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.)
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.
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.
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?