For real?! Fantastical temples of Chiang Rai

Travelers head to Chiang Rai for a handful of very specific sights: a collection of modern (i.e. built in the last few decades) temple complexes named for their respective color – white, blue, black. Niti and Jonathan told me I would be dumb-founded at the sight of them. So I insisted they not show me any photos. I wanted to experience that “jaw drop at first sight” moment. And Chiang Rai did not disappoint!

After Niti and Svevo drop us off at our guest house, Jonathan and I rent a scooter and head straight to the Blue Temple for sunset. Wow. This is definitely unlike the classical temples I’ve seen thus far. Giant, deep-blue figures of deities ring the courtyard which is fringed by a garden made of fake plants and decorated with uber-cute, kitschy animal figures. The buff and mustached male deities look as muscular, armed and charismatic as action figures, guarding the central building housing an equally giant Buddha figure. The Blue Temple was built between 2005 and 2016, so this is a fascinating glimpse of contemporary Thai taste in sacred architecture.

But then…

The next morning we drive to the Big Buddha. The name is a misnomer, as the ginormous white figure towering on a hill above this complex, actually represents Quan Yin, the female Boddhisatva of Compassion in the Chinese Buddhist tradition. And indeed, this palace-like Wat was clearly built with Chinese sponsorship. The 9-story pagoda has an altar with Chinese text and the young ladies ushering us into the elevator wear classic red Chinese-style brokade dresses. Yes, that’s right, there is an elevator! It takes visitors into the 26-story high head of Quan Yin, where we pear through the windows that form her eyes out onto the landscape below. The rooms inside the bombastic statue – all in white as well – are decorated with cutsie comic-figure like animal statuettes, glitter on the walls, and…silver disco balls. My jaw drops. Is this for real?! The pagoda and common areas below look spanking new, whith monk’s cushions, seats and fans still wrapped in plastic.

But then…

Just when I think it can not possibly get any more fantastical than Big Buddha, Jonathan takes me to the White Temple. As he slips in for free through the seperate entrance for Thai citizens (!), I approach the first of the white pagodas, surrounded by a mote of water and statues rising from it. What is this? Scenes from hell, monsters like in a horror movie. As I glance over to a tree nearby, I discover heads of movie figures such as Gollum from Lord of the Rings dangling from the branches. More action figures, interspersed with Buddhas and Buddist deities, decorate an artificial waterfall and cave. Then I enter the central pagoda (where no photography is allowed), and my mind is blown: The colorful, ultra modern paintings on the walls (created in the last three years, replacing previous murals by the same artist who is the creative visionary for the entire White Temple complex) depict scenes from Buddhas life. Ok, that seems normal enough. But Buddha here looks like a dreamy transsexual supermodel, with broad shoulders, glowing skin and a trendy man-bun, levetating above pastel landscapes or in the company of his mother or the woman who, according to legend, offered him rice when he had almost fasted himself to death, both of which look exactly like the sultry, full-busted, coal-eyed female superstars of contemporary Bollywood movies. But this all is nothing compared to what I am about to discover on the back wall of the temple. As I approach the mural and the details begin to come into focus, I can not believe my eyes: Elvis, Godzillal, Yoda, Jack Sparrow, Sailor Moon, Kung Fu Panda, Batman, side-by-side with a space station and the World Trade Center’s twin towers burning, the smoke forming a snake whos coil turns into a petrol hose before the backtrop of a dystopian metropolis. Above this entire scene of contemporary Western media, greed, violence and entertainment, rises the Buddha surrounded by deities, with devotees crossing a bridge in the clouds to sit by their master’s feet, who himself rests atop a Dia de los Muertos-style giant psychedelic skull.

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