Tim Richards finds himself at Thailand's cultural crossroads, where he finds inner peace, and other pleasant surprises.
The Predator is rising out of the ground in front of me. Near this representation of the science-fiction alien is a whisky bottle balanced on a leering red skull, a warning of the evils of the demon drink. Nearby is a tree hung with demonic white heads. I think I'm not in Kansas any more, Toto.
Where I am is northern Thailand, at Wat Rong Khun, near the city of Chiang Rai. The White Temple, as it's known, is a remarkable modern interpretation of the traditional Buddhist temple. The vision of artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it's a unique blend of classic elements and pop culture, which seems impossible to imagine in a church, synagogue or mosque.
Beyond dramatic statues symbolising sin, the main building is even more spectacular. Bristling with mirrored ridges, it's a blinding vision in white. I cross a sea of sinners' hands thrusting up towards the bridge to the temple entrance, past more dynamic figures, and then I'm in the tranquil interior, with its statue of Buddha.
One more surprise awaits, however – the back internal wall is painted with pop-culture characters representing the battle between good and evil, including Batman, Neo from The Matrix, the Terminator, Kung Fu Panda, a Na'vi from Avatar, and Michael Jackson (not sure whether he's on the side of good or evil).
The White Temple is a stop on the At the Cultural Crossroads tour. It's one of a set of Green Routes – new tours of Thailand devised partly with EU funding to be more environmentally friendly and culturally respectful than the established tour model.
The former element kicks in with a tour of Doi Tung, a royal project that restored denuded hills to lush greenery and gave locals an alternative source of income to growing drug crops. Now it's a leafy landscape in which coffee and macadamia nuts are cultivated. The highlight is a walk through the pretty Mae Fah Luang Garden and the Royal Villa, an intriguing cross between a Swiss chalet and a traditional northern Thai home.
As beautiful as the building is, I get the most enjoyment when I peel away from the group after lunch and sit at a hillside coffee stall sipping good local coffee while looking out over the thick green foliage below.
The cultural highlight of the tour is the visit to Baan Huay Kee Lek, a village occupied by the Akha hill-tribe people. Hill-tribe visits have been problematic in the past, leaving the tour member feeling like an insensitive visitor to a human zoo. In contrast, the program in this village is entirely run by the tribe, which has devised the itinerary and is paid a fee by the tour company. The result is much more comfortable, a feeling that we're guests rather than gawkers.
Other elements of the tour include temple visits in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, a riverside resort with traditional architecture, and cooking lessons and massage in a forest retreat. It's green, but it's also relaxing.
VISIT The At the Cultural Crossroads tour is offered by Wild Thailand from about $520 a person, including meals and accommodation. See wildthailand.com.
FLY Thai Airways flies from Melbourne to Chiang Rai via Bangkok from about $1000 return. Phone 1300 651 960 or see thaiairways.com.au.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.