In Chiang Rai, a small city in northern Thailand, the White Temple and Black House are not really temples: they’re more mystical creations of artistic expression designed to spark and invigorate the imagination. And they did.
Story Lena Desmond, Photos by John Price/Outpost
At first glance, the White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand — as it’s called by foreigners, but known by its true name “Wat Rong Khun” in Thai — seems to be straight out of a Disney animation. It’s only on closer inspection that its “gates of heaven” are paved with the gnarled hands and pained faces of unrestrained desire, as well as cultural references to terrorist attacks, nuclear warfare, and ring-bearing villains from Lord of the Rings.
With an estimated 40,000 temples in Thailand, it’s not abnormal for travellers to find themselves at times temple-fatigued. Yet not all temples are necessarily equal, and the stunning White Temple of Chiang Rai is undoubtedly a standout.
Reconstructed, redesigned, financed, and now owned by renowned Thai artist Chalermchai Kositipipat — who as it turns out, we were lucky enough to brush shoulders with (or should I say bow down to) — the White Temple is a work of art and architecture that is clearly defined by a glorious imagination.
Kositipipat chose white to represent Buddha’s purity and glass so the sun would reflect Buddha’s wisdom over the Earth. It stands in stark contrast against the azure sky, and as you approach, contorted arms extend upward as if in outreach toward you. The temple, as Sue says, seems to be where sci-fi meets Buddhism, where humanity’s historical sins meet the contemporary Buddhist mind. With traditional depictions mixed with contemporary culture iconography, the White Temple is endlessly complex and nuanced.
Before entering the main structure, you cross a bridge over a small lake meant to symbolize the foregoing of gluttonous, earthly pleasures and sins alike. Inside, a life-like wax figure of a monk greets you, back-dropped by a mural that colourfully and loudly illustrates the violent impact humans have had both on the earth and each other.
Chalermchai Kositpipat, like most artists, started with commercial work, painting movie advertisements on billboards, and learned to mix Buddhist imagery with modern themes, however controversially.
He started reconstructing a run-down Wat Rong Khun in 1997 using his own money, and the project has since evolved into his life’s work — in fact, the White Temple (which will eventually include nine buildings) is only slated for completion in 2070, which Kositpipat won’t live to see. (Unless he lives to be 115!) Other structures will include a monks’ residence, meditation hall, and Buddhist gallery; the goal is to become a center for learning and contemplation.
The day Team Outpost visited, Kositpipat was seated at a table, pouring over grid paper near the admittance building, seemingly in conference with his architectural team. We decided to ask for permission to film the temple, then stood waiting silently in queue to speak. I guess I would have expected Kositpipat to assume characteristics typical to an obsessive mad genius, perhaps unloving of media. Perhaps be hypercritical of two Western girls who had come to place their non-Buddhist-informed judgments on his art.
When we were finally called up as his crew dispersed, we bow deeply to convey respect to Kositpipat, who regarded us briefly, prying his eyes from a sketch just long enough to stifle a smile.
“You wish to film?”
“Yes, sir,” we replied, stomachs in our mouths.
“Well,” he said, bouncing up jovially and making a circular motion with his arms as a coach does when sending players onto the field. “Go, go, go!”
“Kob khun ka!” Sue and I said in chorus, as we raced off and the next throng of underlings approached him. Not skeptical or judgmental or endlessly pontificating or any of the stereotypical things I associate with genius. He was friendly, funny, fatherly even. Weird.
Filming is forbidden inside, but we were allowed to wander the grounds up close and personal. I really wish I could have sat down with Kositpipat over Thai tea to get solid answers about his artistic intentions and what he’s planning next. But I guess, like all provocative art, the point is there is no single answer and it’s all up for interpretation.
Yet the White Temple is one that will reinvigorate any jaded-temple goer. It is truly magnificent, and does indeed make one contemplate the cross between fiction and real life, between where we’ve come and where we’re going.
Kositpipat once famously stated: “I am simply a painter who shares this world of ours, as a small unit in human society, paying my due, and hoping to contribute by a small measure to the planet Earth.” For anyone who sets eyes on the White Temple in Chiang Rai, I think he does.
The Man With The Tinny Guitar
Story by Lena Desmond, Photos by John Price/Outpost
Baan Dam (Black House) is also in Chiang Rai, and is at once a museum and a work of art, a studio and artist’s lair — and Thawan Duchanee both lived and created here. The renowned Thai painter, sculptor, engraver, and designer — whose Black House’s style and décor reminds one of a Buddhist version of the Wild West — was once quoted as saying: “What has a man got to leave behind except his wisdom brought out through his work? If I don’t leave something behind when I’m dead, I shall be outdone by a buffalo.” (See reference below.*)
While Baan Dam, Thai for Black House, is hard to categorize, it’s not a temple, though it’s commonly mistaken for one. In its entirety — it’s not one house but a complex of 40 uniquely designed structures within a sort of extended courtyard — it’s a Buddhist-inspired work by the Chiang Rai-born artist, who passed away in 2014.
While the exterior of the main building is more or less architecturally in line with northern Thai buildings, its interior rests somewhere between an elegant barn and vaulted-ceiling saloon — it’s almost a wonder we didn’t bear witness to a crocodile or snake wrangling, as the animal skins that adorn the tabletops would suggest! Teak wood timber and exquisitely carved totem poles abound, along with wooden shed rafters and paneled siding.
Today, Thawan is remembered as one of Thailand’s most celebrated artists, despite that early in his career, his interpretations were not widely accepted. As he emerged on the Thai art scene, his unconventional pieces offended many and prompted some to destroy them as sacrilegious. Yet it proved to be a superficial misconception of his complex ideas. According to the Sombat Permpoon Gallery in Bangkok, where his work is on display, Thawan “developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art, to explore the darkness lurking within humanity.”
It wasn’t until the Thai elite stood behind him that widespread perception changed and he became nationally and internationally recognized — in the late1970s he was commissioned to paint the interior of Germany’s Gottorf castle, which took three years to complete.
As we wandered among totem poles and passed long refectory tables, we followed the sounds of a long-haired Thai man with a wiry beard playing 50s rock in front of a large oil painting. After listening to songs he sang with a thousand-mile stare, I was compelled to put a few baht in his tip jar. I’m glad I did. The man with the tinny guitar, who we’d come to know as Cherd Semdusit, would end up being the closest thing we would get to the spirit of Thawan. He was his student.
Cherd beckoned Sue and I to sit with him as he serenaded us with “Susie Q” (ironically, he had no way of knowing Sue’s name), followed by Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Then, after placing his guitar aside, he pointed out the large canvas mounted on the wall behind us. The magnificent piece was his! He explained its representations of heaven and hell and temptation, and the various planes of existence the piece was exploring.
He told us that Thawan had taught him how to tell visual stories, and examining his art you could see the master in the colours and the theme. And I could imagine Cherd plucking away, as he and his teacher mulled over symbolism and how to best reinterpret Buddha’s teachings.
It turned out Cherd had been given his position to play his music and to showcase his art in the Black House by Thawan himself. I could envision Thawan teaching our raspy-voiced friend how to use a ballpoint pen to create intricate engravings, or how to coat a Zen brush, or explaining why he should use colour sparingly, as black and white is more expressive of our inner feelings.
Such stylistic beliefs can be found in much of Thawan’s work, and thus his students’ as well. We weren’t fortunate to have ever met Thawan, but we did encounter his spirit—dare I say, ghost! In Cherd, visitors and upcoming artists studying his work, the artist lives on.
- For a biographical rendering of Duchanee, see Russell Marcus’s 2013 book Thawan Duchanee: Modern Buddhist Artist.