A Trip to Wat Rong Khun, Thailand’s Infamous White Temple
Tourists in Thailand often complain of being “templed out”. There are certainly a lot of wats (temples) in Thailand and some of them do start to blend into each other after a while, but the white temple in Chiang Rai, known locally as Wat Rong Khun, is sure to impress even the most jaded suffers of temple overdose. It’s basically Kenny Powers’ La Flama Blanca (white flame) suit in temple form. This shimmering and completely over the top work of temple art has polarized the Buddhist community in Thailand, but it never fails to impress tourists looking for something a little different.
Construction started on Wat Rong Khun in 1997 and it remains a work in progress. The artist / architect, Chalermchai Kositpipat, has harnessed a lot of fame because of his masterpiece, which is made mostly of white plaster and glass tiles. Surreal carvings of serpents, demons and other mythical creatures adorn the temple — there are very few dull sections. Wat Rong Khun is popular with tour groups and can get a little overrun at times, but if you’re prepared to wait while a man takes 50 photos of his wife from exactly the same angle then you’ll eventually get an unobstructed view of the white temple.
The “Rebirth Bridge”
The short bridge leading to the temple is the kind of thing that could scar young children for life. There are hundreds of hands stretching up from the underworld (I’m guessing) and some scary looking creatures guarding the bridge. Apparently the point of the bridge is to show that the path to happiness means forgoing greed, desire and temptation.
Unfortunately, photography is forbidden inside Wat Rong Khun so you’ll have to take my word on this next part. The walls are painted with some truly bizarre and (one would assume in a Buddhist temple) out of place pop culture figures, including Michael Jackson, Freddy Kruger, Neo from the Matrix, a Transformer and what I’m pretty sure are the planes from Top Gun.
The temple grounds
It’s worth waking around the grounds of the white temple as there are several creative touches to be found. There is a short walkway with a ceiling made of thousands of small pendants. There’s the “Skull Fence” and also a place where you can write down a wish on a small metallic leaf and hang it on a wall next to hundreds of other pleas to the gods. Another interesting aspect is the “Tree of Faces” (I’m obviously making these names up in case you hadn’t guessed). There are several sculpted heads depicting pop culture figures including Wolverine and Batman. Even the bathrooms are a work of art — the building is an elaborate gold coloured structure that I initially mistook for another temple. Oh yeah, we also saw a (real) blue lizard. I thought I’d mention that in case you were wondering what the lizard photo below is all about.
How to get to the White Temple in Chiang Rai
First you’ll need to get to Chiang Rai. Most people will arrive from Chiang Mai, the biggest city in northern Thailand, which takes around three hours. We arrived by bus from Sukhothai which took seven hours (you can book it from the bus station in New Sukhothai for around 240 Baht).
Once you’re in Chiang Rai you’ll need to take a bus or songthaew to the white temple which will cost you 20 – 30 Baht (or you can join a tour which will include a few other spots). It takes around 20 minutes and you can easily find transport at the central bus station, which is very close to Chiang Rai’s tourist centre. Watch out for rats if you’re staying in Chiang Rai! We were there for one night and saw four or five of them on the streets. According to my own thorough rat research Thailand is the dirtiest country in Southeast Asia, but this was on another level.
Further reading: The Rat Factor: What is the Cleanest Country in Southeast Asia
Have you seen anything like Chiang Rai’s white temple? Let me know in the comments below!