What would the Bud­dha think?

The Gaudí-es­que White Tem­ple is a can­vas for one artist’s sin­gu­lar ideas. Hello Kitty im­agery, any­one?

Los Angeles Times - - TRAVEL - By Arnie Cooper

CHI­ANG RAI, Thai­land — What do Kung Fu Panda, Neo from “The Ma­trix” and Spi­der-Man all have in com­mon? If you guessed some sort of vague celebrity, you’d be half-right.

Th­ese char­ac­ters share a wall in­side the White Tem­ple, a Gaudíesque Bud­dhist sanc­tu­ary a few miles out­side Chi­ang Rai in north­ern Thai­land, where I vis­ited in De­cem­ber. I had been han­ker­ing to see it since I stum­bled upon the off­beat struc­ture while surf­ing the In­ter­net dur­ing the run-up to my tour of Asia.

As con­tro­ver­sial as it is mes­mer­iz­ing, the shim­mer­ing ed­i­fice is the brain­child of vis­ual artist and designer Chalerm­chai Kosit­pi­pat, who be­gan work­ing on his self­funded master­piece in 1997.

Even with 60-plus vol­un­teers, Kosit­pi­pat es­ti­mates that Wat Rong Khun will not be com­plete un­til the end of the cen­tury.

The 60-year-old mu­ral­ist first brought his unique aes­thetic to Wat Bud­dha­padipa, Bri­tain’s first Thai Bud­dhist tem­ple, con­structed in Wim­ble­don in 1982. Kosit­pi­pat headed a team of Thai artists who adorned its walls with images of Moam­mar Kadafi, Ron­ald Rea­gan and Mar­garet Thatcher.

“I got com­plaints from every­body — from the [Thai] gov­ern­ment, from monks and from other artists, say­ing that what I was do­ing was not Thai art,” Kosit­pi­pat was quoted as say­ing af­ter fin­ish­ing the project.

The White Tem­ple is even more in­trigu­ing than its Bri­tish cousin and a vast de­par­ture from the 33,000 tra­di­tional tem­ples found through­out Thai­land. The in­te­rior of the main chapel is painted with char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing Harry Pot­ter, Hello Kitty and Freddy Krueger, par­tic­i­pat­ing in a war be­tween good and evil. The devil is lit­er­ally in the oddly dis­arm­ing de­tails.

This goes for out­side as well. Con­sider the red-painted fin­ger­nail on one of the hun­dreds of sculpted hands reach­ing up from a pit of de­monic souls. To gain ac­cess to the main tem­ple, I had to cross this macabre scene us­ing a bridge called the Cy­cle of Re­birth. I’ve vis­ited many tem­ples in my trav­els, but this was the first time I’d en­tered a sanc­tu­ary not know­ing whether to laugh or cry out in fear.

But even be­fore set­ting foot on the 6.4-acre prop­erty, I had to cross a road punc­tu­ated by red and white traf­fic cones topped with ghoul­ish faces. Then, in the tem­ple gar­dens, I en­coun­tered moss-cov­ered masks of wretched faces hang­ing from trees along with blood-colored skele­tons — Marl­boros in hand — warn­ing of the dan­gers of smok­ing.

The Golden Toi­let is one of the com­plex’s most cu­ri­ous struc­tures, an or­nate re­stroom build­ing cov­ered in gold leaf. The idea, said lo­cal guide Phubor­din Thi­tipongkul, is to call at­ten­tion to our ma­te­ri­al­is­tic ten­den­cies. “Gold is for the lay peo­ple. White is for the en­light­ened peo­ple,” Thi­tipongkul said.

As one of the coun­try’s most cel­e­brated artists, Kosit­pi­pat may get away with what ap­pears to be frivolous­ness. But squint and you might think you’re pass­ing into the great be­yond when this seem­ingly snow­cov­ered struc­ture first meets your gaze. Twin­kling in the sun, Wat Rong Khun, for all its wack­i­ness, is still a place of wor­ship.

In fact, Kosit­pi­pat be­lieves the project will give him “im­mor­tal life.”

“Ev­ery hu­man has to see this,” he told Time mag­a­zine in 2009. “This is my way, and a good way, to give back to the world.”

As for the tem­ple’s un­tra­di­tional white color, Kosit­pi­pat didn’t just choose it for artis­tic ef­fect. Rather, he wanted Wat Rong Khun to be what Thi­tipongkul called “an em­blem of en­light­en­ment.” Add to that the count­less mir­rored glass mo­saics em­bed­ded in the white plas­ter that de­note Bud­dha’s wis­dom “shin­ing through­out the uni­verse.”

I found in­ner con­tem­pla­tion chal­leng­ing as I be­gan to en­ter the ubosot, or chapel. Blar­ing non­stop was a loud­speaker urg­ing vis­i­tors to “keep mov­ing.”

Af­ter I re­moved my shoes and ob­served sev­eral “No Photo” signs, I en­tered a room that didn’t seem un­usual. Straight ahead was a gi­ant paint­ing of the Bud­dha on a wall cov­ered in shades of gold. In front of it sat a cou­ple of Bud­dha stat­ues, one white and the other gold.

But it was the back wall that cap­tured my at­ten­tion with its pa­rade of car­toon char­ac­ters, ac­tion he­roes and a de­pic­tion of New York’s twin tow­ers. One of the build­ings was smol­der­ing.

If you’ve spent time tour­ing the coun­try’s Bud­dhist tem­ples, you won’t be sur­prised by images de­pict­ing his­toric and re­li­gious events such as the battle be­tween the Bud­dha and the de­mon Mara, but here you’ll see Ge­orge W. Bush and Osama bin Laden painted in­side the de­mon’s eyes.

“I want ev­ery­one to know that our world is be­ing de­stroyed by those who craved to build weapons that kill, thereby ru­in­ing the en­vi­ron­ment be­cause noth­ing is ever enough,” Kosit­pi­pat wrote in the tem­ple’s English-lan­guage guide­book.

If all this seemed out of place, I con­sid­ered that the an­cient scenes I usu­ally en­coun­tered were not al­ways an­cient. In fact, the only dif­fer­ence here is that Kosit­pi­pat is con­tin­u­ing the tra­di­tion of il­lus­trat­ing tem­ple walls with con­tem­po­rary Bud­dhist cos­mol­ogy.

As Thi­tipongkul noted, the artist wanted to cre­ate a record of the time pe­riod when a par­tic­u­lar paint­ing was done.

“In 500 years, if peo­ple dis­cover this as an an­cient tem­ple, peo­ple will ask when it was made,” Thi­tipongkul said. “But then they’ll see the ‘Ma­trix’ im­age and re­al­ize that it’s from the 21st cen­tury.”

On May 5 of last year, a 6.3-mag­ni­tude earth­quake in nearby Mae Lao dam­aged some of the com­po­si­tions, crack­ing pil­lars and break­ing a spire. Although Kosit­pi­pat at first thought the dam­age was ir­repara­ble, it was soon determined that it could be re­paired within two years.

That is merely a blip in a mul­ti­decade project like this one. Be­sides, the many ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails ob­scured the dam­age.

That goes for Kosit­pi­pat him­self, who Thi­tipongkul said walks the grounds. But no wor­ries if you don’t catch him. You can do as I and many oth­ers have done: pose for a photo next to a life-size card­board like­ness of the artist out­side the gift shop.

travel@la­times.com

Arnie Cooper

THE TEM­PLE

near Chi­ang Rai, Thai­land, is the work of vis­ual artist Chalerm­chai Kosit­pi­pat.

Lou Spir­ito Los An­ge­les Times

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