Thailand is home to the second largest population of Buddhists in the world, with some 64 million Buddhists and 41,000 temples. Buddhism arrived in Thailand as early as the 3rd century BCE during the reign of Ashoka.
Theravada is the primary school of Buddhism in Thailand today and is traditionally conservative in doctrine and monastic discipline. Adherence to tradition can be seen in the temples of Thailand (also called what). From Wat Phra Kaew, considered the most sacred temple in Thailand, located in the Grand Palace, commonly known in English as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha for the statue of Buddha which is a religious icon for the country; at Wat Phra Phutthabat, one of the oldest temples in the country and home to a stone said to have a Buddha footprint.
But in the northernmost region of Thailand stands a temple that is an amalgamation of traditional and modern design: Wat Rong Khun. Renowned for its artistry and stark beauty, it is known to English speakers simply as the White Temple and is a favorite spot for visitors throughout Thailand.
The temple was created by Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, a native of Chiang Rai province where the temple is located, who rose to prominence in the 1980s and 90s for art done in a contemporary style but with Buddhist images everywhere. Chalermchai went a step further with Wat Rong Khun, taking traditional Thai and Hindu architecture and Buddhist symbology and blending it with elements of modern pop culture. There are even murals that include modern cultural references from The matrixMarvel characters, spaceships and the 9/11 terrorist attacks that are set against a backdrop of Buddhist imagery.
In the details of the temple, the artist tries to represent Dharma– the nature of reality seen as a universal truth taught by the Buddha, which speaks of a release from human passion or desire and, therefore, an elevation to new spiritual heights and understanding. When you arrive at the temple grounds, you are first met with temptation, including demons adorned with liquor bottles, then you cross a bridge over a sea of writhing human sculptures and arrive at the temple proper. The progression is meant to represent the transition from the cycle of life and death to the land of Buddha. The building, immaculate white and shimmering glass outside and inside, bears witness to the peace sought by faith.
Wat Rong Khun opened to visitors in 1997. Personally funded by Chalermchai, work continues on Wat Rong Khun to this day, and is planned for much, much more, so much so that it is expected to continue until in 2070. As Chalermchai said, “Only death can stop my dream, but cannot stop my project.”