When I stepped out of the tour bus and first glanced at the White Temple, I was amazed! It was very clear that the architect had gone to extraordinary lengths to design a building that would dazzle spectators. And it did!
The White Temple is 15 km from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. Since it is a ‘must see’ for tourists in the area, there were scores of tourists the day I went (there is ample parking for the minibuses that haul the tourists around.) Like everyone else, I just stood and gazed at this building for a few minutes. It has none of the smooth, clean lines that are so popular in the West. Instead, every square centimeter has something quirky and symbolic to grab your attention. Interestingly, the various parts fit together in a remarkably unified way.
Clearly, the temple got its name because it is painted pure white. The white color signifies the purity of the Buddha. This ubiquitous white is quite unusual because all the other temples I saw (Thailand is peppered with Buddhist temples) had a lot of gold and red. This one had none. Bits of mirrors embedded in the plaster made the temple literally twinkle in the sunlight. It had the air of pure fantasy – something you would expect to find in a fairy tale book, not a place you could actually visit. The proper name for the temple is Wat Rong Khun. Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist from Chiang Rai, designed the temple and even paid for its construction from his own pocket.
Although the temple’s ubosot (a hall to enshrine Buddhist relics) was under construction and not available for viewing while I was there, I enjoyed the meditation hall, monk’s living quarters and the art gallery. In contrast to other temples I’d seen, the complex had the air of a tourist site rather than a religious site. All the other Buddhist temples I saw in Southeast Asia inspired a sense of reverence for Buddhism in me. This one inspired a sense of whimsy. I loved it for that reason.
Visitors reach the temple by walking across a small terrace surrounded by hands grasping upwards from the Underworld. These hands represent desire, human suffering and Hell. After the terrace, visitors walk across a bridge. The bridge is called ‘the cycle of rebirth’ and signifies crossing from death to birth and a life free of suffering. There are two very elegant Kinnarees next to the lake. These are creatures from Buddhist mythology that are half-human, half-bird. Every aspect of this temple, down to the smallest detail, holds meaning within the context of the Buddhist faith.
Throughout Thailand and Laos, I was struck by the number and grandeur of the Buddhist temples. In most cases, there was an obvious gap in wealth between the temples and the homes and shops in the neighborhood where the temples are located. It was not unusual to see an elegant, well-maintained Buddhist temple and one or two other religious buildings occupying a relatively large piece of real estate in quite run-down areas. The temples are often cared for meticulously; meanwhile, the local restaurants next door have red plastic chairs and hand-made tables that have never seen a drop of paint.
I saw a similar phenomenon in the Philippines where large, imposing Catholic churches and cathedrals were located in communities without paved roads or safe drinking water. These communities were made up of homes that didn’t appear to enjoy even basic maintenance. It was never clear to me whether these homes were in such a dilapidated state due to a lack of money for repairs or a culture that did not place high value on maintenance.
There is no doubt in my mind that I see this juxtaposition through the perceptual optic of my Western upbringing and I don’t apologize for that. With both Laos and Thailand on the one hand and the Philippines on the other, it was clear to me that the teachings of the religious institutions made their followers in poverty highly tolerant of economic and social injustices that have completely disenfranchised them. Of course, both religions had followers who enjoy a great deal of wealth as well.
In the Philippines, the Church and State have struck a bargain that neither will interfere in the affairs of the other. I suspect there is a similar bargain in the Buddhist countries. This bargain, however, gags the educated religious leaders from ever commenting on the social and economic injustices visited upon their followers by the corruption so prevalent in their countries.
Photos by Jan Wall – all rights reserved