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Thailand has its share of unique architecture and impressive attention to detail when it comes to making things suay, or beautiful. From traditional costumes to meticulous flower arrangements all done by hand, decorative finishes and elements are found everywhere.
But the White Temple in Chiang Rai takes that fixation with painstaking detail and beauty to the next level.
Wat Rong Khun, known to most foreigners as the White Temple, is the ongoing project of Thai artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. Originally from Chiang Rai, Kositpipat has a long history of creating modern Thai art based off of traditional Thai styles. While many of the lines, shapes and themes you see running throughout his work stem from what you would recognize in other temples or Buddhist art, his personal style has a certain distinctness to it and isn’t without controversy combining traditional Buddhist imagery with social commentary, contemporary ideas, events and characters.
Started in 1997, Wat Rong Khun isn’t a working temple, but more an artistic expression and experience. Between the contrasting subject matter (desperate hands reaching up at you as walk past followed by intricate white lotus blossoms shimmering with hundreds of tiny mirrors), surprising figures and blatant messages you don’t normally find at temples (like the heads of Batman and Freddy Kreuger, and demon skulls mounted on top of whiskey bottles), the temple is a mix of the bizarre, beautiful and creepy.
The temple buildings are situated to lead you through hell and the grasp of desire over the bridge to the Buddha’s teachings and nirvana.
Whether you find it dazzling, controversial, disturbing, gimmicky or just plain weird, you can’t deny Kositpipat’s talent or dedication.
The temple reminds me of visiting the Grand Palace in a way since there is so much to see everywhere you look. It quickly gets overwhelming and nearly impossible to photograph – the intricate designs and adornment are insane. And sparkly.
While the outside is all white with silver mirrors, inside the main temple building (which is actually an ubosot, or shrine, like the ‘Silver Temple’ in Chiang Mai, and not an actual temple) the walls are filled with a colorful mural that seems to glow with a soft light. Photos aren’t allowed in the building, but sneaky people on the inter webs have still managed to snap some. Here’s a look at the inside’s perplexing back wall. From Harry Potter and Freddy Kreuger, to Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson and burning Twin Towers…there’s a lot to take in. The movie character cameos are also found outside along the walkways and gardens…
The whole space is incredible as is, but what’s even more intriguing is that it’s not finished and, by the looks of it, probably won’t be for a while. The main ubosot’s inside murals are still in progress (there was a painter working while I was there), the back of the building isn’t decorated and behind that there are still several smaller structures that are only painted white with no decoration or detail at all. Construction is going on right outside the main temple grounds near the bathrooms with even more buildings.
Even for people who have already been ‘templed out’ during their time in Thailand, the White Temple is worth going to. It’s unlike anything you will ever see anywhere else.
The White Temple in Chiang Rai is located about 15 minutes outside of the city center. It’s open everyday from 6:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. (although it closed a little later when I went) and entrance is free of charge.
Try getting to the temple grounds early, or plan your trip so you’re still there when the temple closes – there won’t be anyone standing in front of the temple allowing you to get some people-free views and photos.
Be sure to check out the art gallery showcasing some of Kositpipat’s other paintings and sculptures. While his acrylic paintings take on an impressive New Age-y, ethereal feel, I preferred the intricate pen and pencil sketches.
Both times I’ve gone to the temple I’ve hired a driver for the day to make various stops. This time, I paid 500 for about three hours, which was well worth the convenience especially considering we were tight on time. Your guesthouse or hotel should be able to help find a driver, or you can pick one up waiting around at the bus station or river dock.
Local buses heading toward Chiang Mai or Phayao leave regularly and should cost 20 baht. Ask to be let out at the temple.
Want more photos? Check out my Wat Rong Khun photo album on Facebook.