FYI, I thought this title was pretty funny. I LOLed typing it out. When I showed it to Brian, instead of witnessing the barrels of laughter I was expecting, all I got was a blank stare (followed by a lecture on why this title isn't good for SEO). But, rather than change it, and accept the realization that it wasn't actually that funny, I decided to spend this time writing a paragraph explaining the reasons why I found it funny. Could I BE anymore annoying? Now do you get it?! If the answer is still no, maybe we shouldn't be friends!! Or maybe I should stop referencing Friends on a daily basis. Sigh.
Okay! Back to Chiang Rai! When planning our route, we decided halfway through our time in Chiang Mai that we would either cross over into Myanmar or Laos via northern Thailand. Chiang Rai served as a stopping point for both routes, and since we had heard about Wat Rong Kuhn, better known as the White Temple (and the much lesser known Black Temple), we figured it would be a good place to stop.
We took the Green Bus, a super comfortable AC bus that was nothing like the buses in India. Except, that they blasted Thai music at unbearably loud volumes. It was also like traveling in an igloo. It was frigid! Once the blood started circulating back to our fingers, we were able to enjoy the free water, snacks, and moist towelettes unexpectedly offered to us. Three hours later, we were in Chiang Rai!
We booked two nights at the creatively named, Chiang Rai Hotel, for $14. It is conveniently located next to the gold clocktower which strangely has a light and music show every night. If you happen to miss the 7:00pm show, don’t worry, they have another one at 8pm and again at 9pm. And if you still manage to miss all three, don’t fret, you aren’t missing much.
Chiang Rai wasn’t all that exciting, but it did of course, have a bumping night market. And we, shockingly, ate there both nights.
After settling in, we decided to rent bikes (50 baht each) from our hotel and put our restless legs to use. We chose to bike to the White Temple instead of taking a tuk-tuk or Songthaew (costing over 300 baht, which in reality is only $10 USD but hey, every dollar counts when you are unemployed!). This was the best idea! The bike ride out there wasn’t anything special, we were actually on the side of the highway most of the time, but it was flat and this made me happy. We went on a joyride on our way back and found ourselves biking through the most vibrant, green rice fields bordered by a dramatic mountain landscape. We stopped every ten minutes to take a photo. Chiang Rai wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if it wasn’t for our unexpected bike ride.
As we were riding to the temple, we eventually turned the corner after pedaling through the beautiful countryside, and out of nowhere, we saw this massive white structure that couldn’t have looked more out of place. It was so white it hurt your eyes to look directly at it. We sat down and cooled off with a mango smoothie, marveling at all the tourists taking pictures with odd, out of place bedazzled statues, and creepy dangling heads outside of the temple. Now, hydrated and cooled off, we were ready to face the madness. We paid 50 baht to enter the most bizarre temple/art exhibit we have ever visited. It was a strange, and a somewhat unsettling mixture of pop culture and buddhism that I just couldn’t wrap my head around. Brian, on the other hand, loved it. Which didn't surprise me since I was half expecting Gandalf to jump out of the temple at any given moment. (PS. When Brian read this, his response, with much disappointment mind you, was, "Shiva, Gandalf wouldn't jump out, he would have majestically appeared riding Shadowfax through the temple.” DUH GUYS.)
Once you enter the temple, you walk through a sea of outreaching ghoulish hands from what I can only presume is Mordor. (It’s actually meant to symbolize human suffering and hell, which if you were forced to watch Lord of the Rings as many times as I have, it's basically the same thing). Everyone must walk through the 'Hands of Unbridled Desire' before reaching the ‘Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth’ signifying being reborn into a life free of suffering. The bridge symbolizes overcoming traits of temptation and greed as the only way to finding happiness. This, and other features of the exterior of the temple, are some of the only traits resembling buddhism.
There are countless other symbolic references throughout the temple, including but not limited to Harry Potter, Michael Jackson, George Bush, Osama Bin Ladan, and every single Marvel character known to man. I even spotted Sailor Moon. Heroes and villains, illustrated through modern representations of good and evil are impossible to miss. So what's the point to all of this? The local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat claims it suggests “the killing of innocence” and how no hero, not even Superman, can save us. And saving the best symbolism for last, within it all, at the very center of the chaos, the one who has risen above, is of course, Buddha. (Fun fact: he has a life-size cutout of himself at the entrance where you can take a selfie.)
While strange, we still thoroughly enjoyed the White Temple. Reading about Kositpipat’s intentions and also cooking up some of our own ideas, made for a really informative excursion. And a bonus for anyone visiting, don’t miss out on the free art exhibit (just show your ticket). It has stunning artwork from Kositpipat including one of Bush and Osama riding a nuclear rocket titled Love.
The White Temple should not be missed if you are traveling through northern Thailand. This contemporary, eclectic depiction of Buddha’s past and our present is not just amusing to see, but it paints a pretty accurate picture of the state of our future in the modern world.