As offbeat as some of the more modern imagery may seem, there is still a clear foundation in Thai art. The three-tiered roofs of the sanctuary’s buildings are typical of Northern Thai architecture. Statues of Kinnara, the benevolent half-human, half-bird creatures that feature in Buddhist mythology, and Naga, the giant serpent that sheltered the meditating Buddha from torrential rains, dot the grounds. Elsewhere, masks of anguished faces that hang from tangles of Spanish moss reflect cycles of dukkha, or suffering, that must be surpassed to achieve enlightenment.
Such a massive project has only come together thanks to immense resources, manpower, and dedication. A team of 120 volunteer artists, architects, and builders have been working to bring Kositpipat’s vision to fruition. To fund construction, Kositpipat has paid 40 million baht ($1.2 million) out of pocket. Admission is only B50 (the equivalent of a dollar and change) and donations are capped at B10,000 ($300) to avoid the influence of large donors.
Notably, Wat Rong Khun does not receive government funding. The controversial nature of Kositpipat’s imagery has been known to rile some in the country’s religious community. From 1988 to 1992, he helped complete a series of murals for London’s Wat Buddhapadipa, the first Thai Buddhist temple in the U.K. The murals include depictions of world leaders, including Ronald Reagan, as soldiers in the demon Mara’s war with Buddha.
“I got complaints from everybody—from the [Bangkok] government, from monks and from other artists, saying that what I was doing was not Thai art,” he told
CNN in 1998.