Saturday, March 1, 2014

Chiang Rai and the White Temple

Jesse and me at the White Temple. It looks pretty, but wait until you get closer...
If you ever find yourself in northern Thailand, visit the White Temple. Once you see it, you will have a hard time forgetting the demon heads, the albino koi, and the glittering towers that have made Wat Rong Khun so famous.

Day 6 (Jan. 29): The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
Jesse and I teamed up for a few days in order to get from Thailand to Laos. On our first day together, we found ourselves lost in Chiang Rai, and it was hot. We'd been given incorrect directions to our hostel from the bus terminal, so we popped into a nearby cafe for Thai milk tea (it's orange and delicious!) and some complimentary Internet. I also got a souvenir cup from the cafe! Finally, we found FUN-D.

Chiang Rai hostel rec: FUN-D hostel is hands-down the best hostel I've been to in Southeast Asia. It is large, spacious, and clean. The staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the entire space is geared toward travelers in transit, since most of their clientele are simply passing through this small town on their way to Laos or Myanmar. It was a shame I only stayed there one night (as I, too, was in transit), because their facilities were top-notch, including a computer room, a restaurant and bar, and coin laundry! (I should have done my laundry...)

The helpful folks at our hostel checked us in promptly, and when we mentioned that we wanted to visit the White Temple, they sprang to action and flagged down a passing songthaew (like a big tuk-tuk, or a kind of pickup-truck taxi) and arranged a trip for us: 400THB for a round-trip ride to the temple, which is on the outskirts of town. That came out to about six bucks per person, which is more expensive than your usual local taxi, but since it was already getting late in the afternoon and we had to get there before it closed, we took the deal.
Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple in Chiang Rai.
Demon head on a tree!
No regrets whatsoever. Sooner than I expected, we'd arrived at the temple grounds, and my jaw dropped. It was gorgeous: a pure white building inlaid with glass that made it almost sparkle in the sun. A moat with fountains and statues of dragons added to the initial mystical impression. Then, I took a closer look and was stupefied: sculptures of monstrous heads hung from trees. Demonic guards threatened visitors with glittering white swords. Hands rose from a hellish pit before I crossed a bridge that led to the sanctuary. What the heck is this place, I thought.

Once inside the sanctuary, I saw a Buddha statue, tranquil as always, but on the wall opposite his placid smile, scenes of apocalypse had been painted on the wall: a mural depicting a demon swallowing a world on fire, with warlike images such as nuclear missiles and an unmistakable (and horrifying) depiction of the September 11th attacks. All throughout, a seemingly arbitrary selection of pop culture icons like Spiderman, Neo, the minions from Despicable Me, creatures from Avatar, Lara Croft, Michael Jackson, and even Doraemon, flew around the doomsday scene, some caught in the tentacles of destruction and others simply posing as the world ended. On the two adjacent walls, families of every race and ethnicity were depicted riding magic carpets toward Buddha and his version of heaven.

It was bizarre.

Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the sanctuary. So, here are more from the grounds around the temple complex. You should also definitely search online for more images; the list of weird and wonderful things to see is endless.
A crystal ball?
The truly creepy and unforgettable hands from hell.
More demon heads... wait, isn't that Hellboy? And Batman? And Freddy Krueger?
Wishes written on charms; tens of thousands of these were hung up on poles and resembled giant tin Christmas trees.
White reigns surpreme at this temple.
I walked through the temple without a clue as to what it was all about, but I knew there had to be some amazing story behind it. Some quick research tells me it was designed in 1997 (and will not be completed for at least another decade) and is meant to evoke Buddhist themes of life, death, and escape from evil in a way that is suited for contemporary society.

The White Temple will leave you in awe, I guarantee it. There's nothing quite like it in the entire country, I'm sure. I walked through the entire complex twice (entrance is free!) just before the site closed at 6pm, and I took as many photos as I could.

After returning to the city, we walked around and found nothing much of interest to do. There was a pretty clocktower, after taking a photo of which Jesse remarked, "Well, we've seen Chiang Rai. Now what?"

At night, we meandered around the night bazaar for a bit, munching on some snacks but mostly staring wide-eyed at others. Some of the fare at the bazaar included fried crickets, cockroaches, and mealworms! I passed on those, but I did eat green curry, a black sticky rice patty with peanut powder, fried eggrolls, and an ice cream sundae served in a fresh coconut! Also, we kept running into the same travelers we'd seen before. The backpacking route Jesse and I had just begun is a very well-traveled one; if you follow it, you're likely to end up moving at the same pace as many other people. Thus, this was to become a theme of the next few days: "Oh, I've seen you around, haven't I? So where are you headed next?"

For me, the answer is: Laos!
This nice lady grilled a black sticky rice patty and then rolled some peanut powder up into it and gave it to me wrapped in a banana leaf and it was delicious and the best part is that she smiled for this photo!
Hm... okay, not hungry.
Man in the 'Murica bandana scrapes a coconut shell clean for some ice cream!
Coconut ice cream sundae for 75 cents! What a treat!

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