Le Grande Tour: Day 1, The White Temple

CHIANG KHONG, Thailand—I could say the day started bright and early, but that would be a lie. It started at a reasonable 10 a.m. with a pickup by the tour company I’d contracted to take me to Chiang Khong on the border with Laos, where tomorrow I will cross over and take a “slow boat” to Luang Prabang, as mentioned in a previous post.

To cut through the boring parts, we ate up about 230 km over several hours before stopping at Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, just outside the sleepy town of Chiang Rai. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, it’s a raucous mishmash of traditional Buddhist design and contemporary themes.

Resembling a sugar-cake confection of a holy place, it is painted a bright white to symbolize Buddhist purity and adorned with thousands of small mirrors to embody the Buddha’s teachings to “look back on ourselves and observe our minds,” as the info plaque outside helpfully explains. And while there are parts of the grounds that are profoundly peaceful and graceful, despite the trampings about of busloads of tourists, other parts are deeply unsettling. Severed heads hang from a nearby tree and a bright red devil’s head with a whiskey bottle perched on its crown create a sense of dread. And to cross the pond to get to the main hall of the temple, I had to cross over sculptures of hands rising from the earth and reaching out in agony or—worse—holding aloft human skulls or entire severed heads, almost as in offering. To reach heaven, it seems, one must pass over hell.

Inside, there’s the usual statue of the Buddha, his image echoed three times in a hierarchy, representing the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering and agelessness. But close examination of the mural surrounding the statue reveal a number of contemporary images, including the International Space Station, the attacks of Sept 11, 2001 and even Neo of “The Matrix.” Kositpipat has quite the sense of humor.

Some photos from the temple grounds:

Another 125 km later and our troupe of Westerners arrived in Chiang Khong and shacked up in a cheery little guesthouse on the banks of the Mekong. Despite awful covers of American road music—think “Ramblin’ Man”—and saccharine Thai folk songs, it’s clean and the water’s hot. Not much more to be asked in these parts. Oh, and the wi-fi works.

Finally, I had the pleasure of sharing beer and dinner with Ted and Bethany of Two Oregonians, a great travel blog the two have set up to document their own round-the-world travels. A former social worker and a landscape architect, they’re focusing on food systems and social care in their journey. They’re a great couple and I look forward to traveling with them over the next couple of days.

4 Comments on “Le Grande Tour: Day 1, The White Temple

  1. Hey Chris, glad that our paths crossed and that we made it all the way down the stretch of river without too much trouble. My blog updates are behind track; I’m glad to be able to share your real-time write ups from the road. (P.S. Love your line, “a sugar-cake confection of a holy place.” Great description.)

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