Published/Last edited or updated: 11th June, 2019
A visit to the famous White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun to give it its correct name, has become absolutely de rigeur for any visitor to Chiang Rai. Spectacular, spectacularly kitsch or just simply kitsch this highly ornate, all white, icing sugar temple certainly divides opinion.
According to the artist/architect, the white plaster coating symbolises Buddha’s purity, while the pieces of glass covering the walls represent Buddha’s wisdom. (Even the apparently very pure koi carp in the surrounding pool are white.) The temple is a work in progress with new elements continually being added, although damage from a 2014 earthquake necessitated some minor structural repairs, putting new additions temporarily on the back burner.
Wat Rong Khun was created by artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat, who actually began his career as a movie billboard painter, before moving on to religious-themed paintings. His highly controversial creations, which combine an eclectic mix of traditional Buddhist themes with pop culture imagery as well as borrowings from other religions, is highly unorthodox to the extent that attempts were made to have him banned by the Buddhist church. However since Thailand’s revered former king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, purchased some of the artist’s works, Chalermchai consequently received much greater mainstream acceptance allowing him to continue his unique creations and at the same time certainly helping him to become considerably wealthy.
As the artist’s most prominent work, Wat Rong Khun displays perfectly this mix of traditional and modern imagery, with interior murals combining scenes from the life of Buddha with sci-fi, superhero and pop star images such as Keanu Reeves from The Matrix, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Superman and so-on. It does remain controversial to some Buddhist traditionalists, as well as for different reasons to visitors, who can’t decide whether it’s an awesome or absurd sight.
The temple is entered by a bridge over a sea of demons, skulls and grasping hands, which is supposed to represent the transition via hell (or more specifically the mouth of the demon Rahu) from earthly existence—the start of the bridge—to nirvana on the far side of the bridge. The famous or infamous murals are inside the small central shrine where photography is not permitted. The complex, set in simple gardens, is small in size and a tour of the main hall plus checking out some of the unusual sculptures scattered through the garden won’t take more than 20 minutes or so.
Gaudy, sacrilegious or a work of art, regardless of what you think, the temple certainly brightens up a drive between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai if you’re under your own steam and is to our minds well worth a visit if you’re staying in Chiang Rai. Far less well known, but also highly visit-worthy, is Wat Huay Sai Khao which lies another 20 kilometres or so down the Phayao road so is easily combined with a trip to Wat Rong Khun.
There are numerous coffee shops, snack and souvenir stalls and tea vendors in a small arcade next to the car-park. The White Temple is open from 06:00-17:00 and it can get very busy at times so is worth perhaps getting up early for.
The temple is located 13 kilometres south of Chiang Rai at the junction of Highway 1 leading south to Phayao and Highway 118 heading Chiang Mai-wards and is easily reached by public transport. You can either head to bus terminal 1 where southbound local buses to Phan, Mae Kachan or Wiang Pa Pao for example will let you off here for 20 baht or head to the songthaew station behind the main market where there are departures every 15 minutes, also for 20 baht. The blue pick-up buses have White Temple written in English on the sides.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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