In doing a little research before traveling to Chiang Mai, it is inevitable that you’ll come across photos of the most ornate white temple called, Wat Rong Khun, located in the neighboring town of Chiang Rai. In all of the photos, a long white bridge crosses over a little pond leading to a beautifully built temple that looks as if it was dropped straight down from Heaven just to sit in a perfect blue sky backdrop. Those pictures were enough to convince my friend and I to book a tour, wake up early, and take the three hour drive further up north to see this site for ourselves.
Before we even arrived in Chiang Rai, the day was off to an interesting start. About half way through our drive, we pulled into a local rest stop that we were told was famous for its hot springs, interesting. When we got out of the tour van we were immediately greeted by an older Thai women trying to sell us little baskets of quail eggs. When we politely said no, she offered us a small basket which contained just two larger eggs, potentially from a chicken. Again, no, but thank you very much. It turns out that one of the draws to this rest stop is that you can purchase these eggs and actually cook them in the hot spring to have a hard boiled egg as a snack. Again, interesting.
We took in some of the flavor of this local rest stop and then were quickly back on our way to see the White Temple. Now, I’d assumed that like most of the temples I had visited in my two years living in Asia, this one must have been built long ago and would have been restored over the years. I was wrong, it was actually built within the past two decades, starting in 1997 and is still considered to be a work in progress. It was also built by an artist, which may partly explain why it is entirely different from any other temple I’ve visited.
So when you pass through the entrance into the temple you’re greeted by the beautiful white mirrored building, but as you make your way towards the bridge to go into the temple you see that rather than water, the bridge actually stands over a sea of white hands reaching up from under the ground. Our tour guide told us that this represents Hell, Wikipedia told me that the hands represent, ‘unrestrained desire”. Either way, crossing over the bridge is supposed to be your way towards finding true happiness.
When we entered the temple, it was beautiful. The walls were decorated with warm images of flowers, temples, and a large smiling Buddha, however in turning around we were in for a shock. On the back wall of the temple is a huge mural of a demonic spirit which is anything other than peaceful and definitely unexpected in a Buddhist temple. Upon taking a closer look the mural grew more and more surprising. Unfortunately photos of the interior of the temple were not allowed, but a quick google search will show some of the images
Inside the larger painting of the demon were smaller paintings illustrating explosions, natural disasters, dependence on technology, clocks, guns, and Kung Fu Panda. It was a mix of devastation and every superhero one could think of. I asked the tour guide what this was all symbolism for. He said it represented how human beings are in a pattern of destroying everything we have, but in real life, we don’t have superheroes to come and save the world for us. Then on the opposite side of the temple you see a very peaceful Buddha, which is to symbolize that his teachings are the way into a more beautiful world.
I’ll be honest, it was a heavier temple tour than I’d been ready for. That said, it was such an incredible experience and fell into the category of eye opening moments as to how the U.S. really affects the rest of the world, seeing as many of the events represented in the painting were of U.S. history, including an image of a former sitting president. So much of our influence is painted on the walls of that temple.
As we walked out of the place of worship we found a large gold building that too looked like a temple. Our tour guide told us that it was in fact the bathroom. Another use of symbolism. The artist wanted to use the restrooms to symbolize people, making the statement that sometimes the most beautiful person can have the personality of a toilet.
It was quite a day in Chiang Rai, and probably made the top five for unexpected experiences while traveling.
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