The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), Chiang Rai, Thailand

Wat Rong Khun, or as it is better known, The White Temple, was what we came for, why we’d travelled to Chiang Rai and, when we saw it glittering in the sunshine, it was absolutely breath-taking. If you are ever lucky enough to have the opportunity, you HAVE to visit The White Temple.

The Temple is about 15 kilometers from the center of Chiang Rai. We travelled by tuk-tuk and our drivers (we needed to take two) were kind enough to say they’d wait while we had our visit. I enjoyed the drive – travelling by tuk-tuk you get to see so much of the environs, which you might not necessarily see.

It was a blistering hot day, blue skies and bright sunshine, which really works in the Temple’s favour as the whole sight winks and blinks and shines.

Wat Rong Khun is not a conventional temple but rather it is a contemporary, privately owned art exhibit, fashioned in the style of a Buddhist temple. It was designed and constructed by Thai visual artist, Chalermchai Kostipipat, who privately owns it and has spent approximately THB40 million of his own money to date.

Opened to visitors in 1997, The White Temple is one of Chiang Rai’s most visited attractions. It is the pieces of glass, embedded in white plaster that glint and sparkle in the sun and attract so many people to its unique beauty.

Apparently, every artistic choice, designer Kostipipat, made is based on symbolism and a deep-founded belief in the teachings of Buddha. To begin with the white signifies the purity of Buddha and the glass symbolizes Buddha’s wisdom and teachings.

The original Wat Rong Khun was a buddhist temple but toward the end of the 20th century it was in such poor repair, and with a lack of funds there was nothing to restore the building. Kostipipat, who was born in Chiang Rai, decided to completely rebuild the temple and to use his own money to fund it.

As mentioned, all the structures of Wat Rong Khun are rife with symbolism. Every detail has been carefully chosen to carry meaning and to encourage the visitor to reflect on Buddhist teachings.

To reach the main building, known as the ubosot, one must cross a bridge over a small lake. The bridge is the bridge of “the cycle of rebirth”. The hundreds of outreaching hands, stretching in the front of the bridge symbolize unrestrained desire.

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The bridge proclaims that the way to happiness is by foregoing temptation, greed and desire.

Once the visitor has crossed the bridge they arrive at the “gate of heaven”; guarded by two creatures representing Death and Rahu, who decide the fate of the dead.

The ubosot has maintained some classic elements of Thai architecture, most notably the three-tiered roof and abundant use of serpents as adornments but the inside of the temple is anything but classic. In fact it is a little shocking and completely surprising as the decor switches from the glistening white to a fiery red and orange mural sweeping across the ceiling and walls.

The mural is a collage of flames and demon faces mingled with images of pop culture idols such as Michael Jackson and Neo from ‘The Matrix’. Mixed with these images are paintings of nuclear warfare and terrorist attacks, which are apparently there to suggest that people are evil and have destroyed earth. As with most temples you are not allowed to photograph inside – so again, you really have to see it!

To the side of the ubosot is an ornately decorated golden building – these are the restrooms! The golden building is supposed to represent the body whereas the white represents the mind. I have to say knowing the artist’s intent with all his choices really enriched our visit and added a layer we wouldn’t otherwise have had. According to the guide the building is not yet finished. The plan is that there will be nine buildings in total and completion is set to happen in 2070.

As you walk back toward the entrance of the grounds there are sculptures hanging from the trees. Most of them are from popular Hollywood movies, including Iron Man, Gollum and Darth Vadar. There are so many small, intricate details within each sculpture that you really do need to take your time.

We were all pleased with the interactive activity where the visitor can buy a silver leaf, sign and date it and then it becomes part of the installation. As we walked under one of the arbors hundreds of these silver leaves were winking in the sun.

Honestly we were entranced by everything and had to walk back over “the bridge of the cycle of rebirth” just in case we’d missed something the first time – another fabulous afternoon!

symbols and signs
an artist’s eye
vision of white


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