Somewhere along the Mekong River, in a meadow just 25 kilometers from Laos, is one of the most surreal temples you have ever visited, famous throughout the world as Buddha Park. Technically, it’s not a temple, but the sculpture garden has been given the name Wat Xieng Khuan (Spirit City) for its awe-inspiring array of Hindu and Buddhist statues.
Started in 1958, Buddha Park is the brainchild of Bunleua Sulilat, sometimes referred to as Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather). Sulilat’s vision was largely influenced by a Hindu rishi whom he studied under. Claiming to have no artistic experience, he set out to construct his spiritual wonderland, opting to use the cheap and plentiful concrete made in factories along the river.
Sulilat had a reputation of being a religious eccentric, despite claims he was secular in nature. His second park became a kind of hub for its blend of Hinduism and Buddhism; some have called him a spiritual cult leader, others just flat out insane. Much of the concrete was donated and worked by unskilled devotees without pay, and the man eventually fled Laos, fearing religious persecution after the 1975 political revolution.
Despite his shady past, one can’t deny Sulilat’s imaginative style. While the subjects are religious, many of the statues are designed in an avant-garde nature, some approaching the realm of bizarre. There are several depictions of Buddha, in addition to many Hindu deities like Shiva, Vishnu and Arjuna. Visitors can walk into a three-story pumpkin, entering through the mouth of a demon and climbing from Hell to Earth and finally to Heaven. A 130-foot reclining Buddha watches over everything as visitors walk among the park’s 200 statues.
With its eccentric style, Buddha Park is a great example of art naïf (naïve art) and art brut (outsider art). Sulilat’s synthesis of the dharmic religions is largely separate from traditionally practiced Hinduism and Buddhism. His work is presented in a rather whimsical nature, exemplifying art naïf by utilizing bizarre form and inducing a child-like sense of wonder in the park.
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