20 July 2024

When Chiang Rai proudly joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in October, much of the credit was rightfully handed to national artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

Chalermchai, 68, has been an icon and a major inspiration behind efforts to transform the northern city, his hometown, into a hub of creative endeavor.

On October 31, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Chiang Rai as the second creative city in Thailand after Bangkok. The UNESCO website page devoted to Chiang Rai’s listing in the design category displays a stunning photograph of Chalermchai’s masterpiece, Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple.

First designed around 1996, the exceptional structure represents Chalermchai’s tribute to both Buddhism and HM the late King Bhumibol the Great (King Rama IX).

“I hope this temple will one day define the architectural style of King Rama IX’s era,” Chalermchai said during the early years of the temple’s construction.

Unique and impressive buildings that Chalermchai created for Wat Rong Khun, which was initially a small temple in Chiang Rai’s Mueang district, transformed the place into a world-famous attraction and paved the way for the province to join the much-celebrated UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Wat Rong Khun/Photo : Tourism Authority of Thailand

Standing for Thai arts, monarchy

Born in 1955, Chalermchai has shown tremendous artistic talent since a young age. He was among the first batch of students to focus on Thai art studies at the country’s top arts university, Silpakorn. He won a national contest for his art even before graduating.

In 1980, he founded the “Silpa Thai Group” to combat what he regarded as a negative Western influence on Thai art. In 1984, he initiated a project to paint murals for a Thai temple in London with grants from a foundation and the Thai government.

Chalermchai quickly became a celebrated artist, producing paintings that are highly sought-after by an army of admirers. His painting “Spirit to the Nirvana” fetched the highest price at a Bangkok auction last year, selling for 5,686,450 baht.

In 1995, he was chosen to illustrate King Rama IX’s “The Story of Mahajanaka”. For the assignment, he was granted several audiences with the king. Recognizing the king’s artistic abilities and kindness first-hand, Chalermchai openly professed his love and loyalty for the monarchy.

In 2003, Chalermchai received a Silpathorn Award in visual arts from the Culture Ministry. In 2011, he was named a national artist. He has been granted honorary doctorates by several universities in recognition of his knowledge and abilities.

Apart from endowing Wat Rong Khun with grandeur, Chalermchai also designed Chiang Rai’s Tower Clock. The structure added charm to the city’s Banpakan Road and has been a centerpiece of the light & sound shows held there every day.

Living with death awareness

Chalermchai married his wife in 1992. The couple, who have one son together, have been spotted traveling in both Thailand and overseas recently after the celebrated artist announced his retirement.

“I began reducing my duties at the age of 55. After turning 65, I stepped back from the operation of Wat Rong Kun because I thought the project had achieved success,” he said.

For his retirement, he plans to live happily but be ready to embrace death when it arrives. Chalermchai is now living his dream: For the past three years he has indulged his passion for exploring on his motorbike, meditating, drawing when he likes, and taking pleasure in whatever comes his way.

“I am trying to make sure I can do everything, including death,” he said.

But even in retirement, Chalermchai continues to inspire. When he discovered that someone had spraypainted a wall near Wat Rong Khun’s parking space without permission last month, he didn’t get angry.

Instead, he asked the graffiti artists to come forward and complete the street mural, offering them a budget of 10,000 and moral support.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk