Almost a two hour drive to get to Wat Rong Khun, and my favorite place to pee in Thailand was closed for renovations. Travelling with two women, a species known for lack of bladder control, we’d already made two stops during the day’s outing for them to empty theirs. Knowing that even after having done so within the last fifteen minutes women always need to pee again, I had no concern about the need of making them hold it for the opportunity to pee in grandeur. Good thing I was feeling benevolent that day, the opulent experience of peeing under gold was not to be, the opportunity flushed away by a combination of progress and artistic vision.
You could, of course, design an entire tour around the Kingdom based on the urination experience. A tour of squat toilets, with each becoming more and more about squatting and less and less about a toilet, could be an interesting way to make your way through the country. Though possibly a unique theme for a future trip, with newbies to the Land Of Smiles in tow, this trip was designed instead to show off a different aspect of Thailand: its culture and its wats. Or so I’d planned. Yup, the best laid plans of mice, men. And dykes . . .
Helena had a different idea. She’d been watted out by day two having seen the Grand Palace and Wat Pho in Bangkok. It wasn’t that she was anti-religion, or didn’t appreciate culture, but rather she was on holiday and wats, geared toward visitors’ souls, failed to take care of another life need: Thailand’s temples do not serve alcohol. Getting the gang to agree to see yet another wat meant resorting to trickery. No problemo. Pulling a fast one on friends and acquaintances has never been a problem for me. In fact, that pleasure is quite enjoyable.
In Chiang Mai, I’d convinced the gang to take a trip up to Doi Suthep, conveniently forgetting to mention the wat part of its name. Noom and I also conveniently failed to mention the elevator, and let them make their way up the 309 stairs to the spectacular beauty that awaited them up top: another wat. The stair thingy didn’t go unappreciated, but there was enough to interest in the imagery, and enough activities to participate in, that the wat part of that trip was never quite grasped by the unsuspecting. Hey, I’ve said they were a fun group; I’ve never claimed they were an intelligent bunch.
When it came to the White Wat outside of Chiang Rai, not mentioning it was a wat and still convincing them a visit would be worth the trip was a more difficult task. Especially as it meant a day devoted to a long car ride and a whopping $20 out of Cheap Chris’ pocket to get there. Fortunately, Chris is a nerd. The lure of a wat featuring the Matrix version of Keanu Reeves was enough. The girls decided to go along for the ride.
Once outside of Chiang Mai and on the road to Chiang Rai, you quickly realize that without pockets of civilization for reference, the rolling foothills of one country are pretty much the same as the rolling foothills of another. You also quickly come to realize that a short nap might be a more productive use of time.
Noom and I had made this trip the year before, the beginning part of our journey to The Golden Triangle and his Grand Purpose of meeting the Mekong River for the first time in his life. On that trip we’d both agreed the first stop of the tour was a waste of time, a short diversion included in the tour for no other reason than for the tour operators to make a few bucks in commission off the purchases made by their sheep. So of course, we made sure to include that little stop on this trip too. Paying it forward works well for the negative too.
Motoring out of Chiang Mai at an ungodly hour of the morning usually means everyone has sucked down copious amounts of caffeine to fortify themselves for the trip. Three quarters of an hour later, it’s probably a good idea to make a stop to allow travellers to pee. Streaming liquids being the theme of the stop, the perfect place when headed to Chiang Rai is the hot springs, a small geyser surrounded by a massive number of merchant stalls selling touri kitch at highly inflated prices.
A year earlier our stop had been a quick fifteen minutes. With not only shopping involved but peeing as well, this time around we clocked in at almost an hour. My friend Noom, always willing to adapt to fit in, had developed the bladder control of a lesbian and was as antsy about reaching our first destination as the rest of the crew.
Dee, a born sucker and push over extraordinaire, fell victim to the boil an egg in the hot springs trick, the interactive part of the stop lauded as a must-do activity for touri headed to Chiang Rai. With a need to go, she quickly picked out a basket of eggs, allowed the old lady selling them to pull what she wished out of a wad of baht, and made a quick beeline for the nearest facilities, her eggs quickly forgotten.
Almost an hour later as we pulled away the old woman came running, pounding on the side of our van to pass Dee’s eggs in, a snack for the later part of the trip. Noom, who like most Thais is willing to eat some pretty disgusting things, cracked one open, took a sniff and quickly deposited it out the window.
Running on empty bladders and back on the road again the same boring landscape zipped past the windows until we arrived in Chiang Rai, a fascinating town that did little to break the monotony. But ten minutes later we hit our destination Wat Rong Khun , more affectionately known as the White Wat. Wat Rong Khun is the brainchild of artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who began construction on the temple in 1997 at his own expense as an offering to Lord Buddha. Says Kositpipat, “It was my strong intention to build a temple in imitation of heaven. I wanted it to be a heaven on earth.” It is Kositpipat’s idea of heaven that makes the White Wat so fascinating.
On our previous visit Kositpipat had been at the wat, yelling at visitors with the aid of a megaphone. A temperamental artist indeed. On this trip he failed to make an appearance, but the wat was swarming with monks, an even trade off in my book. More used to the staid imagery typical of most wats in Thailand, you can’t help but wonder just what they make of Kositpipat’s version of a Buddhist temple.
Even as fanciful as the wat is from the road, the initial reaction from the gang was not an ecstatic one. “That’s it?” Helena whined. “All this way for that?” Her attitude changed at the entrance, Kositpipat’s version of a no smoking sign, a towering statue topped by a grinning red skull with arms crushing packs of smoke, clued her in that this wat might just be a bit different. The equally garish nearby No Drinking sculpture clued her in that as different as this wat appeared to be, it too failed to serve alcohol to its visitors.
Wat Rong Khun isn’t your everyday Buddhist wat. It shimmers in the sun, its white facade carrying glints of silver that highlight the Daliesque statutes and architectural details. Wat Rong Khun may be a temple, but it is also a Buddhist version of Dante’s inferno. The gang’s disappointment of another wat to visit was immediately replaced with exclamations of awe, and a steady chorus of, “Look at that!” as everywhere anyone turned new oddities appeared.
Death head fence finials competed with a sea of hands reaching from the depths of hell, demons with bloated peni flanked a Naga bridge with scales ending in sharp spikes guarded by hellish creatures. An acid trip in white and silver, Wat Rong Khun is a homage to sin and its repercussions, a warning against earthly temptations. Helena processed the warnings a bit differently. “How cool is that!” she exclaimed over and over as we made our way through the temple’s grounds.
The wat is a work in progress, primarily funded by the artist who makes it a point to only accept small donations to ensure he has the freedom to create the temple true to his vision. “I want to create Buddhist arts on our land that are so great and splendid that the people around the world want to see them,” says Kositpipat. “I will dedicate all my life to this work.” Even my gang of anti-wat touri agreed seeing what he has created is well worth the long ride from Chiang Mai.
Inside the temple Keanu waited, surrounded by the Predator, Spiderman, Batman and creatures from Buddhist myth. The devil glares fiercely from one wall, the glint in his eyes portraying Bush and Osama, either a political statement or a touch of realism. With the Twin towers ablaze and rocket ships blasting across the sky, the interior walls are a series of murals rife with pop culture references.
Kositpipat’s take is a bit more Buddhist like. “On the walls and the floor inside the main building are mural paintings in gold color, representing the release from passion and desire to the world of Dharma.”
All that shimmers is not white, there’s gold to be found too. Dominating the left side of the complex, a large building glittering in the noon sun suggests an even more glorious tribute to Buddhists gods. But this golden edifice celebrates a more earthly need, it’s a building concerned more with the body than with the soul. The very last thing you’d expect it to be is what it is: a massive set of cubicles, a ready supply of gleaming toilets. And the artist’s eye for detail and concern over visitors’ experience extended to the toilets, too. In front of each cubicle a set of slippers waits; they must be donned before entering a stall.
Sad to say on this visit the toilet facility was closed for renovation. Happy to say, an alternative set of restrooms was available because the girls – and Noom – had to pee once again. The temporary facilities were tucked away at the far side of the compound, an area visitors would not normally bother to check out. But this is where the masons and sculptors have their work area and instead of standing bored while waiting for the gang to finish marking their respective spots, watching the artists at work preparing new pieces for buildings still under construction was fascinating.
Normally I pass on the souvenir stand at any attraction in Thailand. Seldom do they offer merchandise not readily found elsewhere at a fraction of the cost. But the store at Wat Rong Khun is as unique as the wat is. Here, you won’t find all the typical touri crap often filling souvenir stand shelves. Instead the shop displays the art of Chalermchai Kositpipat,, original pieces for hundreds of thousands of baht and more affordable copies of his more popular pieces down to postcard sized cards than run less than 20 baht each. Instead of being part of the attraction to avoid, it’s a nice addition, providing visitors the opportunity to better understand the artists’ vision through his body of work.
Once completed, the wat will include a total of nine buildings. Kositpipat does not expect to live to see the completion of his masterwork. “Death is the only obstacle to my freedom of imagination,” he says. “When I die, the team of my students will carry on my imagination to the completion of the work. I have already managed and prepared everything so that all the work can be continued after my death.’
The longer you spend at Wat Rong Khun, the more you find to admire. Even the surrounding gardens have been carefully landscaped to add to the story Kositpipat weaves through architecture. No portion of the grounds is too innocuous to not receive his touch. Even the traffic cones lining the street are his creations, more grinning red skulls to either welcome you or warn you away. Trash bins carry a message. The uniforms worn by gardeners have been carefully selected so that their colors add to the ambiance. Even the carp filling the ponds add to the vision, they too are all white.
The wat is not just a work of art, it is a living testament to the artist’s faith and love of his country and religion. Kositpipat has poured his soul into his creation. “My only desire is to make it the best and the most beautiful,” he says. “I will dedicate myself until all my worldly and spiritual intelligence is all used up.”
Wat Rong Khun is located about 6 kilometers south of the city of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. The White Wat is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m; admission is free.
Related Posts You Might Enjoy: