear that it’s all about finding himself a new walking stick that’s just right. 

 

When we stop in a clearing to consume as much water as possible and generally cry mercy to the heavens, he parks himself down at the edge and gets to work on another piece of bamboo. I watch him for a couple of minutes, and curiosity gets the better of me. “What are you making?” I ask. 

 

“Um, I don’t know,” he replies. And then, after a bit of thought, “a toy, a toy”. 

 

He fashions the bamboo with his knife, turning into two parts. One’s a tube, one’s a poking stick with a handle. He dunks some paper in the stream and pushes it through the tube with the bamboo sword. 

 

He then puts some more at the other end, smothers it over, and pushes through with a sharp burst. It makes a popping noise like a gunshot. “See? A toy.” 

 

Before we move on, I’m tempted to take a giant lungful of air. But the air is horrible. The hillsides – the otherwise gorgeous little tribal villages, tea plantations, waterfalls and banana plants we’ll walk past when the path turns less brutal – are all covered in a thick smog. There’s no sun to be seen, just a suffocating greyness that smells and tastes evil until you acclimatise. This often happens between February and April. It’s the time of year when fields and forests are traditionally burned-off, ready for replanting the new season’s crop. 

 

But this year, it is especially bad. There has been talk of evacuating children and the elderly. When we get back to the village we started in, via mountain paths that would otherwise offer a stupendous view, we’re told why. Tom, who has guided for the day before passing on the baton to the spritely Chai for the hard part, reckons that the vast majority of the smog isn’t coming from Thailand, but from neighbouring Myanmar. There are elections there on April 1st, he says, and there has been an uneasy ceasefire that doesn’t fit the pattern of the last few decades. 

 

Myanmar (or Burma for the Daily Telegraph-reading retired colonels out there) isn’t a happy place. Many of the tribal people who live in the hillsides – many from the same tribes that live in Thailand – want nothing to do with the ruling military junta. According to Tom, they’ve fought an unpublicised and largely ineffective war for years in a bid for greater autonomy and independence. Everything’s on hold at the moment, but “we will all know what’s happening on April 2nd” And, crucially, a forest cleared by burning is much easier to fight in than one standing tall and snagging backpacks with bamboo.   

 

More information: Tom runs Eagle Adventure Tour (Thaieageletour.com), and he’s a lovely guy offering plenty of other tour options from Chiang Rai. His real passion is a volunteer run-school (Facebook.com/TomKarenCenter) in his home village, though. Book donations and volunteer English teachers are always greatly appreciated.

 

More Articles...

  1. Temples
  2. Chiang Mai