This is a Muay Thai blog, but part of my mission in writing it is to bring as much of my experiences of Thailand as I can to readers as well, both for those who are not as fortunate as I have been to make the trip out here, but also as a plot to inspire and encourage those who can come to do so. Muay Thai is filled with context; it’s not just a sport, but is beautifully tangled with an aesthetic, a people and a way of life. In Thailand, you find these contexts everywhere.
For more on the Wat Rong Khun, see my video journal update, shot on the outside of the building.
The “White Temple” – Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai
I initially became aware of the White Temple because my friend Robyn asked if we could go see it when she came for a visit to Chiang Mai. The temple is located in Chaing Rai, about a 3.5 hour drive from where I live, just down the street from the camp. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out to go see the temple with Robyn. A few weeks after she had to return back to the US I saw some pictures from the Facebook page of some folks I train with at the camp; one picture was of the Predator, partially buried in the ground. As I clicked through more images, I saw that this was the White Temple. It’s aesthetic is bizarre and there were many images of gnarled hands, shrieking faces – hellish scenes which are not, in my mind, associated with Buddhist iconography. But the Predator intrigued me and when my parents came for a visit and wanted to drive up farther north I planted seeds in their heads to go see the Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple.
The temple is incredible in person. It’s not “difficult” to photograph in the sense that you actually want to photograph virtually every part of it, but it is difficult to capture the majesty of it. It’s like trying to photograph a castle carved from ice – the pictures are beautiful, but they cannot do justice to the actual impression or multiple dimensions that one experiences in person. I had seen images of the temple online before my visit, but even so I felt that I had not seen it at all when I first stood before it.
It has familiar elements to Thai Buddhist temples, the peaks that rise up like flames licking at the sky along the roof, the long serpents called Naga which guard the stairways, and of course monks and images of Buddha inside. Most temples are heavily ornate with bold colors and mirrors embedded in the sculptures and design. When everything is white, however, the detail of texture and the glitter of the mirrors comes out more – like a snow sculpture against the pale blue sky and bright sunlight. Outside the temple is a moat with bottom feeding fish juxtaposed with white and orange koi fish – the symbolism of the two need not be explained in the context of all the demonic and hellish images folded into the pure white of the structure. Legion hands reaching up in desperation from pits, thorns running through and around skulls which scream voicelessly, mouths agape. Worldly desire torn from the pages of Dante’s Inferno.
Inside the temple is full of color. It’s a tiny room full of gold and deep blues and oranges and reds. There are familiar icons of Buddha, as well as others less recognizable to the uninitiated. What I found amazing, however, was that the temple is active as a temple with monks and shrines, not just artwork. Secondly, I loved that the room had high ceilings to feel very open and was painted to feel like the sky, but it is so small inside that all there is to do is kneel and be quiet. The whole beauty and sculpture outside is hell and inside is just quiet meditation.
Once I looped back around to the outside and exited out the back of the temple (you cannot go back out the way you came in, which is poetic) I saw heads hanging from trees with moss growing out the bottom. Familiar heads: Hellboy, Hell Raiser, Freddie Kruger and Batman. Who knows how much the artist is familiar with these characters to have them represent demons, but it’s alarming – I mean, Batman? He’s vengeance, so I can see it, but I don’t group him with Freddie. Just behind this, however, is a wishing well into which thousands of Baht coins have been tossed for luck. I threw in a few, trying to aim for the center of an underwater fountain which was capped by an open lotus. I think I got one in on my last try.
About a 3 hour and 15 minute drive from Chiang Mai
View Places of Chiang Mai in a larger map