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.
Construction 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.
The 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.
Before 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!)
Before 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…
The 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.
Pictures 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!
Once 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.
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.