7 mins

Visiting Thailand's comic book temple

Wander Woman Marie Javins visits Thailand's version of the Sagrada Familia and discovers Spider-Man and Batman – among others – on its walls

Thailand's White Temple

This probably seems obvious, but if you ever have any business at Chiang Mai's immigration office, try not to deal with it first thing in the morning after a holiday weekend. Especially not on a day when you've been out late spouting off trivia quiz answers at a bar the night before.

I nearly left Immigration twice, once when I saw the line for photocopies and once when I was told I could only have seven days visa extension in Thailand rather than 15 or 30. But in the end, I wasn't fined for overstaying yesterday when the office had been closed, and I was given the week's extension starting today, not yesterday when my entry stamp had run out.

And that turned out to be enough. A few days later, the word came in. Tibet would allow non-Chinese foreign tourists to visit beginning in a week. I could continue my round-the-world journey as planned, just a little late.

But first, I needed to make a plan. The boat from Chiang Saen, Thailand, to Jinghong, China had been delayed a few days, past the new expiration date on my Thailand visa. And boat fare was $108, while the bus across Laos was only $18.

Fine, I'd take the bus.

But before I left, there was one more thing I wanted to do.

I wanted to see the White Temple, which was near Chiang Rai. I went to the travel agency down the block from Lux Hotel and bought a seat on tomorrow's Golden Triangle van tour. I'd see the White Temple and also the Golden Triangle while I was at it – that’s where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet.

"That's a long day," warned the travel agent.

"I understand." I'd been warned. I bought the ticket anyway. I wanted to cram in as much as possible before heading on to China.

And so, the next morning, I found myself issuing a silent plea after visiting the White Temple.

Dear Buddha or whoever handles prayer-like activities in these parts, please be a kind patron and let the gift shop sell postcards of that no-photos-allowed interior, with its amazing images.

I'd dragged myself out of bed between five and six for the long day's excursion. I'd been last to be picked up and so had gotten a good seat in the first row of the van full of tourists. A 27-year-old Chinese backpacker from Shanghai sat behind me, a Dutch couple next to me, and a Kiwi living in Laos was in the shotgun seat by the driver.

We got petrol on the way out of town and then headed to Chiang Rai, stopping a half-hour or so shy to visit a rest stop with toilets, snack bars (yum, morning espresso), fish pedicures, and some hot springs where the Chinese backpacker purchased a quail egg that had been boiled in the hot water. Then it was time to move on to the reason I was here. The White Temple. Wat Rong Khung.

"There a surprise in the White Temple for you," my expat friend Toby had told me back in Chiang Mai. But he wouldn't tell me what. Toby is a lifelong comic book fan and I’m a nearly adult-lifelong comic-book-career professional, so I could tell something pop culture-y was up by his mischievous glint. "Just look inside. Look at the mural."

I didn't have to get inside the temple before I was amazed. I barely had to get out of the van.

Wow. The White Temple is amazing.

A famous Thai artist named Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpitpat and 60 of his helpers are building this temple, which is nowhere near complete yet. When I saw the unfinished walls at the rear of the structure, I couldn't help but think of Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which is due to be finished in 15 years. In the book I bought in the White Temple gift shop, the artist was quoted as saying that the project will be completed 60 to 90 years after his death.

The temple entrance is one-way, and a guard sits in front with a megaphone reminding us of that. You enter at a creepy moat of grasping, scary human arms and hands, then you rise above this to the one-way bridge to... enlightenment? I don't know. A non-scary part.

I crossed the bridge, wondering what my Easter egg might be inside the temple.

I was inside now, looking for the secret treat within. Arrgh, no photos allowed!

I turned around and faced the back wall.

My face broke into a grin.

A huge yellow-and-orange mural spanned the length and width of the inside of the entrance wall. Images at the top of the mural featured traditional images of Buddhism, but below were painted Spider-Man, Batman, Neo from The Matrix, Superman, Ultraman, Avatar characters, Transformers, and other pop culture icons as well as the World Trade Centre and George W Bush riding a missile with Osama bin Laden.

So that was my surprise. Not the political images, not Ultraman or Avatar, but the mighty Marvel and DC icons, bits of my day job seeping into this temple in the north of Thailand. I’d spent 13 years at Marvel Comics and still freelanced for them on occasion. I couldn’t help laughing and enjoying this.

I rejoined the tour group and we moved on from the White Temple up to Chiang Saen, which is where I would have left from had I chosen the boat route to China. The group went to a small market in Laos on a little boat, while the Kiwi and I checked out a Buddha statue and some wooden elephants, then raced up to the new Hall of Opium. This is an excellent museum with thoughtful commentary and historic exhibits. We had to hurry back to the van, though, flagging down a passing truck and jump in the back – there would been no time to wait for public transport back to town.

We made some more stops, checking out several tourist attractions, and drove back to Chiang Mai, taking three-and-a-half hours and arriving after dark.

The travel agent had been right. That was a LONG day. But a really, really great day too.

Want to travel the world solo? Check out our solo travel guide. Fancy taking a career break? Here are 7 reasons why you CAN take one.

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