By Stephanie Bastek
December 10, 2014
At Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Thailand, the Buddha shares the spotlight with likenesses of Harry Potter, Angry Birds, Hellboy, and Michael Jackson. The creation of millionaire artist and Chiang Rai native Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple has been under construction since 1996. And yes, the artist has been criticized for sullying traditional Buddhist imagery with elements of globalized pop culture.
Early last May, a 6.3-magnitude earthquake rocked Myanmar and northern Thailand, killing one person, injuring dozens more, and severely damaging Wat Rong Khun. Spires toppled, pillars cracked, countless murals crumbled, and a monks’ dormitory tower turned into an alabaster version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Chalermchai, who has funded construction entirely through his lucrative art career and donations from the devoted, refuses to solicit financial aid from the government. After the earthquake, he was initially so overwrought that he declared that the structure would be left in ruins but has reconsidered in light of supporters’ exhortations to carry on. He anticipates that reconstruction will take more than two years.
The artist, 59, has always recognized that he would not live to see all nine buildings of his “paradise” completed. Assorted structures already dot the 12-acre campus, including the vihara, or main temple with its moat and bridge, a crematory, two art galleries, and a gold-leafed restroom. He plans to work on the complex “until I die, and be cremated there, so that my supporters can continue to build it for the next 60 years.”
Stephanie Bastek is the associate editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.