The next Gaudi? Spectacularly strange White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

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To call the The White Temple aka Wat Rong Khun ‘unconventional’ is the understatement of the century. Located just outside of Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, this temple experience is the closest thing you could ever come to hallucinating sober. This is a modern temple, completely unorthodox and creatively crazy. Elements of pop culture merge with images of devils, aliens and the pits of hell show how inclusive the creator of the temple has attempted to be.

white temple chiang raiConstruction began in the late 1990s, but areas of the facade are still blank slates ready to be covered. No matter how that turns out, the white temple is unlike any Buddhist temple in the world. In fact, although worshippers come here daily, this is more of an elaborate art project than a devotion to the Buddha.
chiang rai white temple ornamentsThe temple was designed by popular contemporary Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. Aware of how rare his project would be, Khositphiphat was prepared for the work to take years to finish, likening the project to Gaudi’s work in Spain. It’s been 14 years since the project started, so regardless of the comparison being slightly arrogant, it would appear to be true. Some of the work is beautiful, other aspects are disturbing to say the least.

chiang rai white temple sculpturesAt the entrance there are two ‘demons’ right and left depicting the sinful addictions of the human being: alcohol and cigarettes.

chiang rai white temple smoking sculptureBefore entering the actual complex, you must pass two trees with dozens of heads hanging down  – some just weird-looking, others creepy. (Jess saw this guy with the snake coming out of his eye in her dreams for a few nights after we were there!)

chiang rai white temple chiang rai white temple creepy facesThe temple is reached by a long ornate bridge with mosaics and two scary sculptures at the beginning of it:

white temple sculpture white temple sculptureBefore you even get there though, you must cross a little pond loaded with hungry fish, followed by what we found to be the most fascinating element of all – hundreds of clay hands desperately reaching out of the pit under the bridge, some holding skulls, others holding pots for alms. Known as the ‘Pit of Hell’ these hands represent people trying to escape. Not your average entrance to a Buddhist temple…

chiang rai white temple hands white temple chiang rai
chiang rai white temple hands white temple hands
white temple skull chiang raiThe bridge represents a crossing over to the Abode of Buddha from the cycle of rebirth. The semi-circle seen in the image below represents the human world. The fangs in the larger circle represent the mouth of Rahu, meaning impurities in the mind, a representation of hell or suffering.

white temple chiang raiAround the pond there are more creepy sculptures, like a fish eating a human hand…

chiang rai white temple faces
white temple chiang rai

white temple art sculpturesThe main temple building, the ubosot, is entirely white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, with white sculptures at the entrance and mosaics to decorate the figures on each side of the temple.

chiang rai white temple
white temple creepy sculpture
chiang rai white temple
white temple sculpturesPictures are prohibited once inside the temple, but let us paint you a picture: The Buddha faces the back wall, which is painted orange and depicts a bizarre combination of scenes straight from American life: Spiderman, Superman, Alien, Star Wars, cell phones, computers, McDonald’s, Neo from The Matrix movies, Bin Laden and George W. Bush, plus the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Not what you would expect inside a temple! Even parts of the small main temple were unfinished, so we can only imagine what type of images will be added to mix!

white temple creature
white temple dragonOnce through the temple out into the back part of the grounds, another pond and another white bridge leads to a bright white pagoda.

white temple pond & pavilionThe gardens around the temple are filled with tiny details, such as these skulls that covered the fences:

white temple skull
white temple skulls chiang raiA yet to be finished gazebo, also bright white, with fantastically detailed animal sculptures on top:

white temple animal sculptures
white temple ratsOnce it is completely finished, there will be nine buildings: the ubosot, the hall containing Lord Buddha’s relics, the hall containing Buddha images, the preaching hall, the contemplation hall, the monk’s cell, the door façade of the Buddhavasa, the art gallery  and the bathrooms.

chiang rai white temple ornamentsAnd look at these golden bathrooms – have you ever seen such fancy toilets?!

white temple bathroom
white temple bathroom door How to get there: The temple is located in Ban Rong Khun, about 13 kilometres south-west of Chiang Rai. Public buses (40 Baht) leave regularly from the bus station in Chiang Rai, just ask someone what gate the buses to Wat Rong Khun are leaving from. The ride takes around 20 minutes.

You could visit in an hour or so, but plan in some time to take in all the little details that you will see the closer and longer you look.

white temple creepy sculpture
white temple in chiang rai

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Tags : templesthailand


    1. Steph – yes, definitely go there! I don’t think there’s any other temple like the White Temple, and even if you’re templed out you will enjoy this one for sure 🙂

    1. Hi Debbie, the inside of the temple was definitely macabre (IMHO) – the drawings of Bin Laden and all that were quite disturbing. But I guess that’s what a modern interpretation of a Buddhist Temple is allowed to be..

    1. Well, it definitely put Chiang Rai on the radar of many tourists who would’ve skipped it before the White Temple had opened 😉 I hope you won’t have any nightmares, Arianwen!

    1. Oh it’s so worth a visit! Go sooner rather than later – before the blue skies disappear 🙂 I think after February it’s more cloudy and the photos don’t turn out as great.

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