The White Temple of Chiang Rai: A Work in Progress

The Clock Tower in Wiang Mueang area at the heart of Chiang Rai.

The Clock Tower in Wiang Mueang area at the heart of Chiang Rai.

I went to the north of Thailand for one reason only: trekking. From Bangkok I headed to Chiang Mai which is a known backpackers hub and a good relaxed town too, with a Sunday market, pretty temples, friendly bars. Indeed, it’s a very popular base camp for trekkers. Too popular perhaps. So after I had had my fun I decided to take one of the local rickety buses to the nearby somewhat smaller Chiang Rai which was supposed to offer good trekking opportunities while not being mobbed by tourists. And this is exactly what I found on arrival. But there was another thing I discovered – a real gem of Northern Thailand – the Wat Rong Khun (วัดร่องขุ่น) Temple.

Good old songthaews take you everywhere cheaply!

Good old songthaews take you everywhere cheaply!

Reasonably early in the morning I board a songthaew in the centre of Chiang Rai and head for the temple located just under 15 km away. It’s a pleasant 20 minute ride along a busy highway. All songthaews stop near the entrance to the Wat Rong Khun complex which is convenien-tly located by the main road. I arrive before noon but the place is already teaming with organised groups of tourists from Korea and China and Western backpackers like me. Yet at the spacious Wat Rong Khun there’s room for everyone. And by the way, entrance is free (though donations are welcome). 

Wat Rong Khun Temple.

Wat Rong Khun Temple.

So, yet another temple in Thailand? Think again! Wat Rong Khun is like no other. You can roam the whole wide world and find nothing vaguely similar to what you find here, regardless if Buddhist or not. Not only is it completely white, and hence dubbed by foreigners the White Temple, but also it’s built in a bizarre unorthodox style. I say “it’s built” whereas “being built” is perhaps more apt in this case because Wat Rong Khun is a work in progress.

One of the mean elaborate sculptures to be found around the complex.

One of the mean elaborate sculptures to be found around the complex.

The work began in 1997, directed by a Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat (เฉลิมชัย โฆษิตพิพัฒน์). New pieces are still being added to the whole temple complex. The whole place seems more like one big art installation rather than a place of worship.

Another elaborate piece of art in Wat Rong Khun temple complex.

Another elaborate piece of art in Wat Rong Khun temple complex.

Hands reaching out from Hell.

Hands reaching out from Hell.

Part of the installation can make chills run down your spine. To get to the main temple you have to cross a bridge over a moat filled with hands reaching out to you. These, apparently, are the hands of sinners begging desperately for help – help to get them out of hell where they are to spend the eternity. The whole installation can be quite disturbing and is definitely one of a kind – a description that completely suits the entire Wat Rong Khun temple complex.

The bridge over the sea of hands leading to Wat Rong Khun.

The bridge over the sea of hands leading to Wat Rong Khun.

Intricate reliefs adorning the roof of the temple.

Intricate reliefs adorning the roof of the temple.

The closer you get to the temple the more striking it seems. The roof and carvings are intricate and immaculately white.

Inside, an even more peculiar wonder awaits you: an enormous mural covering the inner walls. What’s odd about it is not the size, though, but what it depicts. Here, you can find the Buddha, planets, spacecraft, aliens, and comic book superheros. You can even spot the burning World Trade Center Twin Towers during the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed inside so you just have to take my word for it. Or else, go visit yourself – definitely recommended – or click here for a Google Image search results page.

At the main entrance.

At the main entrance.

Once I’m done inside the temple I walk out to explore the grounds and the multitude of sculptures and reliefs peppered around the massive well-tended garden.

Wat Rong Khun.

Wat Rong Khun and the well tended grounds of the complex.

One of the many school trips visiting the White Temple.

One of the many school trips visiting the White Temple.

Not only is the White Temple a prominent tourist hotspot but it is also equally popular among Thai visitors. Wat Rong Khun has become the destination for many school trips. Thai kids from around the area arrive by coach with their teachers to admire this jewel of their country’s art and architecture from which they can draw real pride. Perhaps, little do they know how special this place is.

Whiskey offering.

Whiskey offering.

Just as the space craft painted on the inside walls of the temple can surprise you, some of the sculptures in the temple grounds can astound you further! For instance, this scull with the offering made of a bottle of whiskey. Unfortunately, I cannot provide any explanation for it. Had I been able to speak some Thai I would have asked some of the school trip kids around, or better yet, their teachers. This, however, is not something I hadn’t seen before. Offerings of alcohol and cigarettes seem to be quite common in Mexico, which I visited back in 2009.

And an obligatory touristy shot!

And an obligatory touristy shot!

Finally once my touristy photo in front of the White Temple’s taken, I head towards the main road to catch a songthaew back to Chiang Rai and enjoy the rest of my day in this vibrant small town.

One last look at the temple before heading off back to Chiang Rai town centre.

One last look at the temple before heading off back to Chiang Rai town centre.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed the tour of Wat Rong Khun as much as I have. Take care and thank you for reading!

Wat Rong Khun.

Wat Rong Khun.