Welcome to Wat Rong Khun, known by many as ‘The White Temple’, several as ‘The Temple of Heaven’, and my mother as ‘The place that looked like you were walking through a wedding cake’. It’s a very unique, contemporary, unfinished temple privately owned in Chiang Rai, designed by the architect Chalermchai Kositpipat.
This innocent description, however, might be a little misled. It represents heaven, but also hell; the scrambling hands and feet you see, above, are those of damned souls… and visitors must cross a bridge over them to reach the good place: the temple itself. Hands which have one fingernail painted red represent women – there are only 5 of whom in the entire complex (intriguing, right!).
This representation, to be honest, is ironically true to life. This was one of the places that drew me to Thailand in the first place, which I’d researched a good year or two before coming. Although I didn’t know the gruesome metaphor, then, I wanted to see this crystallised aesthetic and appreciate the combination of modern white minimalism with traditional Thai architecture and Philosophy (note the Buddha, just behind me, here). In reality, I found it a really cool piece of contemporary experience art, and nothing works better for me than a bit of Symbolism – so I loved the effective gore of the entrance.
It is, however… overrun by tourists, and pretty hard not to get the car park in photos. It’s not necessarily a sacred place surrounded by natural beauty, and I do wonder how much it’s about commodity, over expression or religious worship. I do, nonetheless, think it enters some interesting debates in the contemporary art world – which, as well as Banksy knows – isn’t afraid of a few dirty dollars.