Chiang Rai, The White Temple, and Navigating Southeast Asia as an Embarrassed American

Hey everyone! Megan here. My laptop is up and running, so I’ve been working on some posts for you all!

This post, however, is going to be a bit different. My original plan was to write posts about backpacker destinations in Southeast Asia based on the order in which I visited them. This post is more important. This post is long. This post gets into American politics. This post makes me anxious. It addresses tragedy and war and embarrassment. Just a warning. Here we go.

I used one of my free days in Chiang Mai to take a day trip to Chiang Rai and see the White Temple. The trip was roughly 1,040 baht ($31) and lasted from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. In addition to the White Temple, the tour included lunch, old temples, the Long Neck Village, and the Golden Triangle (previously known as a no-man’s-land hub for growing and trading opium, it’s now visited as the border of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.)

Chiang Rai, The White Temple, and Navigating Southeast Asia as an Embarrassed American
The entrance to Wat Rong Khun

I was mostly interested in the White Temple. It’s a rare ‘bucket list’ temple. I mean, just look at it. Those arms reaching up to grab you on your way in? Right up my alley. This wasn’t just a temple; it was an incredibly stunning (and very creepy) work of art.

 

A few minutes before we arrived, our lovely tour guide started explaining the meaning behind the White Temple and its surrounding structures. I had no idea that construction had started around 20 years ago, and would probably continue until the end of the century. After walking through Wat Rong Khun (the building of the hour), tourists could explore a museum, multiple different sculptures with in-your-face symbolism, and “the most beautiful toilets in Thailand.” (At this rate, any toilet that I can sit on and access toilet paper, soap, and paper towels is the most beautiful toilet in Thailand. The walls were covered in gold tiles, and all amenities were present, so I was sold.)

Chiang Rai, The White Temple, and Navigating Southeast Asia as an Embarrassed American
Wat Rong Khun

Wat Rong Khun itself is magnificent. The tour guide explained that the hands and heads reaching up under the bridge to the temple represent visions of Hell; the artist wanted to show that in order to get to Heaven, you have to go through Hell.

Fair.

Turning the page of the guidebook, the inside of the temple shows a large demon and some flames. Around the demon are cartoon characters and pop culture figures, from Kung Fu Panda to Michael Jackson. The tour guide explained that the artist used the images to bring people from all cultures together.

Wonderful.

Okay.

In the middle of this all, the artist had put an image of planes crashing into the Twin Towers.

(You can see images of the mural here, if you so choose.)

You just don’t expect to see that image in the middle of a tourist attraction in Thailand, do you? The tour guide hadn’t even pointed it out, and I noticed a few seconds after picking out Harry Potter and Angry Birds. I am not personally connected to anyone who died in the attacks, but a warning would have been nice, yeah? And the mural wasn’t filled with other similar tragedies. Just 9/11.

The tour guide turned the page and showed us photos of the artist’s work that hung up in the museum. The featured photo showed George Bush hugging a missile, launching into space. The tour guide looked straight at me, the only American in the van. I loudly took the Lord’s name in vain and took my face in my hands.

Chiang Rai, The White Temple, and Navigating Southeast Asia as an Embarrassed American
Another photo in the gallery.

Going well.

We passed around the guidebook. The artist behind the White Temple, Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, had this to say about the images:

I want everyone to know that our world is being destroyed by those who craved to build weapons that kill, thereby ruining the environment because nothing is ever enough. They segregate and therefore cannot find peace. I saw the violence and it hurts me and mankind to observe the killing of the innocence by these two powerful individuals. Peaceful people do not want to see the murder of the Muslims and the collapse of the New York Twin Towers. I want to show that eyes, as important organs, can look at each other with kindness and not with hate that can lead to war. I painted, at that time, to caution both George Bush and Bin Laden so that they can look toward a peaceful and happy world. I painted Superman and Ultraman to let people know that there really are no heroes in our world. Actually, people need heroes since our morality declines every day. However, no heroes from the movie screen arrive to help the havoc of the Twin Towers. Eventually, the world becomes ill, not only with the environment but also with the people. People lack moral standards. That is why I portray evil people as the demon with mouth opened encircled the entrance of the temple.

Oh good, the eyes of the demon. Oh good, no heroes in our world. (To be fair, this could be a miscommunication in translation?)

I kept quiet as my tour group departed for their individual trips into Wat Rong Khun. The “walk through Hell” was meant to be done one-by-one anyway; the guidebook noted that we all were to enjoy a lonely descent/ascension after death.

I just needed a moment to myself.

Whether or not tourists noticed the figures in the eyes or the image of the Twin Towers in the mural (when I actually entered the temple, it took some squinting and peering around to find them,) no one seemed wildly disturbed.  The timeliness of the painting had a lot to do with the artist’s choice (the mural was completed around between 2008-2010, although online sources are failing to confirm my suspicions), but here I was, looking at a former leader of my own country. I was hit with embarrassment. I was also hit with confusion. I started to question the relationship between Bush and Bin Laden, and everything I knew about the war that resulted from the Twin Towers falling. What was I missing? Why were these two men put on the same level?

The questions kept coming. Am I overreacting? Am I being dramatic? Am I being a ~~snowflake~~? What are everyone else’s thoughts? Was this a big controversy? What other art depicts these men in these positions? In the eyes of a demon? Together, on a missile? Is that even a missile? What other countries have to put up with this?

My research since has been a bit of a trip. While some blog posts or articles online focus on the ‘shock’ of seeing the Twin Towers falling, most comments on the mural are a bit bland. “Creepy” is as strong as you get. Most sources focus more on the fictional characters than the actual, living people and real events that are depicted. So I’ve been left a bit confused about how to feel about this, other than purely embarrassed.

This feeling isn’t new. Any American can think of a time abroad where a conversation about politics has gone south. Andrew and I have had a day like this in Cambodia and Vietnam. I’ve heard that going to Laos doesn’t fill your red, white, and blue heart up to the brim either.

Cambodia’s Genocide Museum called out the Native American genocide, what our country was built on, while listing other similar horrors. And yet we still have to tell people that it’s not cool to wear headdresses to Coachella. Thanksgiving, also. Don’t even get me started on the War Remnants Museum. You enter into a room depicting the horrors of using Agent Orange and feel dizzy. Throughout the museum, I had to ask myself just how uneducated I was about American history. And then I looked online for American versions of a Vietnam War Museum. In addition to a memorial in D.C., I found these museums in Texas and Florida. I mean no disrespect to anyone that has served, but can we at least be more honest about the consequences of our actions in this war?

But before I get sidetracked by every other atrocity…

Khositphiphat was sending a very direct message to people of the world, using America as a horrific example. We have clearly, clearly, clearly have not learned said lesson. The events in Charlottesville were still fresh when I visited Chiang Rai (which, if anyone is thinking I am just being too dramatic, could be the reasoning for the tears and the trembling at Wat Rong Khun). The day before visiting Chiang Rai, a Dutch man asked me about the events in Charlottesville. Can you imagine my embarrassment when I had to look this guy in the eye and say,  yes, swastikas were present, as well as very obvious Nazi chants. When I took a tour of Berlin, our guide stressed that while Germans are absolutely mortified by their past, they make a commendable effort to educate their citizens and the world in order to prevent another holocaust. And now, if the chance arises, I have to tell people from Germany that Nazis are alive and well in America, with the protection (and encouragement) of the President? How often do I have to visit a country and be absolutely mortified by atrocities that America has committed (and brush under the rug)?

Facing American history across the globe is very complicated. When I would tell people from Thailand that I was from the U.S., a lot of the time, I was met with smiles. I’ve never had someone, especially from a younger generation, give me hell for being from the United States. I’ve met people who have been waiting years for their chance to move to America. (It can take years. Arriving in America can’t be done overnight, or with no money.) The U.S. has given so many people the opportunity to escape a dangerous home or government. Our government’s elections give us more of a voice than other governments do.

I could go on and on, but listing every wonderful thing about the United States is not going to cover the issues that we face. Our current administration is leading us down a negative road, and we have so far to go before we can say that every person has an equal voice, with equal rights.

But here I am, typing from a cute coffee shop in Malaysia, 9,500 miles away from Charlottesville or Washington D.C. I have immense privilege that allowed me to get a good education, graduate from college, and take this adventure in the first place. While I believe educating myself abroad and sharing stories of my travels must count for something, I get pangs of guilt when I think about being present and active in the country to fight white supremacy and other forms of oppression.

So with this, I pass the mic. For anyone who is continuing to ask themselves what they can do to make a positive difference and steer our country in the right direction, I recommend the following sites and lists of resources.

Here’s How You Can Help Charlottesville Victims and Take a Stand Against Neo-Nazism”

“How To Be A Better Ally: An Open Letter To White Folks”

“Allies for Racial Equity: Resources”

Also, these books:

I would love your suggestions for good resources and ways to make a positive difference. I would also love to hear your stories about coming face to face with your country’s history…the good and the bad. I promise my next posts will be more light-hearted, and I thank you for reading.

Disclosure: This post, and posts made in the future, may contain affiliate links. At no extra cost to readers, clicking and purchasing from affiliate links may result in a commission for the author.

However, I don’t want to make a commission from this post, because that would be gross. Any commissions made from this post’s affiliate links will be donated to the Southern Poverty Law Center

2 Replies to “Chiang Rai, The White Temple, and Navigating Southeast Asia as an Embarrassed American”

  1. Everything the US does affects the rest of the world, so I find that non-Americans are often better informed about US history than Americans. As an expat, I never expected to need to know so much history! Fortunately my first degree was in history, so I can often offer a balanced view.

    And US politics lately looks just insane to them as well. I teach American Studies in the Netherlands and both in and outside of class, I’m expected to explain Trump. I can’t. I just can’t.

    1. For real. I was explaining Trump and the system of checks and balances to some friends in Ireland today and got exhausted.

Comments are closed.