One of Thailand’s most magnificent temples, Wat Rong Khun, is located in the northern province of Chiang Rai. A relatively new temple, with construction having started in the late 1990s, the temple is, as yet, unfinished. Also commonly referred to as the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is a top place to visit on any trip to Northern Thailand. Popular with both foreign and domestic tourists, here’s why you should visit:
A beautiful vision that is becoming a stunning reality
Wat Rong Khun is the artistic brainchild of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a Thai artist who was born in Chiang Rai. Known for his blend of traditional and contemporary religious elements, his early pieces received a fair amount of criticism. People eventually warmed to his work and, although he is primarily a painter, he was inspired to create a temple that reflects his visions of the layers of Buddhist heaven, hell, and Nirvana (the ultimate enlightenment), albeit through a Thai-centric lens.
Building started in 1997 with plans for nine structures in total. So far, you can admire the assembly hall and its approach, and other minor structures and statues around the interesting complex. Despite setbacks, damages, and a temporary closure of the temple following a strong earthquake in 2014, the artist vowed to restore the temple, which he did, and to continue building his dream, which he is.
An unusual approach to the assembly hall
Don’t be too hasty to get inside the main building; take your time crossing the bridge and peer down at the statues below. Focus on the details and you’ll see that the dazzling white shapes have recognisable forms, including human hands and skulls.
Meant to symbolise the journey from the earthly realm to Nirvana, passing through hell, grisly skulls aplenty lie around the bridge. Some are suspended in tree-like forms, whilst others lie in the pits of hell, all with gaping eye sockets and some with contorted features. Outstretched hands fly skywards, as though trying desperately to grasp a stronghold to haul themselves up from the underworld, some holding aloft alms bowls. The odd foot pokes up out of the melee, and demonic figures are interspersed amongst the body parts.
If you look closely you’ll also see that the koi carp that swim around the pond are almost entirely white too!
An arresting assembly hall, inside and out
The exterior of the assembly hall is sure to impress, with its gleaming white façade, sparkling mosaics, and fine details. Resembling something out of a fairytale or wonderland, the inside presents a stark contrast. Whilst outside is devoid of colour, with the white said to represent the purity of the Lord Buddha and the mosaics said to show his wisdom, the interior is aflame with colours and intricate murals.
Photography is not allowed inside, but the vibrant scenes are sure to capture your imagination and remain in your mind’s eye for some time afterwards. Upon entering, turn around and look above the door. A sinister satanic being surrounded by fire leers down at you. Gaze into his eyes if you can bear to, and you may be taken aback by who you see shining through his pupils … I won’t spoil the surprise!
Fantastic scenes adorn the walls, with a careful blend of traditional Buddhist and Thai designs and figures with some rather unusual additions. Try to spot Spiderman and Ben 10!
Other features of the complex
Interesting statues and colourful plants are dotted throughout the gardens. Pay a visit to the bathrooms whether you need to or not; it’s likely to be the most exquisite public convenience that you’ve ever used! Inside is just a regular public bathroom, but the outside is a glorious golden vision, more akin to something you would expect to find in a grand palace complex than a home for toilets and sinks.
There is a small gallery where you can purchase works by Chalermchai Kositpipat. Souvenir stands offer an assortment of knickknacks, like mini ornaments of the temple, postcards, keychains, and amulets. There’s also no shortage of vendors providing snacks and drinks to the weary.
Practical information and nearby attractions
Admission to the Wat Rong Khun costs 50 THB (approximately 1.40 USD) for non-Thai visitors, and further donations are gratefully received. The temple is open daily from 6.30 am to 6 pm. Arriving early is highly recommended to beat the crowds, and you should plan to spend around two hours enjoying the grounds. As a religious site, do note that you will need to be dressed modestly to be allowed inside. This means shoulders and knees covered with no sheer clothing.
Many companies offer tours to the White Temple from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, but it is also easy to reach by public transport. Simply catch a bus from Chiang Rai’s bus station heading to Chiang Mai, Phayao, or closer areas like Fang or Phan, and tell the driver that you want to alight at Wat Rong Khun. The one-way fare costs around 20 THB (approximately 0.55 USD). To return, flag down a bus on the opposite side of the road from where you were dropped off outside the temple. You can also take a taxi from Chiang Rai, though you will need to negotiate a price with the driver.
Although many people head for the more famous northern city of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai has plenty to keep you busy for a few days or longer. The province offers excellent opportunities for jungle treks and meeting ethnic groups, known locally as hill tribes, as well as visiting the country’s northernmost point, and seeing geysers, waterfalls, and hot springs. Other major Chiang Rai attractions include the glittering monastery of Wat Huay Sai Khao, Baan Dam (the Black House), the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, and the mountain of Doi Tung.
Don’t miss Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) when visiting Northern Thailand.