Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple - Thailand South Africa
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08 Jan Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple

A visit to the famous ‘White Temple’ or Wat Rong Khu, tops the list for most visitors to Chiang Rai.

Seen from a distance, the highly ornate all white structure appears to be made of glittering porcelain, or even icing sugar, but a closer look reveals that this is due to a combination of whitewash and mirrored chips embedded in the walls. Uniquely spectacular, unlike most Thai temples, this one does not have centuries of history, with it’s construction by noted Thai painter and architect Chalermchai Kositpipat, only dating back to 1997.

Symbolism and Structures

The incredibly detailed, all-white exterior is said to represent Buddha’s purity, while the mirrored trimmings depict self-reflection. To enter the temple, you walk over a bridge and pool of reaching arms that symbolize desire, while inside, instead of the traditional Buddha life depictions, the artist has painted contemporary scenes representing the realm of rebirth and delusion.

Images such as a plane smashing into the Twin Towers and Keanu Reeves as Neo from The Matrix, not to mention Elvis, Hello Kitty and Superman, among others, dominate the one finished wall of this work in progress. The decor here has been described as fiery and bewildering. Images of nuclear warfare, terrorist attacks and oil pumps portray the destructive impact that people have on the environment.

Kositpipat’s contrast of traditional Buddhist imagery and pop culture has drawn criticism, with some calling it gaudy and sacrilegious, yet the temple remains one of the most popular attractions in the area.

The artist is said to have spent as much as THB40 million of his own money on the project, to date with more to come as he intends for the area adjacent to the temple to be a center of learning and meditation and for people to benefit from Buddhist teachings here. It is said that Kositpipat considers the temple to be an offering to Lord Buddha and believes the project will help give him immortal life.

On 5 May 2014 the temple was damaged by an earthquake and closed for assessment. Fortunately, an engineering team confirmed that all buildings were structurally unharmed by the quake and Chalermchai re-opened with a commitment to repair any damage.

It does remain controversial to some Buddhist traditionalists, and a conversation piece for most visitors who can’t decide if it is a masterpiece or gaudy addition to the area — regardless of what you think though, the temple certainly brightens up your time in Chiang Rai and is not to be missed.

Some useful information for your visit

– The Temple is located about 15 km south of Chiang Rai city. To get here, hop on one of the regular buses that run from Chiang Rai to Wiang Pa Pao every hour.

– There is no entrance fee for Thai Nationals and a modest charge for tourists, with donations welcome.

– The White Temple is open from 6am to 7pm daily and it can get very busy, so the recommendation is to get up early.

– Wear Sunglasses to help with the glare, especially if you are visiting in the midday sun.

– There are numerous coffee shops and souvenir stalls next to the car park.

– Photography of the interior murals is prohibited, but visitors are welcome to purchase prints in the temple gift shop.