The Temple of Heaven and Earth
Going to a temple means a lot of things to a lot of people. For dogs and cats, it’s a place where you can be fed. For some humans, it's a place of peace to pray in, in which to seek redemption, a place of great beauty that inspires, a reminder to do good deeds. For me, in the case of this one temple, it restored my wanderlust, my faith in travel and photography, and my faith in the human race.
I’ve spent many years in Thailand and visited many temples. I’ve seen big ones, little ones, ones with stuffed crocodiles, ones up mountains, others down by rivers. The really old ones and new ones. I’ve sat chatting and eating with monks in university temples.
Most Thai temples conform to a traditional format. The story of Buddha depicted in art inside the assembly hall or viharn is always painted in the same style. The buildings are lavished with money and attention, lots of gold. The surrounded town is often neglected, like the dogs and cats, drab unpainted concrete. The pagoda or chedi has that same shape.
After 10 years, you might think, as I did, that you’d seen them all.
Go to Chiang Rai, the last big town north of Chiang Mai, before you get to the border with Myanmar. Stop 5 kilometers south. There, at a busy junction, is the White Temple.
Wat Rong Khun or, in English, the Temple of Heaven and Earth, brings out all the clichés. Sparkling in the bright tropical sunshine, it sits aside modern Thailand and its highways of concrete. Yet once inside the complex, you forget its context, and are transported to a world of Dante’s inferno, on a rocket ship to the stars, with the sound of Elton John in your head.
Leaving the clichés, and quoting a website dedicated to the temple, 'Ubosot (Pali: uposatha; consecrated assembly hall) is designed in white color with some use of white mirrored glass. The white color stands for Lord Buddha's purity; the white mirrored glass stands for Lord Buddha's wisdom that “shines brightly all over the Earth and the Universe.” The construction of the White Temple is Acharn Chalermchai's master work.'
My Thai friends tell me that many Thais return after a successful period abroad, with lots of money, in some cases enough to build a temple to their beloved Buddha and motherland. This Acharn, meaning 'teacher' in Thai, had his own special vision, a fantastic vision. Enter the ubosot, and find the story of Buddha depicted in images of space crafts, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, and Gucci watches.
But before you enter the assembly hall, you must first walk up a concrete ramp, past a sea of arms reaching out. Some are holding bowls. This is where Dante’s Inferno comes to mind. Then you are reminded that the bowls are begging bowls that the monks carry with them around the streets at dawn. A local will place food in those bowls, and a good deed is done.
It's a magical time of the day, full of serenity, devoid of vehicles, that always brings me joy, and inspires me to visit temples, with or without my camera.
– Alan McArthur
Images: copyright Cambridge Images