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History and Legends

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The Symbolism of Chiang Rai’s White Temple

Over a year ago, I was about to head to Thailand for the first time. Simon asked me to make a list of my top priorities of things to see and do. Near the top of my list was The White Temple in Chiang Rai (known as Wat Rong Khun to the locals).

While many temples around Asia start to look very similar after you’ve been traveling or living here awhile, the White Temple stands out with its surreal statues, surprising references to pop culture, and twisted fairytale-like architecture.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it up to Chiang Rai during that trip, but we recently, finally, made it there a couple weekends ago.

Our thoughts? It made for some beautiful pictures, but in person it was a bit smaller than expected.

But! Despite its size, there is a lot going on if you know what to look for. Here is what you should know:

Temple or Art Exhibit?

Years ago, Wat Rong Khun was a typical Buddhist temple that had fallen out of use and was badly in need of repairs. An artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, decided he wanted to completely renovate the building in an unorthodox way with his own money.

So is the current temple still a religious center or is it all for the sake of art now? It’s a mixture of both. While you can definitely see that an artist designed every inch of this attraction, it is still intended to enlighten its visitors about the teachings of Buddha and eventually provide space for meditation and religious learning. Kositpipat sees his work on the temple as a spiritual mission.

A Story Comes to Life

Exploring the White Temple is essentially entering into a narrative of temptation and redemption. To keep each visitor in the intended progression of the story, no one is allowed to turn back as they explore. They must move through each chapter just as they would a novel – without skipping forward or backward. (So make sure you get any pictures you want the first time around.)

Overcoming Temptation

At first, the artwork in front of the temple is almost disturbing. Multitudes of hands desperately reach out of the ground – this scene is supposed to represent the problem of desire and greed. Visitors pass over it by bridge, entering a state where they are free of worldly attachments and pain.

Mythological Creatures

You will also encounter many strange, mythological figures within and around the White Temple, including:

Kinnarees – Look for statues of half-bird, half-man creatures. They are similar to guardian angels in Buddhist mythology, keeping an eye on humans and intervening when we are in trouble.

Rahu – This creature is a beheaded serpent, and Hindu myths teach that he will determine the fate of each soul upon their death.

Nagas– You will also see plenty of snake symbology with their full body still intact – these are Nagas, and they are minor deities that guard the temple.

Pop Culture

When you actually enter the building, you are no longer surrounded by figures of ancient myths. Instead, you’ll see a display of movie posters, western celebrities, and popular fictional characters alongside news photos of war, terrorism, and other horrors. Again, the message is that the world is full of sorrow, vanity and destruction.

Where’s the Toilet?

Even the bathrooms have become an elaborate work of art. They are housed in an ornate building designed to contrast the spiritual purity of the White Temple with a materialistic, worldly gold coloring.

There’s Much More to Come

Kositpipat has many more plans for the temple in the future – according to his timeline, the entire project won’t be finished until 2070.

For those of you who have traveled around Asia, has any specific temple caught your eye? Why did it impress you?

 

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The Conspiracies and Obscure History of Vatican City

Vatican City isn’t a normal place.

To start with, it is technically its own country – despite only being a mere 110 acres with a population of about 1,000. But it does have its own post office, railway station, radio station, and, of course, a rich and influential story. It has certainly earned its prominent place in European History. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in its unique power.

The conspiracies swirling around Vatican City are honestly mind-boggling, especially when they stray from the typical power plays and corruption you learned about in history class. From aliens to time travel, we want to discuss some of the strangest and most obscure legends we found.

Does extraterrestrial life exist? According to many conspiracy theories, the answer lies in the Vatican’s secret archives, which some claim detail an encounter between the Vatican and an alien society that wants to help Earth’s impending energy crisis – unfortunately they are afraid to reach out publicly because of our overly violent nature.

Are we alone?

And if that seems far-fetched, get ready for this strange rumor: Also hidden away in those strictly confidential archives? The secrets of time travel, and proof that time travel has already occurred to change history in dire situations. Apparently this powerful technology is owned and restricted by the Vatican, but it has been borrowed by both American and British governments in times of need.

From forgiving sins to defying the laws of time, the Vatican is rumored to have a lot of power.

Of course, we can’t forget about the secret, strange, or scandalous lives of popes throughout history.

Pope Stephen VI was so opposed to his predecessor, he dug his body from the grave, dressed him in his papal robes, and shouted horrible accusations at him before tossing him into a river.

John XII transformed the Vatican from holy grounds to a huge brothel, in which he was the center of the sinful activity. Eventually his wild life caught up with him when he was killed by a jealous husband who found him in bed with his wife.

There is also a 9th century pope appearing in several historical texts that many people believed to secretly be female. Now referred to as Pope Joan, legend says she entered the priesthood with the encouragement of her lover, quickly advancing in rank because of her intelligence and spotless character. Her lover was her greatest weakness and ultimately her downfall. Their secret was uncovered when she became pregnant, giving birth one morning as she rode her horse. She was executed within days.

The legendary, probably mythical, Pope Joan

One last papal story: Pope Paul II. He was not very popular during his reign, as he was always trying to wear a very fancy tiara and apply rogue to his face despite the objections of everyone around him. He met an untimely death, supposedly caused by eating too many melons. He may have been a bit materialistic and vain for a pope, but no one can say he didn’t live life on his own terms.

There’s no denying that behind the walls of Vatican City lies the inspiration for countless conspiracies, mysteries, and speculations of secrets and scandals. This is why, for such a small city-state, there seems to be endless histories to explore. Its influence stretches to the strangest of places.

Have you ever visited Vatican City? What interesting facts (or pseudo facts) did you uncover?

 

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New Orleans: Legends of Pirates, Ghosts, and Voodoo Queens

Without a moment of hesitation, I can name New Orleans as my absolute favorite city in America.

Sure, you might have heard some negative perspectives on it – people often say it’s dirty and full of drunk tourists.

And they’re right – but there is so much more to it, if you can get away Bourbon Street (not that Bourbon Street isn’t a great time).

This is a city full of culture and superstition. If you are attracted to cities with a little edge, a little mystery, and a little myth, New Orleans is sure to deliver. You’ll get rich histories, scandalous tales of pirates, plenty of ghost stories, and a touch of Voodoo. As soon as you arrive, you’ll know there is no other city like this in America.

I am always seeking the stories behind a city, and these are some of my favorites from New Orleans.

Let’s Start with Some Pirates

When New Orleans was still a French Territory, it was known to be a haven for the pirates of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. The most well-known pirates to make appearances in these legends are Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre. Law enforcement was lax during this time, so pirates took advantage of this port city to take care of their business on land.

Jean Lafitte

“Pirates Alley,” a small road running between St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo, is rumored to be where the Lafitte brothers conducted some of their nefarious business. People still report seeing Jean Lafitte’s ghost strolling the alley from time to time – along with haunting a few local bars.

Of all the places in the city, why would a pirate feel most comfortable by a church and the governor’s offices? Perhaps it’s because Lafitte is said to have formed an unlikely partnership with Andrew Jackson during 1814’s Battle of New Orleans against Britain.

Although the pirate certainly didn’t respect the laws of any country, he saw Britain as his ultimate enemy because their navy was after his ships. He also used his cooperation as a bargaining chip when trying to negotiate the release of his brother from prison.

A Few More Ghosts

There are ghost stories around every corner in the Crescent City. Here are just a few:

Bottom of the Cup Tea Room – You’ll find a heartbreaking story here – a woman fell in love with a man of a higher station. He asked her to prove that her love was genuine by going to the roof, stripping off her clothes, and waiting for him. He did not come for her, but she stayed all night, falling ill because of the cold and dying. The man was overcome with guilt and killed himself. Now both ghosts continue to haunt the building.

LaBranche Building – Once owned by a wealthy plantation owner, his wife became enraged when she learned of his mistress after his death. She invited the woman over, then held her hostage and killed her. The wife died many years later, and the ghosts of both women continue to haunt the building – spending eternity unable to escape their greatest rival and enemy.

St. Anthony’s Garden – These grounds have seen much blood spilled and many lives lost to duels of the past. It is said to hold several unmarked graves that cause a shiver to run up the spine of those walking across.

For more haunts and ghost stories, check out our self-guided supernatural tour of New Orleans.

Don’t Forget the Vampires

There’s a reason why so many Vampire movies and novels are set in Louisiana. These creatures of the night commonly appear in New Orleans folklore, thanks to the strong influence of French culture.

One of the most famous legends surrounds a man named Jacques Saint Germain. He was rich and mysterious, always throwing grand parties with tons of food – but never eating a bite himself.

After one party, a woman reported that he tried to bite her neck, causing a struggle in which she fell off his balcony. She was not seriously injured, and the police immediately headed to Germain’s place to investigate.

They found that he had vanished, along with all signs of the evening’s party – aside from many bottles of wine. Upon closer inspection, they discovered the wine was actually human blood.

New Orleans Voodoo

You’ll definitely stumble upon a few Voodoo shops while exploring New Orleans. These old beliefs and traditions are alive and well in the Crescent City.

It’s important to remember that, although some businesses might use Voodoo culture to intrigue tourists, many locals take these practices very seriously. If you’re curious about this side of the city, be as respectful as possible.

Voodoo is a religion that began in West Africa and made its way to New Orleans through the slave trade. Louisiana Voodoo is now its own tradition, which borrows some of its symbols and customs from Catholicism, specifically Catholic saints. Voodoo rituals are typically elaborate prayers to spirits and ancestors who might intervene in the lives of humans when petitioned.

New Orleans was the home of famous Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. Her tomb attracts many visitors hoping to leave a gift and gain the favor of her spirit in the afterlife. After a gift is left, the visitor knocks three times on her tomb.

Gifts left at Marie Laveau’s tomb

Have you ever been to New Orleans? Did you immediately fall in love with its Gothic charm, or were you turned off by the constant partying in the French Quarter? What is your favorite American city and why?

 

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