Chiang Rai is a pleasant town.
Cool and leafy at this time of year, its boulevards and avenues more reminiscent of a European suburb than an Asian district capital.
Despite an absence of any major tourist sites, Chiang Rai is an interesting place to be on a Saturday evening when a buzzing market takes over the heart of the town. As dusk eats into the day, we casually stroll along with the growing crowds, choosing and chomping upon various local foodstuffs.
None, I might add, are of the insect family though the opportunity here was even better than Chiang Mai, and the various creepy crawlies so fresh you could choose a live scoop and watch them die as they fry.
This evening we also witness a peculiar version of Thai line dancing whose soundtrack was being aired on live Thai radio. Unfortunate viewers could also simultaneously “enjoy” the goings-on via an internet feed.
The highlight (or should that be lowlight?) of the evening was a brazen attempt to rip us off by a café whose Thai language menu offered dishes between 30-100 Baht, whereas the English menu we were swiftly provided with started at 80 and rose to upwards of 250 Baht!
Needless to say we gave an abrupt thanks, but no thanks, accompanied by a look which said “Check out the tan dude, I’m not straight off the Airbus”.
Fed and rested with a full day to spend at our leisure, we headed out-of-town for the afternoon to the aesthetically intriguing Wat Rong Khun.
The centrepiece of the still under construction complex is a stunning ubosot, or assembly hall whose design (at least to my mind) would have made a fitting palatial home for the White Witch who had forced the 100 years winter in CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
With its exterior clad entirely in white to represent the wisdom and purity of The Buddha, the building is like no other I’ve seen in my life and is a true contemporary masterpiece.
Surrounding the ubosot is a representation of hell.
A surreal garden complete with an accoutering of hands that seemingly grasp for help from the depths of the earth.
The grounds were also sculpted with an array of vices serving as a warning against such evil practices as drinking alcohol or smoking.
These design concepts were so other-worldly that they could well have graced the cover of any heavy metal album I might have had the misfortune to once own.
This sure was one weird place.
A short footbridge leads from hell’s garden to the centrally positioned ubosot, passing through a set of massive fangs before crossing pools and fountains that allegedly represent the human world of pain and suffering.
This was all strange enough, but what was yet to be seen inside the ubosot would prove stranger still.
The far end of the hall loomed large above us and with its centrepiece Buddha figure and graceful designs was a clear depiction of either heaven or nirvana, depending on your faith and cultural leaning.
The rear of the hall however, was festooned with what can only be described as pop-art.
Never in all my years have I entered a place of sanctity expecting to find it’s walls decorated with icons of a consumerist culture as diverse as a “Bad” era Michael Jackson, a cartoon Keanu Reeves cloaked as in The Matrix, what appeared to be some members of a droid army from a galaxy far, far away, Superman, Batman, Spiderman and the most unexpected inclusion of all, Ben 10.
This was to name but a few.
Henceforth I will keep an open mind to what may be lurking inside any place of worship.
“Expect the unexpected”, thats going to be my new motto when in a cultural day trip.
Both flanks of the Ubosot were taken up by partly completed murals depicting humans escaping (via dragons back, naturally) from this state of polluted mind toward the state of nirvana painted at the far reaches of the building.
High upon scaffolding to our left and suspended like a latter-day Michelangelo, Chalermchai Kositpipat, the artist responsible for this great effort was busy at work.
Kositpipat is an artist of international acclaim whose work mixes pop art and religious iconography, posing questions of its audience and the culture which they support.
Since 1997, the artist had dedicated himself to the design and creation of a dream which he believes will give him immortal life.
Wat Rung Khun is the work-in-progress which one day promises to deliver his grand vision.
Whether a great calling or a great folly, it must be said that his creation is something rather unique and added a quite unexpected and pleasant experience to our Chiang Rai stopover.
It may well be a great folly but it is a beautiful creation all the same.
With it’s quirky supporting cast, it is certainly a temple that stands out amongst the others we have seen and as such is something I will not quickly forget.
Now, where did I place that glass of Black Label?