Thursday, 2 August 2012
Chiang Rai, The White Temple and The Golden Triangle
July 12 - July 14th, 2012
Paula engaged in a hour yoga practice with me and reluctantly we loaded up the bike, said our goodbyes and left Pai late morning for the ride back to Chiang Mai. Pulling over for a road side lunch the neighbouring hotel had a pool on offer which we took full advantage of. An amazing break after 3 hours in the saddle! Later that evening we wandered the famous night market of Chiang Mai one more time and left the next morning for Chiang Rai, three hours north.
Over spending slightly (US$12 for the night!) on a air conditioned room we freshened up and were soon annoyed by a constant banging which persisted for a good while. Changing in pitch and rythym periodically we were initially confused and after 20 minutes or more, irritated. It became obvious the racket was coming from next door, but we couldn't work out what was causing the ruckus. Too late for builders or maintenance and apparently ignorant of the irritation they were causing we eventually headed next door in an effort to get some peace. An Aussie the next room over stuck his head out clearly similarly confused by the racket. With no response at the front door we momentarily gave up until the noise only grew more persistent. Sticking our heads in our bathroom we pounded the wall and were responded to with a faint voice calling for help. Shocked and now very concerned we attempted to enter the locked door in vain, returned to the bathroom and asked what the emergency was to which he responded 'help me, help me'. Julian ran down the stairs to reception and returned with hotel staff and key. Door unlocked we pushed it open only to find he had further barricaded the door from the inside with the security chain. Management just about ready to break the door down Julian stopped them, inspect the chain lock system and within minutes had managed to pop off the two cir clips holding the pins for the chain in place; a far better option. The Chinese resident in the room had managed to lock himself in the bathroom (although why he bothered even closing the door in the first place, let alone locking it when he was alone in the room I don't know). Julian, satisfied that he had done his good deed for the day by saving this mans life (or at least saved him from an uncomfortable nights sleep) retired to bed.
A tuk tuk took us out of the city centre to visit the main attraction of this area: Wat Rong Khun also known as The White Temple. Chalermchai Kositpipat has designed a nine building installation to fill a 64 acre site on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, the first of which to be completed is the White Temple. Although the final touches are still being put in place, already this temple is impressive enough that Julian now rates it as his favourite religious building in the world, exceeding even Bath Abbey in the ability to drop jaws. The temple is of a contemporary design beginning with the exterior and the grounds. A moat runs across the front of the building and crossing that, one is led along a path to stand at a gateway before the front centre of the temple. The pathway turns towards the entrance now, crossing a second bridge surrounded by a sea of 500 hands reaching heavenward, a symbol of the pain of life one must endure on the path to enlightenment.
The path leads onwards and upwards between two guardians finally bridging the moat in its entirety at the doors to the temple itself. The whole exterior is completed in white (symbolizing the purity of Buddha) and glistens in the sun with thousands of pieces of mirrored glass embedded like sequins within the stucco work from the statues to the bridges to the highest gables. I'm quite certain that to many it would appear crass, even horrific but nobody could deny it is a striking building.
The interior of most buddhist temples we visited has often been lavish. Gold leaf adorns everything starting with the statues and in the older and more prosperous temples, covering the very rafters of the structures. Marble floors with thick pile carpets in front of the altar and unique wallpapers covered in images of the Buddha, often in relief reach to the ceilings. In the White Temple however the opulence is less ostentatious but the effect of a floor to ceiling mural covering all four walls is no less shocking than the exterior. Above the alter end of the room is of course the obligatory image of the Buddha himself and in front of that are various effigies scaling down in size until a life-size, wax work monk is found at ground level. The monk in a pose of meditation, the pathway to enlightenment once again clearly laid out to see.
Scaffolding is placed for the artists to continue their painting for this is still a work in progress and will take many years to complete; the entire nine building project due to be completed in 2070. The rear wall mural however is complete. Beginning at the base with images of demons, man's lesser attempts at utilizing the earths resources, moving up through visions of Hollywood and real life. Neo from the Matrix, Pinhead from Hellraiser, an Angry Bird, Superman and Harry Potter all make appearances alongside Michael Jackson, F16 fighter jets, bombs raining from the skies and an image of the world trade centre during the 9/11 attacks. Beyond the chaos of the world of man, the enlightened ascend to Nirvana and another image of Buddha at the peak of the roofline.
The grounds have only just begun to show the potential of what the site will look like in another 60 years and everywhere are painters and sculptors working away on this project or that. Decapitated human and demon heads hang from tree branches, a "wishing well" adorned with the 12 signs of the chinese zodiac and the Predator emerges from the soil. An ornate building, traditional in design as that of the Marble Temple in Bangkok, stands to one side painted gold over every surface; doors, walls and roof which turns out to be the public toilet block. The entire project has been created by the mind of an artist obviously akin to HR Geiger, Rodney Mathews or Derick Riggs and I would truly love to see it completed in another 60 years but it has been an experience to catch just this brief glimpse.
Having rented another motorbike we took a day trip from Chaing Rai to the infamous Golden Triangle: The point at which Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet across the Mekong. The ride was pleasant enough and it's always eventful riding in Asian traffic but long gone are the packhorse trains carrying the opium and heroin this area was famous for and now revenue is collected in a much more mundane and slightly tacky manner reminding me of Niagara Falls or Blackpool. 'Vegas without the style. In all honesty there is little to see other than two rivers converging, but the lines on the map made it a notable trip and worthwhile because of nothing more than that.
Returning the motorbike we were soon sat in the back of a pickup with a Chinese man en route to stay with the Akha Hill Tribe.